Cultivating Change in A Consumerist Society

Niraj Ray garden picRecently I visited H St Farms in northeast DC, a rooftop retail garden. It was a sunny day out, and I strolled among rows of veggies, fruits, herbs, spices, and flowers while chatting with the founder, Niraj Ray.

Years ago, Niraj moved from NYC to attend graduate school in Florida. His father first inspired him to explore hydroponics and gardening in his spare time, gifting him with a box of seeds passed down from Niraj’s grandmother, and buying him his first vertical water system when he moved to Florida.

Niraj planted some strawberry plants in his backyard and began gardening as a hobby. Soon he had 300 strawberry plants and no idea what to do with all of them. He decided to have a garage sale for them…and ended up with $3000 in his pocket! That’s when the seed of an idea was planted- it struck him that gardening could actually be a profitable hobby.

He moved to DC to work for the EPA, and ended up starting a rooftop garden overlooking the National Mall. People noticed his work, and started asking him to start gardens for them as well as create sustainable school gardens. Eventually the demand for gardens grew so large that Niraj realized he would have to do this full time to truly be successful at it.

The seed that had been planted in Niraj’s mind began sprouting and taking root. And in 2015, Cultivate the City was born.

A social enterprise, Cultivate the City has over twenty locations sprawled across DC. Its mission is to Educate, Cultivate, and Nourish — teaching the city how to step back from society’s consumerist culture, and become producers of all things green and fresh. As examples of urban agriculture, the gardens show the public that it is indeed possible to live a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. These days farming is often unappreciated; growing organic foods is much harder than ordering Uber Eats from home, isn’t it? While farming doesn’t produce the same short term benefit of food on demand, it does produce genuine appreciation for the process and effort behind producing quality food.

To date, this project has touched over 10,000 lives. It provides school garden programs from elementary to university level, as well as educational workshops, classes, and a CSA share program where you can order fresh vegetables every season except winter. One of its locations is a rooftop garden at the Nats stadium; order food there, and you’ll find the chef uses fresh ingredients straight from the garden!

While the Nats’ garden is probably pretty high maintenance, gardening for the average person doesn’t have to be expensive. Cultivate the City sells vertical towers at affordable prices to encourage people to start gardening. Plants are grown in a vertical tower system (hydroponic or stacked pots), and utilize a central irrigation line attached to the source that trickles water through the system; this simultaneously waters the plants while saving tons of water. This system is space friendly, allowing growers to maximize their planting capacity.

City residents are not only taught how to save money and space, but also to make money. One thing Niraj loves teaching people is how to produce a finished food product with what they grow- such as the delicious hot sauce he offers! Since a bottle of hot sauce is way more profitable than a couple jalapeno peppers, it makes economical sense for growers to capitalize on their products. This also gives growers shelf stable products that can be sold all year round.

People are encouraged to network with and support local growers, as a means of keeping the money within the community. Instead of handing the dollar to giant corporations who could care less about people’s health, the community can learn to control its own food sources and develop resilience to the unstable economy.

In the winter, only strawberries and a couple other cold-enduring plants are grown and sold, so activity slows down a bit. Niraj, however, stays busy. He uses this season to travel to foreign countries, and has consulted on gardening projects in India and Colombia. This year Niraj plans to advise on his apprentice’s project in Mexico. Because of developing countries’ rapid population growth and ample land, they have both the greatest need and the greatest opportunity for urban farming.

If you’re curious to learn more about Cultivate the City, opportunities abound! They host fun activities like the Seedling Swap- a potluck where you bring a dish you made and some seeds to trade. Niraj also leads forage walks in the spring and the fall, a great chance to hunt in the wild for unique fruits like the pawpaw (bet you didn’t know it’s native to this area!). You can also volunteer on Friday evenings or Sunday afternoons by emailing info@cultivatethecity.com to sign up.

When we’re grocery shopping at the local chain store, most of us don’t think twice about where our produce actually comes from. There’s no way to pinpoint the actual origin farm, verify what chemicals were used, and determine how fresh the food is. Supporting local agriculture brings us close to the source and producers, and allows us to directly support our community. We live in a consumer culture, so why not be smarter consumers?

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