Reflecting on Georgetown’s role in Urban Agriculture
By: Shelby Gresch, COL ‘22 & Post-Baccalaureate Fellow with the Earth Commons
Georgetown is now home to the “Hoya Harvest Garden,” a mini urban farm at the heart of campus. Rows of spinach, squash, and sunflowers are replacing the ornamental roses and groundcover on the fourth-floor patio between the Regents and Hariri buildings. Where once there was a limited community of flies and beetles supported by decorative plants, the patio will soon hum with life supported by a diversity of flowers, herbs, and native plants intentionally chosen to foster insect communities and healthy soil. Georgetown students, faculty, and staff will still be able to sit and eat lunch in the space– and now also engage with the deep roots of their food.
Spearheaded by the Earth Commons and in collaboration with multiple departments and individuals across campus, Hoya Harvest has been in the works for the past year and a half. It is set to launch as a two-year pilot this spring. After traveling around the DMV to learn from other universities, organizations, and individuals in the urban agriculture scene in the D.C. region, I began to conceptualize how Georgetown can fit into that network. Transforming existing planter beds on campus, the garden aims to highlight the environmental and social aspects of growing food in our warming world while also providing opportunities for hands-on learning and generating food for our community.
Food production is one of the major drivers of climate change and habitat destruction worldwide. However, food consumption is one of the most essential and communal human experiences. Hoya Harvest recognizes this and explores how we can grow clean, healthy, and sustainable food in the 21st century. In doing so, Georgetown joins the rich tradition of urban agriculture in the District.
Before joining the Hoya Harvest project as a post-baccalaureate fellow, I served as a research assistant with Dr. Yuki Kato whose work centers around food justice and gentrification. We sat down with dozens of DC farmers to learn more about their experience in urban agriculture. For instance, we found that one of the biggest challenges many growers and prospective growers face is access to farming land. I began planning for Hoya Harvest with these valuable perspectives in mind.
Talking with people about urban agriculture also raised interesting questions about what role universities play in that space. For example, how does a university farm fit into this broader urban agriculture context when we are sheltered from many of the primary hurdles, like land access? Can we as a university act in solidarity with other urban farmers, or is our campus farm something entirely different?
To begin, “urban agriculture” is not always the most useful term because it can refer to a wide range of practices. Everything from pea-patch community gardens to half-acre rooftop farms to commercial aquaponics systems can be considered “urban ag,” and we have examples of all three in D.C. There are “big” farms (by urban standards), small farms, rooftop farms, indoor farms, and vertical farms. On these farms, I’ve had the pleasure of sampling kiwi berries, fish peppers, and szechuan buttons. Some farms have market stands, some sell to farmers’ markets, others distribute through produce-share programs, and, still, others donate everything they grow to charitable organizations throughout the city. Many of these farms are explicit justice-driven nonprofits, but an equal number are more traditional for-profit businesses.
This diversity often leads to general confusion about the nature of urban agriculture. Without a clear understanding of its practices, the value of urban agriculture can sometimes appear muddled. Opponents argue that it’s not worth the time and money, claiming the space used to grow a handful of veggies would be better diverted to affordable housing or that the total yield is laughable compared to large market farms located outside of the city.
The champions of urban agriculture, on the other hand, point to the relatively high yield per acre, the minimization of food-distance-traveled (a large contributor to the carbon footprint of the food system), and a slew of other values. With the majority of the world already living in urban areas and the global migration to cities only expected to continue, these debates are increasingly relevant on the world stage and, consequently, right here at Georgetown University.
This raises another question. Traditionally, the schools that have been most connected to agriculture are land grant universities– universities that the Federal Government has funded to advance research into agricultural and mechanical sciences, such as Cornell, Rutgers, and most state schools. Located near rural communities and expected to share their knowledge with local farmers, their role in the food system appears relatively clear. But, why a farm at Georgetown? What is the point of a relatively small farm at a liberal arts university with no agricultural school?
The short answer is that food systems impact all of us. Agriculture is deeply embedded in broader social issues like sustainability and economic inequality; it is all but impossible to remove ourselves from the modern food system. Even a small garden can start to demonstrate the complex nature of agricultural production and encourage the community to think about where we access that most basic necessity – food. Already these questions have sparked valuable conversations on our role in the food system and engaged dozens of thoughtful students, faculty, and staff who have each offered input on what the garden should stand for and how it should operate.
Indeed, for supporters of urban agriculture, the perceived implications are far-reaching. In interviews with current and prospective growers, I’ve been told that urban farms can accomplish all of the following: ending food insecurity, restoring human relationships with the earth, breaking systemic cycles of poverty and violence, building strong communities, combating climate change… just to name a few themes. With this all in mind, the goals of urban agriculture are certainly ambitious. I can’t help but wonder, though, is our campus farm truly capable of all that?
A through-line of my conversations with farmers has been that farming means failing. Fortunately, failure isn’t always bad. The whole enterprise is about adapting, trying new things, and seeing what works. A pest that decimates your crops one year may not even show up the next, or you may learn how to deal with it only to have it be replaced by a new scourge the very next season.
In other words, maybe the question is not whether urban agriculture can ultimately end world hunger or heal communities but simply whether or not it can help us take the first step toward progress. On our campus farm, this “first step” might mean practicing regenerative agriculture or measuring the predicted increase in biodiversity as we sequester carbon and decrease stormwater run-off. It might also mean hosting workshops, seminars, and garden parties for the whole community where the conversation can continue.
As we begin our urban agriculture project here at Georgetown, we must consider the significance of the ecology, history, and stewardship of this place. It often feels as though our little garden must get it all right. But Hoya Harvest does not need to be everything to everyone right away; it can adapt and build over the years as we learn from our failures and successes. After having seen the diversity of projects around the city and the enthusiasm right here at Georgetown, I can’t wait to watch our farm grow.