May 5, 2024 - Business

New wave mobile mushroom farming comes to Southeast D.C.

Calvin "JR" Hines (center) between two colleagues at the Johns Hopkins pitch competition

Calvin "JR" Hines (center) at the pitch competition for EightFold Farms. Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University

Growing up in Southeast D.C., Calvin "JR" Hines didn't question his parents driving miles away for groceries. But when he moved to nearby Barry Farm as an adult, the lack of supermarkets shocked him.

Why it matters: Hines is launching EightFold Farms, an urban agriculture venture in Wards 7 and 8 — part of a new wave of initiatives reimagining how to address food inequality in some of D.C.'s poorest neighborhoods.

The big picture: East of the Anacostia River is a notorious food desert— neighborhoods with high poverty rates, limited car access, and many residents living more than a quarter of a mile from a supermarket.

  • The District has over 70 major grocery stores, but only three are located in Wards 7 and 8 — and one, a Safeway, was recently in danger of closing due to shoplifting.
  • Many residents rely on corner stores that don't always stock fresh ingredients or healthy items. Even major supermarkets can be subpar.

State of play: Hines' first venture is a 170-square-foot mobile mushroom farm, launching this coming week. His unique vision mixes sustainable agriculture and economic self-sufficiency.

  • The mobile unit is off-grid with solar panels and can produce up to 400 lbs of mushrooms a week — lion's mane, blue oyster, black pearl, and shiitake, all of which contribute to a line of fresh, powdered, and dried 'shrooms.
A modular home with green doors that's used to grow mushrooms
The 'shroom grow house. Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University

How it works: Hines, a former Hank's Oyster Bar sommelier and server, is planning to establish the mushroom farm as part of a growing network of small, commercial farms throughout Ward 7 and 8. The plan is to stimulate the micro-local economy and feed residents using underutilized spaces like lawns and rooftops, and more mobile units for mushrooms and other "high value" crops.

  • He's also using his restaurant connections to sell mushrooms to Sonoma Wine Bar and others. Buyers can pre-order products online for free delivery in D.C., and a mushroom CSA is planned. Dried and powdered varieties can be shipped outside the city.

What they're saying: "It's not just farming — it's about shifting culture and creating industry in Wards 7 and 8."

Mushrooms growing on logs in a grow house
Mushrooms growing. Photo: courtesy EightFold Farms

Flashback: Hines debated opening an independent grocery, but realized "that isn't the solution." "It has to be holistic," he tells Axios.

  • He studied global solutions for food deserts, and "started to look at Wards 7 and 8 like their own country." Take Cuba, which quickly adopted a successful urban agriculture program to feed and employ people when the Soviet Union collapsed. Or Zimbabwe, where the Future of Hope Foundation builds mushroom farms using ag waste.

What they're saying: "I fell into mushrooms going down that rabbit hole," Hines tells Axios. "It's a low barrier to entry. It doesn't cost a ton of money. You can control the climate." And there's a reason behind the saying "grows like mushrooms."

Two men next to an excavator
Planting seeds in Wards 7 and 8. Photo courtesy Johns Hopkins University

Between the lines: Grants, including a recent $10,000 sum from Johns Hopkins, are helping get EightFold off the ground after seven years of planning. Hines entered the university's social entrepreneurship accelerator and recently won funds through their 2024 Community Impact Champion Award.

  • Current mushroom mania doesn't hurt either. As Al J. Browne, JHU's Director of Community Health Design told Axios, "[Calvin] had me at 'mush.'"

Zoom out: The mushroom farm is currently parked by Martha's Table in Barry Farm, and Hines is working with the nonprofit to teach kids about financial literacy and farming.

  • Eightfold is part of a larger food equality movement east of the river, which includes Sycamore & Oak, a retail village with Ward 7 and 8 entrepreneurs, and the forthcoming Market 7 food hall, which will foster Black-owned businesses.
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