Partner Visit: Little Wild Things Urban Farm

Fair Farms recently visited partner farm Little Wild Things in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, DC. While it was cold and blustery outside, we found Mary Ackley, founder, and Chelsea Barker, farm manager, cozy inside their leased growing space in the basement of The Pub & the People, a restaurant and bar located on the corner of North Capitol and R streets, NW.

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Mary Ackley, founder and Chelsea Barker, Farm Manager.

We headed down the steps to find racks of well-lit microgreens growing in trays. It is one of two locations the business maintains, the second is an outdoor space at the the Carmelite Friars Monastery in the Edgewood neighborhood of Northeast DC — about a half-mile away.

Ackley founded the business two years ago. The urban garden sells microgreens, leafy greens, and edible flowers as a wholesaler to restaurants and grocery stores and as a retailer direct to consumers.

Ackley didn’t come to farming in the most traditional way. In fact, her path is fairly unconventional. While serving in the foreign service in Sri Lanka as a civil engineer, she started reading books like Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Joel Salatin’s “You Can Farm: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise.” Around that time, while overseas, she had a small garden plot and a few chickens.

“I took a botany class in graduate school. I always loved growing plants and wanted to work on a farm,” Ackley said. “After reading Salatin’s book, I found it interesting from the perspective of business.”

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Farm Assistant, Alexa Cantalupo, harvesting microgreens at Little Wild Things.

She applied for an apprenticeship at Polyface, Salatin’s farm in the Shenandoah Valley.

“I applied. They accept a very small number,” she said. “They politely refused me. So, I looked into other farms.”

At that point Ackley wasn’t sure she could (or should) leave her day job. She tried to interview farms to find out more about what models of farming could be profitable, but she couldn’t find another farm with an apprenticeship program that was a good match. Again, she came up against a roadblock.

While listening to podcasts about urban farming (she mentioned The Urban Farmer Curtis Stone), she got ideas about how she could combine city living with farming in a small space. A deeper dive into the concept of Small Plot Intensive (SPIN) farming made her realize that she just needed to find a space and get started.

One day, while out for a run, Ackley came across a space – the front yard of the monastery on Lincoln Road, NE. She sent an email asking if she could use their front yard to start a garden. She offered them an exchange: she’d farm the land and they’d get to keep some of the produce.

They replied that the front yard wouldn’t work, but there was a plot available, previously gardened by a monk who had since moved to a nursing home. They worked out a Memorandum of Understanding and from there she started to work the land. Step by step, she learned techniques. She got a USDA microloan, which allowed her to hire Barker. She got to go from part time at her job to taking leave without pay.

They offer cut microgreens and live plants, like this basil, which can serve as a centerpiece, a bar decoration, as well as a delicious way to get on-demand cuttings.
They offer cut microgreens and live plants, like this basil, which can serve as a centerpiece, a bar decoration, as well as a delicious way to get on-demand cuttings.

Together, Ackley and Barker with other hired staff work in the 300 square foot basement space on North Capitol Street and the quarter-acre plot at the monastery.

Ackley is seriously focused on the business aspect. She uses technology to streamline the ordering and payment process and facilitates distribution to local restaurants by using courier service Postmates for on-demand deliveries.

Barker had a background in organic farming. She came to the DC area from California.

“It’s a pretty awesome thing — switching gears to urban agriculture,” Barker said. “I didn’t realize how creative it would be. It’s indoors and on lights and irrigation and timing. It’s very precise and that allows us to be profitable. But it is creative. A funny thing happened when we planted radishes at the outdoor plot. We got behind and they went to flower. We found that chefs really wanted the flowers and so we let carrots flower and now we do more edible flowers.”

Visit the farm online to learn more about their work. They’ve got a good following on Instagram, where they share what they are growing and best methods for preparation (including recipes). www.LittleWildThingsFarm.com.

 

 

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They grow 30 types of microgreens in a 300 SF basement space.