UDC Farm Director Plows Fresh Plot

Mchezaji “Che” Axum has a new salsa in mind. He’s keeping the recipe card close to his vest. “I can’t give it to you,” he laughs, raising his eyebrows coyly. “I’ve got a few recipes.”

It’s the first day of spring, clear and chilly. It’s quiet at the University of the District of Columbia’s agriculture research station in Beltsville, Md. But the wheels are turning.

Axum, UDC’s director of urban agriculture and gardening education, oversees the expanding farming program based at the 143-acre site off Old Baltimore Pike. A soft-spoken native Washingtonian, Axum says one of his dreams is to sell products as a way to give students practical business development experience and provide return on public investment in the farm.

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PLANT PLUMBING: Surrounded by hydroponic pipes spouting a crop cornucopia, Mchezaji “Che” Axum, left, UDC’s director of urban agriculture and gardening education, consults with farm manager Roy Lycorish at the university’s research station in Beltsville, Md. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

“I would love to start out with just a fresh salsa, with multi-colored peppers, sweet and hot, tomatoes, purple scallions, cilantro – all these things we grow on the farm,” Axum said. It’s new ground, with legal and logistical hurdles. “We’re coming through the tunnel,” he said. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Axum, 60, started directing the farm in 2013, after two decades at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, years of farming and a stint teaching at a DC charter school. As a student at Montgomery College, the Maryland community college, he was headed for a career filling prescriptions. He said work in pharmacies, reflection on his interest in health, nutrition and science, and a pending pharmacy school entrance exam prompted a pause.

“I was driving down Rt. 1 over in Beltsville and I saw a place called the Department of Agriculture,” he said. Axum’s parents worked as government civil servants. But he had a grandfather who had been a truck farmer in the Deanwood area of Northeast DC. A knock on the door revealed an opening from a recent retirement and Axum started work in a plant pathology and virology lab just before a President Ronald Reagan hiring freeze hit. “Things were just clicking.”

Axum augmented work at the agency with earning an undergraduate degree in agronomy at the University of Maryland. He also pursued his own farming over time, growing basil with a buddy who was a pizza chef, developing a plot on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital, producing for a friend’s soul food restaurant, and continuing to fill summers as a plantsman while he was teaching middle school science.

With a change in UDC administration, he stepped into the job at the agriculture research station, or Firebird Farm, formerly known as the Muirkirk farm. He already was doing research there. He enclosed the cropland in 8-foot-tall fencing to keep out deer and cleared the way for a wide range of programs. Growing space now totals nearly 30 acres, including clusters of hoop houses.

A wide range of crops have been grown, including rice. The farm produces solar power. Tilapia fish grow in an aquaculture unit that provides irrigation and fertilization for a hydroponic plant facility. The farm now includes a small instructional kitchen and a unit for preserving. The farm relies on a small staff and volunteers, with produce donated into a variety of channels. A not-for-profit organization manages an orchard and distributes the fruit.

The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture noted in 2015 that the agency had provided UDC — part of the country’s network of land-grant universities — with more than $3 million in support in the prior two years.

George Washington Carver’s Light

Axum prizes practical experience. “You can read all the books you want,” he said. “You can look at all the videos on YouTube. Actually doing it and making mistakes, that’s where you really learn.”

Little wonder Axum sees a hero in George Washington Carver. Carver, born in Missouri during the Civil War, rose to make it through the prestigious, all-white Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanics as a budding botany genius, with musical and artistic talent to spare. He went on to a long and in some ways tortured career at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, gently and selflessly generating a treasure trove of innovation under the thumb of founder Booker T. Washington, according to the 2015 biography “George Washington Carver: A Life” by Christina Vella.

“It’s fortunate, especially being African American, to be doing this and having someone like him to look at,” Axum said. “Wow. A tremendous mind.”

Axum noted Carver’s work in sustainable agriculture practices, his wagon circuit assistance to raise poor farmers’ standard of living, and creation of nutritious alternatives to consuming meat.

“He would invite people to Tuskegee and provide whole meals with no meat – soy fritters, pecan coffee, sweet potatoes,” Axum said. “He was definitely someone who thought outside the box.”

In a similar vein, he said the university is working to improve access to nutritious food in DC, including developing “food hubs” with hydroponics, composting, and other cultivation supports. He said he sees gains in people’s attention to the task.

“I think you’re going to see it more when certain budgetary cuts are put in place where folks can’t get food stamps,” he said, noting news about proposed cuts in federal programs. “Folks are going to need that knowledge of how to produce good, nutritious, affordable food in small areas.”

© 2017 John A. Bray

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