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Thursday, May 23, 2024

JR Hines Has A Bold Vision

Recently, I sat down with JR Hines, the founder of Eightfold Farms, a community-minded effort to address the food desert in Wards 7 and 8. He began by telling me about his first initiative which involves three types of mushrooms he plans to start growing, storing, and distributing from two storage containers next door to his home on Elvans Road.

As we chat, two people are milling around the seated area next to the free coffee machine. Suddenly Misty Brown, having overheard the mushroom discussion, couldn’t contain herself.  “Excuse me,” says Misty leaning into our table, “did I hear you just say you are going to grow and sell mushrooms here? I cannot believe it!”

JR Hines is the recent winner of the Verizon Community Impact Champion Award for 2024 and received a $10,000 cash reward.

Misty’s enthusiasm was off the charts.  “Right now, I must travel all over the city on public transportation to buy my mushrooms every week. It is not fun.  I live for mushrooms.  It would be a dream come true to be able to buy them here in my neighborhood,” says Misty.  Her companion, Reggie James, says he has used mushrooms in his diet all his life, so having mushrooms available in his neighborhood would be life changing.  Both were ready to sign up on the spot.

Unscheduled and out of the blue, two residents were making clear their need for food not easily available to them right now. Clearly, it would be life changing to have easy access to mushrooms and other foods.  It is exactly the reason JR has dedicated himself to the project.  He was overwhelmed by their excitement and interest. “It is really heartwarming to know I am on the right path,” he said.

JR is the real deal.  He grew up in Hillcrest. His family is rooted in the local schools and community. JR is very comfortable with who he is and what he has achieved in life. More importantly, he is a realistic visionary on his current effort to launch a new agricultural effort for Wards 7 and 8.

A Network of Small Urban Farms

Our conversation took place at a perfect spot, the award-winning building at 2375 Elvans Road, S.E. that serves as the Martha’s Table headquarters. The mushroom farm he is launching will be just down the street.

EightFold Farms is a network of small commercial urban farms in Wards 7 and 8. The network promotes sustainable living, addresses food access issues, and promotes economic self-sufficiency. The farm sites are being put in underutilized or abandoned spaces around the neighborhoods.  The first site is on Elvans Road in the two containers located next door to JR’s home.

“I named EightFold Farms to reflect the eight-fold path of my Buddhist faith,” says JR. The Eightfold Path consists of eight disciplines to right understanding, speech, thought, actions, efforts, mindfulness, and concentration.  “I am hoping that by growing healthy food it can lead to better health outcomes, while creating employment, especially for younger ones. My vision is to make Ward 8 the largest urban agriculture center in the country,” says JR.

He says he had heard about the food desert over the years but had not given it a lot of thought. He is a well-known sommelier and bartender in the DC culinary world, and currently works at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle and at Sonoma, the Capitol Hill restaurant and wine bar. So he is very familiar with the DC food scene.  “It wasn’t until I moved back to Ward 8, did it hit me how awful [access to food here] is and how necessary it was to do something about it,” says JR.


Why Mushrooms

Tackling food deserts is a complicated and multi-pronged answer.  “I started by researching successful international projects dealing with sustainable food production,” reports JR. There are certainly great urban farming stories in Havana, Canada, and Zimbabwe.  “It made me realize that urban agriculture could address employment needs as well as provide food for those not currently served,” says JR.

Why start with mushrooms?  “My research led me to mushrooms, as they are very cost effective to grow, and take little space and overhead to produce.”  The two containers are now equipped with solar power and the interiors have been thoroughly scrubbed. The containers are just days away from being planted with three types of mushrooms, Shitake, Oyster, and Lion’s Mane.  JR thinks he will be able to grow 300-400 pounds a week once he is fully operational.  He already has four restaurants under contract to buy his produce.  In addition to selling the mushrooms, he is setting up a system to also make mushroom powder from some of them, providing a second market for his goods.

Mushrooms are of course popular because they are low calorie, and a great source of fiber, protein, and antioxidants.  Vegetarians, like Reggie who was so excited about the project, use mushrooms as one of their main sources of protein.

Community Impact Champion Award

JR’s enthusiasm and vision are drawing support. John Hopkins University and Medicine has established a program called Ward Infinity. The effort is designed to be a social entrepreneurship accelerator serving underinvested communities in DC.  JR was chosen to be on one of their training teams and said the five-months training was very challenging while at the same time very supportive.  “It was like getting an MBA in a very short time,” says JR.

At the end of the training, EightFold Farms won the Community Impact Champion Award at this year’s 2024 Ward Infinity Pitch Competition, sponsored by Verizon.  100 entrepreneurs were given six minutes to pitch their work, and in the end, JR walked away with the $10,000 award.

Two storage containers have been converted into the first mushroom farm on Elvans Road, SE. The containers are solar powered and hygienically cleaned to prevent contamination of the plants.

For now, JR is the solo employee of the farm, but he is already teaching eight children that are part of FAN DC, a foster care program.  Twice a week the students meet with JR at Martha’s Table to learn about both the business side and the urban agriculture skills of the farm.  Soon, he hopes to be able to employ the students and that they will someday be ready to attend DC’s College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences.  “Besides growing mushrooms, it is like growing a next generation of farmers,” says JR.

If you are interested in finding out more, lending a hand or donating, you can go to eightfoldfarmsdc.com or contribute to thegofundme.com page of Eightfold Farms DC, organized by Calvin Hines. The farm is a for-profit venture, so gifts aren’t tax-deductible. But by supporting JR’s work, you can help shape health and sustainable access to nutritious food for your DC neighbors.  And for you mushroom lovers, keep your eye out this summer for your locally grown shrooms.

Rindy O’Brien is a garden writer and photographer and wishes EightFold Farms the best. To contact, rindyobrien@gmail.com

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