How D.C.'s Oldest Hardware Store Ended Up Housing Two Cutting-Edge Urban Farms
September 4, 2019
You can now buy a bucket of paint and a carton of beet greens at D.C.'s oldest hardware store. W. S. Jenks & Son, which opened in 1866, is home to not one but two urban farms. Urban agriculture is gaining so much traction locally that the government is working to establish a specialized department to oversee key land use programs under the Department of Energy and the Environment.
In the meantime, urban farm operators are getting creative looking for underutilized spaces to grow. For Cultivate The City and Little Wild Things, that means taking up residence inside Jenks at 910 Bladensburg Road NE in Trinidad. The former is on the roof. The latter repurposed a storage space that had previously been used as a parking garage.
Jenk's President Jerry Siegel says leasing space to both outfits is part of a strategy to get new and increased foot traffic into the shop, especially in today's retail climate where physical stores are Amazon's punching bags.
"A store like us, or any retail store, provides the opportunity for someone to come in to pick up merchandise and take it home and be happy with it," Jenks says. "I think there’s still a need for retail stores." It helps that Jenks does a good bit of business with the federal government, according to Siegel. "We’re trying to monetize using a garage now as a farm for Mary," he adds, naming Little Wild Things founder Mary Ackley. "She's been an incredible addition to what we do."
Finding a permanent home to grow her microgreens business has been a near all-consuming pursuit for Ackley over the past three years. Little Wild Things has bounced around growing flavor- and nutrient-packed baby greens and shoots everywhere from The Pub & The People's basement to a pair of vacant wholesaler buildings that hug Union Market. One after the next asked Little Wild Things to move out when it came time to develop the spaces. At one point she thought her greens would land in Ivy City, but Ackley ended up walking away from the deal.
"Thank god I found this place," she says while showing City Paper the new Little Wild Things headquarters. She moved in early this summer. "We systematically went through every property available in the entire beltway and there were only five properties that met our requirements."
All they needed was between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet and the ability to heat and cool the space. Throughout this process, Little Wild Things didn't let business slip save for one incident where one of the Union Market-area spaces got too warm, preventing plants from producing. It meant they couldn't fulfill orders at two of their biggest clients: Chaia and Jaleo.
Little Wild Things sells an array of itty bitty greens such as nasturtium, beet, fennel, broccoli, cilantro, endive, mustard greens, amaranth, wheatgrass, and celery to a number of D.C. area restaurants. They include Beefsteak, Big Bear Cafe, Homestead, Espita, ANXO, Iron Gate, The Occidental, Coconut Club, RASA, and Jaco Juice & Taco Bar. A new partnership with Coastal Sunbelt Produce will allow Little Wild Things to expand its reach.
"Smaller restaurants are the bread and butter for us," Ackley says. "We've had some high profile, really cool restaurants but what they do is buy a tiny bit and say they're working with us. There are a lot of other restaurants that put their money where their mouth is, like DC Harvest."
Individuals can also purchase microgreens and edible flowers online for same-day delivery or for pick-up at the farm. They sell cocktail kits, for example, which party-goers can use to decorate their drinks. The flowers are grown in a different location—Little Wild Things outdoor farm at Carmelite Friars Monastery in Edgewood.
Ackley hopes to continue to diversify her business using the new space inside Jenks, which has its own separate entrance at 906 Bladensburg Road NE. Look for everything from happy hours, classes, and movie screenings to a retail shop where you can buy microgreens or build-your-own bouquets.
Cultivate The City founder Niraj Ray was delighted to have another green-thumb business join him at Jenks. In fact, he connected Ackley with the hardware store's owners. "Originally when I started the garden center, my vision was to have multiple urban farms there," he says. That's why he called his farm at Jenks "H Street Farms" instead of "H Street Farm."
Ray founded Cultivate The City in 2015. In addition to operating H Street Farms at Jenks, Ray manages the rooftop farm at Nationals Park, the campus farm at Gallaudet University, garden programming at Idea Public Charter School, and the garden at Miner Elementary School. He involves other schools in urban agriculture through field trips and on-site classes.
The Jenks partnership began when H Street Main Street sought Ray's help beautifying Starburst Plaza that sits where H Street NE curves into Benning Road NE. The director of the neighborhood nonprofit group tipped Ray off that Jenks was looking to make use of its rooftop.
"At first they wanted to do a restaurant, which didn't really make sense to me in terms of economic opportunity," Ray says. He estimated the build out would cost at least a half a million dollars. "On top of that, I didn't think it was as supplemental to their business as what we could offer." There's a Lowe's and Home Depot not too far away and both sell plants. "I made a pitch to them: You're leaving a lot on the table by not selling plants. We could function as your garden center. It was a match made in heaven."
In addition to selling unique plants to Jenks customers, like strawberries with extra long growing seasons, Cultivate The City's H Street Farms brings foot traffic to the hardware store through various events and classes. On Sept. 20, Ray will teach attendees how to care for a bonsai chili pepper tree. "I've been practicing for a year or two," he says. "Imagine having a Scotch bonnet pepper tree that always has a few peppers." His regularly recurring class on making hot sauce is also popular.
Little Wild Things is currently open to the public weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Cultivate The City's H Street Farms is open Wednesdays and Fridays from 3 to 7 p.m.; Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sundays from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
ALL PHOTOS LAURA HAYES
Lead Photo: Little Wild Things just joined Cultivate The City inside W.S. Jenks & Son in Trinidad.