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D.C.'s Urban Farmers See Climate Change In How Their Gardens Grow

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Gail Taylor minds her crops at one of Three Part Harmony Farm's urban plots.
Helena Chen: Three Part Harmony Farm
Gail Taylor minds her crops at one of Three Part Harmony Farm's urban plots.

Less than three years ago, the lush urban farm in the heart of Brookland was an empty grass field, sometimes used for soccer. Today, after countless hours of hard labor, the two acres are overflowing with fruits, vegetables, flowers, mushrooms, honeycomb and herbs. It’s one of several plots across the city that make up Gail Taylor’s Three Part Harmony Farm.

Pointing to an area where Thai basil and striped tomatoes grew together, their vines and stems intermingling, Taylor says proudly: “When you bend down and look you see the whole row with all of the butterflies and bees, and just a lot of different plant and animal life happening when you get down and look.”

She continues the tour of the farm, pointing out familiar leafy greens she grew up eating, and rare squashes from India that she’s testing out to see how well they take to D.C.’s weather, and whether D.C. locals will eat it.

More extremes on the urban farm

In many ways, D.C. is ideal for urban farming. It’s fairly flat, with a lot of open land, and it doesn't have an industrial history — no factories that left dangerous chemicals in the soil. But Taylor still faces many challenges, in accessing land, making her food affordable, and growing crops in an increasingly unstable climate.

“In the springtime, you can plan earlier and earlier, and in the fall, you get to harvest later and later,” she explains. “But in the past few years, we really got climate change and the extreme weathers: extreme heat, extreme storms, more hurricanes. We're starting to see it a lot. It’s really hard, because the vegetables have the seasons they like, so if it’s a cool spring and all the lettuces and spinach and mustard are happy, and then in April it’s like 90 degrees, the plants go into reproductive mode.”

Some okra grown on the Three Part Harmony Farm. (Helina Chen)

In recent summers, Taylor has been farming in the evening to escape the brutal heat. She lost several days of work when daily rainstorms made the fields too muddy and caused some of the crops to rot. The region’s warming climate has also created a serious pest problem: infestations of cucumber beetles and slugs that eat the plants, and mosquitos, that eat the farmers.

Gail’s close friend and business partner Zachari Curtis, a D.C. native whose family farmed for generations in North Carolina, says even the seemingly positive effects of climate change on farming always come with a downside.

“Anyone who’s looking at the whole system would know that you cannot have a benefit without some sort of payout in another area. So there will be more pests, because they'll be able to survive the winter. There will be more erratic weather," he says.

Roots all over the city

Three Part Harmony Farm was not originally envisioned as a decentralized farm spread out all over the city. That model came out of necessity, when Taylor found she couldn't afford to buy any large stretches of land. But after two years of biking to and from her different plots in different neighborhoods, she has discovered that they are holding up well in the unstable climate change, proving more resilient than conventional farms.

“At one garden, maybe my cucumbers are failing miserably because they've succumbed to the too-much rain we're having and they're rotting,” she says. “But at the other house, the conditions could be totally different and the cucumbers are out of control! In a lot of ways it’s like a natural crop rotation, and I get to take advantage of all the micro-climates that exist even in one city, in one zip code.”

The farm’s volunteers and customers, including pediatrician and mother of two Rano Singh, say they value the farm not only as a sustainable local option, but as a model for better farming around the world—from D.C. to her hometown in Jaipur, India.

“We know how to grow the food we need, and we know how to grow it with the least impact on the environment,” she says. “We need to rely on water and on the sun, which have always provided our food. We need to look after our land so it gives us the most out of what it gets from the water and sun energy. We need to stop using fossil fuels for transport, for pesticides, for fertilizers. We need to nourish the land so it nourishes us. I think, frankly, this is our only hope.”

With no pesticides, no herbicides, no chemical fertilizers and, mostly no machinery, Taylor and her fellow farmers have had to develop new ways and return to old ways of growing crops. By sharing resources, intermingling plants that sustain each other, and spreading-out their risk around the city, they're growing an alternative food system that, like them, can take the heat.

Music: "Field of Dreams Theme" by James Horner from Field of Dreams Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

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