ECO City Farms

The Transition to Urban Farming — Growing and Educating Together

Play the video for a short introduction

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In academic circles, theory tends to be exalted, while action is often undervalued. The gap between the two is often insurmountable. At the same time, many social justice activists have little patience with theoretical speculation, contemplation or reflection. For seasoned scholar/activist, Margaret Morgan-Hubbard, formerly an associate director of the democracy collaborative at the University of Maryland, praxis is a creative and generative process, involving interpretation, understanding and application in equal measure. It makes sense that she shaped a team that transformed a series of community-building projects into an ecological civilization that has intellectual rigor, community-centric planning, and a cross-section of sustainable values at its core.

Morgan-Hubbard applied years of lessons learned from her work at EPA, in national and local environmental and community organizations, and within the Academy, to the needs of her local community, and in the process has taken on the multifaceted challenge of building an ecological civilization: addressing food justice, crafting healthy food legislation and revising zoning ordinances, reintroducing old and co-creating new food traditions, introducing community nutrition and herbalism, developing farmer training protocols and emphasizing climate-smart environmental education – even cooking classes. “We have to create the future we desire– we can’t just sit around and wait for it to come!” she explains. “ECO is an on the ground, real world think tank,” says Morgan-Hubbard. She stresses that every one of us has to be a thinker and a doer, integrating mind and body. “Divisions between the intellectual class and working class simply cannot exist if we wish to sustainably reclaim our environment and our humanity.”

So the term “ecological civilization” is well earned. It’s also hard-fought, and the interview below tells an important story of successes, challenges, and needs for the future. Like other Eco Lab leaders, Morgan-Hubbard has wisdom, experience and cautionary tales for those of us who know an ecological civilization is the only future worth having.  Will it be a challenging transition? Read on. Is it worth the fight? Eco City Farms has some practical answers.

Eco City Farms


An Interview with Margaret Morgan-Hubbard, CEO, and Viviana Lindo, Director of Community Education

A Bit of Background

  • What is your mission statement?
    • ECO City Farms serves as a prototype for sustainable local farming. Our motto is: “We grow great food, farms and farmers.” We work to change the existing food system that makes healthy fresh food a luxury available only to affluent communities.  We teach vulnerable populations—children, youth, single heads of households, new immigrants and seniors—how to take charge of their consumption, habits and health to better secure their futures—through eating healthy, developing skills and pursuing career opportunities in the emerging healthy food system.insert-2insert-1
  • How long have you been in operation?
    • ECO City Farms (ECO) was established in 2010 to serve residents of Prince George’s County, particularly the Port Towns.
  • Who are the key members of your team?
    • Our team consists of 9 staff (7 full-time, 2 part-time), 8 apprentices, dozens of volunteers and a yearly fellow from overseas. Everyone on our staff began as an apprentice or intern, meaning they worked without compensation for at least six months. Through this process, we got to listen, learn and grow with one another. ECO is an enterprise we are all in together.  In addition to founder and CEO, Morgan-Hubbard, ECO’s staff includes Benny Erez, ECO’s senior technical advisor who was raised on a kibbutz in Israel; Viviana Lindo, ECO’s Community Educator who was born in Peru and earned her Master’s Degree in Global Studies at University of Freiburg (Germany), KwaZulu-Natal University (South Africa) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (India). Amanda West, ECO’s Operations Director who spent her childhood summers on a family farm in West Virginia and worked on Historic Preservation and Disaster Relief before coming to ECO; Fred James who is a legacy farmer from Alabama; Kayla Agonoy, Communications and Volunteer Coordinator, who returned to Prince George’s after earning her degree in Biology to give back to her community; Gabrielle Rovengo, Special Projects Coordinator who began her apprenticeship at ECO on her first day at college and graduated with a degree in soil science and a passion for food-related entrepreneurship;  and Jacob Steelman, Farming Associate, is also a yoga instructor and seasoned public educator. Our newest addition is lead farmer, Aaron Griner, a multi-generational farmer and organic gardener from South Georgia, with wide range of farming knowledge and practice. Aaron worked on his family’s 350 acre farm for more than a dozen years, spent five years of working with two student-led gardening, education, and outreach organizations, and served for two years as an extension agent, educator, and community development worker with the Peace Corps/U.S.A.I.D in Togo before joining ECO in the Fall of 2016.
  • Do you have a board of directors/advisors?
    • Yes, ECO’s board is composed of 13 diverse and dedicated community members, including the CEO. ECO’s board serves as the eyes and ears of the organization, helping ECO to better connect to and interact with the community. While day-to-day decision-making is a staff function, the board is responsible for long-term strategic planning and fiscal oversight.
  • What inspired you to start this organization?
    • In my youth, I frequently visited the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod, a 12-acre former dairy farm that served as demonstration of “ecologically derived, human support systems – renewable energy, agriculture aquaculture, housing and landscapes – with minimal reliance on fossil fuels.” Although I did not consciously set out to reproduce their work, ECO is a beneficiary of their early experimentation in organic agriculture and ecological living. Throughout my career, I have sought opportunities to create projects and design systems that incorporate social justice and ecological praxis, and highlight the change I want to see in the world.  As an employee at the University of Maryland from 2002 to 2010, I worked to find meaningful ways to engage the local community with the campus. I tried to address the fact that few of us in this County, other than students and faculty, truly connect with the university and the university has not been sufficiently relevant to the life of the community. Prince George’s County is 90% non-white.  Many of the University’s neighbors are newcomers from Africa, the Caribbean and Central and South America. I was hired to make the university’s relationships with this community more small d- “democratic”.  Toward that end, I developed strategic relationships with a number of local public schools from K to High School, helped found and staff a University/partnership community center, built the University’s (and County’s) first urban farm and community garden, and initiated a variety of inclusive, community-serving projects. I hired students and local residents to work at what became the “Engaged University.” Eventually, our activities took on a life of their own. We formed Engaged Community Offshoots, Inc., left the University, and launched ECO City Farms.

A Look at Their Successes and Challenges

  • What do you consider your biggest successes?
    • Over the past few years, we:
      • Obtained five acres of land in two municipalities and built two “Certified Naturally Grown” urban farms in the Port Towns
      • Produced and marketed hundreds of thousands of pounds of healthy food for our community
      • Turned hundreds of thousands of tons of food waste into nutrient rich soil amendments with the help of millions of worms
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        • Provided life-skills education to hundreds of youth and families and with Prince George’s Community College certified more than 100 adults in Commercial Urban Agriculture
        • Established and managed the Port Towns Farmers Mercado (PTFM) in Bladensburg, enabling area people to purchase locally grown healthy food in their community
        • Inspired, initiated and passed legislation to enable urban farming and healthy eating in the County, engaging hundreds of residents in food justice advocacy
        • Provided training and support for more than 22 Community Nutrition Educators, who as trusted leaders brought knowledge about healthy eating into familiar settings in local neighborhoods and trained hundreds of residents in nutrition and cooking
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        • Enabled 60 area children and youth to change their own and their family’s eating habits and awareness of where food comes from through 8 weeks of intensive enrichment activitiesinsert-9
        • Partnered with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance to train 40 skilled Master Composters in the theory and practice of community composting, who then enabled community gardeners throughout the DC metro area to create and/or access healthy soil

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      • Enabled more than 30 aspiring farmers and/or food producers to move closer to their career objectives intensive experiential training at ECO City Farms
  • What are your immediate and long-term goals?
    • Our immediate goals are to complete a variety of construction projects at our farms to create better cold storage and learning spaces; expand our growing spaces and income-generating production to demonstrate the viability of urban farming; continue to nurture the Port Towns Farmer’s Mercado; work to diversify our support, particularly from small and major individual donors; continue to advocate for ecologically-sound and equitable policy change; train aspiring farmers and food entrepreneurs in all facets of urban food production, and build a school/community youth garden in Bladensburg.
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    • Our long-term goal is to create a just, vigorous and sustainable food system in the Chesapeake food shed with ample fertile soil, quality environments, livable incomes and decent working conditions for farmers and other food workers, and plentiful healthy affordable nutritious food for all.
  • What do you consider your biggest immediate and long-term challenges?
    • Securing and keeping County land in food production: It has been challenging to secure land to grow food in urban and peri-urban areas. The Planning Department would not allow us to build hoop houses on residential land.  We had to take it to a higher level to get permission to build the vision we had for our first farm.  In the end, we were given park land very near to the residential land we intended to buy. For our 2nd farm, we had to pursue a legislative remedy to overcome zoning restrictions to farming in multi-family communities.  We now have two 15-year use agreements which enable us to farm on County and private land. But the fate of urban farming in our County is not yet secure.  Zoning ordinance change is an iterative design process that takes patience and vigilance. We also seek an additional 10 to 15 acres of land and the tools and resources needed to launch an incubator farm in our County so that aspiring farmers who cannot afford to purchase or rent land on their own can grow needed healthy food.  We are partnering with a private Quaker school in an adjacent County to enable some of our beginning farmers to cooperatively grow food for their own families, the school cafeteria, and the community on their land.
    • Refining the Praxis of Restorative Farming and Adapting to Quickly Changing Climate and Urban Environmental Conditions: Urban farmers generally grow in raised beds.  However, our practice as restorative permaculture farmers is to improve the soil and to allow nature to repair itself. We employ a variety of techniques to conserve water, sequester carbon, restore natural habitats, attract pollinators and encourage bio-diversity as we farm.  At the same time, due to diminished natural habitats and constrained forests, more uninvited predators, insects and weed have become insert-13problems on our land in recent years.  And then there are the added effects of global warming.  We are having to learn how to cope with erratic and unpredictable weather and rapid changes in the landscape as others try to cope as well. For example, two years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers added a few feet of soil to the berm next to our farm which dramatically altered air flow patterns, and this past winter, a unprecedentedly huge snowstorm ravished one of our hoop houses. And we have had to mitigate excess water and salt accumulations on our farm due to more frequent and heavy rainfall.
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    • Training and Retaining the Next Generation of Farmers and Restoring Traditions/Creating New Habits that Value Healthy Food: In the longer-term, ECO faces challenges on the supply and demand sides of food access. In our community, gardening and cooking traditions have been lost and/or are seen as time prohibitive. Without reclaiming old traditions and installing new habits, training and installing new farmers and farms, creating affordable farm-shares and establishing new markets for greater healthy food access, while providing cooking classes and nutrition education, rampant diet-related epidemics in County communities will remain unchanged. Moreover, for healthy food to be affordable, food prices and ECO’s costs of production and education must be subsidized.
  • How do people find out about your organization?
    • People find out about us in many different ways. We regularly organize and participate in community outreach and public events in the Port Towns, throughout the County and in the DC and Baltimore metro areas. People hear about us through our work with and many visitors from local elementary schools, high schools, universities, and community centers and through our participation in conferences where we offer Community Nutrition and Herbalism workshops, Farm to the Table demonstrations, and guest speaker presentations.  Another venue where people meet and learn about us is at the Riverdale and Port Towns Farmers Markets where we sell our food and explain our work.  In addition, we send our monthly newsletters to hundreds of subscribers and maintain an ECO City Farms Facebook page, an educational website and of course, use word of mouth to get the word out!
  • Other than financial, what type of support do you need?
    • When we first started, we resisted owning trucks and other major equipment, choosing instead to rely on the sharing economy. However, this is a very hard stance to maintain in this heavily consumerist society. As a result, we end up acquiring farm equipment, tools, supplies that occasionally fall into disrepair and require fixing. As our organization matures and expands in capacity, we also have greater equipment needs. So, number one need is better tools and farming equipment.
    • We also have growing non-material needs, such as help developing a professional communications plan, to educate people about what we have created and accomplished.
    • Most of all however, we need to engage in honest and open dialogue with peers about our problems and struggles so that we can learn from and support one another. People rarely admit that this work is really hard and that making money from small scale urban farming to sustain our efforts is especially challenging. We need know whether and how, in the longer term, producing locally grown healthy food can be sustained. I don’t mind suggesting that ecologically sound production needs to be subsidized. Big agriculture is heavily subsidized and is destroying our planet, but we are expected to be self-sustaining once grant money ends.
  • What is your best piece of advice for other eco organizations?
    • There are so many different challenges and obstacles that similar organizations and our allies will face as they swim against the tide — not Mother Nature’s tide — but the momentum and resources of large corporate and often government powers. My advice is to “never ever ever ever give up”, because what you are doing can and will change the course of history for the better. People need to see and experience positive change in order to gravitate to it.  When you face challenges, find friends, partners, comrades, and mates to reclaim hope and keep going! The future generations of all species are depending on your perseverance and success.
  • What have you learned from your work?
    • On lesson is that what we are attempting is difficult and adversity is faced by all of us all the time. None of us are immune from it or somehow “entitled” to avoid it! Hope is a discipline we exercise whenever we create a vision of the world we want to live in, here and now.
    • We are responsible for making the future. We can’t wait for it to come. The more we collaborate, the closer we get to what we want and need together. We are fortified by the energy we get from each other as we all struggle to live meaningful lives in harmony with nature and one another.
    • Our vision is about changing the food system. As we work toward that end, we learn more about what that will actually take. At first, we thought it was just building a farm. What we ended up building was a more ecological civilization in the here and now and a social change organization requiring a much broader charge and capabilities. We learned that you can’t grow healthy food without restoring the environment, instilling habits of collaboration, teaching and learning what constitutes genuine community health: social, economic, physical, spiritual and environmental.
  • What would you like the broader public to understand and appreciate from your experience so far?
    • We want to make urban farming viable. And yet the cost of land and the cost of living is often prohibitive. Farmers don’t earn enough money to live in this area without subsidizing their production.
    • We grow food locally where people eat it. People imagine that because there are reduced transportation and marketing costs, our vegetables should be cheaper. They don’t realize how many processed food costs are subsidized. People are always asking us for free vegetables, whereas they rarely request free pizza, cereal, soda or coffee. They do not understand how much hard work, time, effort, care and love is needed to grow even one delicious, nutrient-laden carrot!
    • Healthy food is critical. Pills cannot substitute for food. And yet people don’t value vegetables like they value coffee or steak. They will pay more for a cup of coffee than a head of lettuce. We are a drug-oriented society, not a health-oriented society.
    • To practice environmentalism means to first and foremost to do no harm. If you don’t know how an action or additive will impact us on the back end, don’t use it on the front end.
    • Professors and teachers tend to think and teach that ideas are action. They generate brilliant concepts and share them with us. However, it is a huge leap to go from having a brilliant idea to actualizing it in the world. The action and reflection and learning involved in going from idea to action need to be valued and taught. They are, in fact, complicated and multifaceted, not unlike rocket science!
    • ECO City Farms and other projects like ours are an “on the ground think tank”. We need to create an ethic where person values being both a thinker and a doer. Divisions between the intellectual class and working class cannot exist if we are to make our world whole and democratic.

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