Growing a City
Gail Taylor, Three Part Harmony Farm
Drive down 4th Street NE in Washington, DC., a fairly active street near Catholic University, and it might be easy not to notice the thriving farm behind a chain-link fence. It’s Three Part Harmony Farm run by Gail Taylor, a key player in the DC urban farming scene. The farm’s name defines its core values: Food as medicine, Food as culture, and Food for our future.
Three Part Harmony is a production farm that grows vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers primarily for its 100-member CSA and a farmer’s market. The farm itself, two acres boarded by trees on three sides and the street, feels like a sacred space. Gail has said that a huge number of people have come to work on her farm and find solace by getting their hands in the dirt. When you are there, you can almost forget that you are in the city, thanks to the chirping birds and the still sound of vegetables growing. There’s a feeling of peace on this farm that draws comment from all visitors. Something special is happening on this little plot of land, and it’s all part of Gail’s plan.
What I love about Gail’s farming story is the way she figured it out as she went along. She knew what her end goal way—to farm—but she didn’t know what that would look like or how to get there. In the process of figuring it out, she’s created a huge footprint in the DC community.
Gail grew up “in the middle of nowhere” in Illinois, near the headquarters of John Deere, and around lots of farms doing corn and soy rotation. So she saw farming, but didn’t give it another thought. “If you didn’t grow up farming,” she says, “it’s not something you said you would go into. There were lots of other reasons why that wasn’t a career path you’d think about. From far away, I saw all these white guys in overalls and straw hats on their $500,000 combines. I mean, my parents worked really hard so I could go to college, so I’m going to get a job in an office.” She studied U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. “I didn’t even take any science classes.” Her family had a small garden and Gail liked to plant flowers as a kid, but that was pretty much the extent of her hands-in-the-dirt experience.
She did, however, make a connection to food at an early age. Her mom was a great cook and because they didn’t have much money, they ate most of their meals at home. Gail learned to eat seasonally. Part of her food story is a common theme in the black community: having family members with diabetes or high blood pressure or who are overweight, don’t eat well, aren’t well, and who die young.
Hardneck garlic, part of the “food as medicine” mantra of the farm. Gail grows varieties high in allicin, the compound responsible for garlic’s antibacterial, antifungal properties. CSA members receive at least a bulb of garlic each week.
When Gail was a teenager, after going to lots of funerals, she announced to her mom that she was going to be a vegetarian, because she had heard that was a way to be healthier. Her mom was supportive, but told her “I’m only going to make one dinner!” So Gail delayed her switch but has been a vegetarian ever since moving away from home.
“I didn’t choose farming on purpose”
Gail moved to DC in the late ‘90s to work for two different nonprofits, focusing primarily on Latin America and doing anti-militarization work that took her to Capitol Hill as a grassroots lobbyist. The work was meaningful to her, but she reached a point where she didn’t want to do it as her full-time job anymore. (She still does volunteer work for the nonprofits on the weekends.) She quit her job and went traveling for a year and a half, knowing that she’d have a career change when she got back.
While she was brushing up her resume and figuring out what would come next, she found two opportunities to volunteer in exchange for food: a food co-op and a farm. Both places ended up offering her jobs.
The farm was Clagett Farm in Upper Marlboro, MD, a land trust owned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Clagett has been the training ground for a lot of farmers in the area. Gail worked at Clagett for five seasons, March to November. “It’s pretty common for farm crew members to be seasonal employees and have to find other work during the off season. Many of us have part-time jobs in the winter, and I’ve been lucky that both part-time jobs have been compatible with farming.”
Clagett was her first experience with farming, and although she didn’t go into the job thinking she’d be a farmer, she certainly came out of it that way. “I came to realize that I’d advanced as far as I could at that operation, and I wouldn’t be taking my boss’s job there for a good 35 years, so what would my next step be?”
The inevitable search for land
“I had seen my other peers at Clagett go and start their own operations, so it seemed like the next logical step. I had spent a little bit of time looking at land links and figuring out all the ways to get land, and it’s not easy and it’s not cheap. You have to go pretty far in the DMV [DC, Maryland, Virginia] to get affordable land, and I didn’t like the idea of loading a truck at three in the morning and driving into the city. Plus I’ve lived in DC since 1999. But for a few years I toyed around with the idea and tried to recruit other people to do it as a joint thing. We had meetings at my house to figure out how we all could do this together to support each other and buy land together. Eventually my path took me in a different direction and I ended up buying a house in Petworth [a Northwest DC neighborhood].
“So now I’m like, ‘How is this going to work? I live in this fixer upper, I’m going to live three days a week at this farm I own and take care of and then drive into the city for a market and then go back to the farm the next day? What happens if the greenhouse plastic blows off in the middle of the night and I’m in the city? It just seemed exhausting!
“It seemed that land is not that much more affordable outside the beltway than inside. I mean, what’s $10 million or $100,000 if I have $10? So after a few years of trying to go down that path, I’m just going to get rid of this car and search for land within a 15-minute bike ride of my house.”
“I made an Excel spreadsheet and started putting in all the properties that were within my criteria. I was part of a group of five people, mostly women, and we called ourselves the Dream Accountability Project. We would have meetings and the core member of our group would design custom-made workshops for each of us in which we pursued our dreams. So for my first workshop, I drew a picture of my farm in the year 2015. This was around 2010. I drew the whole thing: the vegetables and the fruits and the people who come to work, and the way we talk and get to know each other, and how the community is engaged, and the people who bring their compost, and how we reuse and recycle, and how we’re contributing to the local economy. I just had all these ideas. Then I moved backwards from there to create a list of tasks to get me to that goal.”
There was a flat, two-acre, open piece of property in a neighborhood in DC known as Little Rome because of all the Catholic institutions there, including Catholic University, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, monasteries, and the headquarters for the U.S. Bishops. She had rated it number one on her list because it met all her criteria, so she kept pursuing it.
A match made in heaven
The property is owned by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, an order of Catholic priests and brothers who live in a house right up the hill from the property. The land was previously used as a sports field for the young seminarians there, but when the seminary relocated the land sat unused.
The Oblates are among the most progressive orders in the Church. The priests run an ecological-theological training center near St. Louis where people of all religions can come to study how their faith informs how they care for the earth. They have a farm there and a CSA, so when Gail showed up and asked if she could grow vegetables for something called a Community Supported Agriculture, they said, “Oh yeah, we know all about that.”
Gail and the Oblates signed a contract in 2012 for her to grow vegetables on the land and donate them. Actually having a lease to the property and being able to sell what she grew would require a change in legislation in DC. As it stood, Gail would have had to pay the property tax on the land, not at a nonprofit rate but at the same rate as anyone else. The tax on the two-acre plot of land would have cost her $50,000 a year, and that’s a lot of cucumbers!
The Oblates became Gail’s biggest supporters as they worked to get the legislation changed.
She also worked with DC Greens and the American University Law Clinic, and after three years they were able to get the City Council to pass the Urban Farming and Food Security Act of 2014, which opened the way for commercial urban agriculture in the District. The new law gave a 90% tax break to private landowners who use, lease, or allow their land to be used for agriculture. For property already designated as nonprofit, which the Oblates’ land was, the new law allowed them to maintain their exemption from property taxes. That line was specifically added for the particular piece of property Gail wanted.
Other parts of the law have yet to be enacted, such as the city making vacant lots available for cultivation. Gail and other farmers like her who donate vegetables are supposed to receive a tax credit, but that also has yet to come about.
While she was in limbo during the legislative process, Gail started a seedling business out of a greenhouse she had put up in her backyard. She also “rented” three or four backyards near her to grow vegetables and run a backyard-style CSA. Most people were happy to donate the space to her (the way Maryland farmer Emma Jagoz has gotten her land; you can read her story here). Gail would go around with her bike trailer to harvest each property, and CSA members would pick them up from her house. She went from 6 to 35 members in one year.
Once the law was passed and she negotiated a lease on the property that allowed her to sell “for real,” she gave up all her backyard spaces.
“This plot is the ideal farm in the city, in my opinion,” she says. It’s a two-acre plot that was already mostly enclosed by a metal fence. The only fence Gail had to do put up was a 155-foot deer fence in one area, and that cost her around $500. She gets her water from a long hose connected to the side of the Oblates’ building; she pays for her portion of the water and also gives them vegetables.
The only thing that wasn’t ideal about the former soccer field was the soil itself. When Gail first tilled it, she uncovered a pale desert wasteland devoid of worms. “It was just so terrible.” She had no choice but to bring in compost, and that was expensive. “We planted vegetables that first year and basically put them on an IV drip of fertilizer. Finally this year the soil is where I want it to be. Now the soil is great.”
Healing body and soul
The heart of the farm’s business model is a 100-member CSA. Pretty quickly, Gail realized that trying to provide a larger CSA “was just too hard to do alone.” So she and fellow Clagett alum Zachari Curtis of Good Sense Farm and Apiary cofounded the co-op Community Farming Alliance. Soon they were joined by Holly Poole-Kavana of Little Red Bird Botanicals, who had also worked at Clagett. This past year they added Blain Snipstal and Aleya Fraser of Black Dirt Farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Gale Livinstone of Rainbow Hill Farm in West Virginia is also a contributor. The co-op offers its CSA members vegetables, mushrooms, eggs, honey, flowers, and culinary and medicinal herbs.
“There are lots of reasons why I like being in a co-op with other farmers,” says Gail. “It’s hard enough for one person to grow 40 different kinds of vegetables, and herbs, and flowers. And run the seedling business out of the greenhouse in my backyard.”
Is the CSA model past its prime?
Gail is deeply committed to her CSA members, and she offers a lot of innovative ways to make the CSA valuable and flexible for them. “I need to have at least some people financially commit to this place so that I know I can pay the bills and the staff through November. That helps me sleep at night. The members are basically giving me a zero-percent loan, and there is nothing more valuable than that. And I owe them, right? There are times when we have bad weather where I don’t do any restaurant deliveries because it’s all going to the CSA.”
The farm does a 33-week season but only sells a 23-week share, so people can skip whichever 10 weeks they choose, and they don’t have to tell Gail in advance. Members can double up as well, and take two shares in a week if they want. She also offers a half share, which she doesn’t really like to do, but it works better for many of her members. The CSA is DIY style: Gail lays out an assortment of items, and members make up their own share. “I just put everything out on the table, often with a scale. There might be a weighing category, like tomatoes and peppers and eggplant and squash, and people can take six pounds of whatever assortment they want.” She’ll hold things back so that the people who show up at the end of the pickup window don’t feel their share is any less than the people who came early.
Freshly dug ginger root. Yum.
Gail believes that the CSA movement has plateaued. When she first started in farming at Clagett, the farm would have a wait list of 800 people, and folks would wait in line to get their application time-stamped because it was first-come, first-served. Now there are a lot more opportunities and choices of where people can get their vegetables in a way that mimics a CSA but without the direct support to the farmer. That’s one of the challenges for farmers.
“If you believe in what we’re doing here, you also have to believe that your purchasing power is buying something for your children and your children’s children, and not just what you are eating for dinner tonight. If you believe in that, that’s great. And if you want somebody to only bring the five vegetables that you like to your door, then we are kind of in trouble.”
Gail is part of a seed keeper’s collective that maintains heritage and heirloom seed crops. She grew Glass Gem popcorn for the collective, and because there aren’t conventional corn growers nearby, her crops never get contaminated by GMO corn seed.
“I feel like I’ve figured out small parts of how to work the system to make it work for this small farm, but there are still limitations to being a vegetable farmer. Like I’m definitely not going to quit my part-time job any time soon. [Gail manages a yoga studio.] Just like the majority of farmers, my spouse also has a job.”
When I first approached Gail about interviewing her for this project, she felt strongly that I also interview some of her crew. “I might be the most recognizable person here, but really this is a group effort.” (Click on the links to read about crew members Sache Jones and Laura Otolski.)
Each year, she hires a three-member, part-time seasonal crew. She also has many volunteer workers. “This is a pretty team-oriented place to work. My goal is that people come here on a regular basis and get to the point where they can show up, get their own gloves and tools, look at the task list, pick the task that they want to do, and go to work. Sometimes we all want to hand weed in the bed together and talk about something. We spend hours and hours and hours getting to know each other and talking, just like any farm. Sometimes you come and you just want to be at the farm with the birds. My intention is that everybody on the staff can focus on a job that is gaining skills for them.”
Most, but not all, of the volunteers are women, as were all the crew members for 2016. Gail finds that the volunteers who come to work at the farm are often at an in-between place. “People might come if they’re in a career shift and have some extra time. Or you might be in a break-up with your boyfriend and you just need some soil therapy. I feel our role as staff is to maintain the space and keep the good energy going, so that possibility is available to people when they come here to volunteer.
“I think it’s such a healing space, on so many different levels. I really think it’s important for those of us who are here to be here together in the space and to focus on each other and what we are doing. This is a hate-free zone. We do not allow any bad language or activity or interactions with each other or with the vegetables or with any of the animal life, like the insects. Everything here is about loving each other and being together in a healing space. No racism, sexism, homophobia. I’m trying to maintain that as a really important thing here.
“We’ve had a few people who couldn’t handle it. Not many, but some people didn’t feel totally comfortable with the fact that not everyone who works here uses a he/she pronoun. We’re not all gender binary. So it’s like a little bit of education maybe and doesn’t have anything to do with growing food, but it does have to do with building community, and that’s really important to me.
“Being a successful farm in the city means, to me, that we are touching people’s lives and healing their bodies and souls.”