By Alyssa Hurst
Urban agriculture is growing throughout the country, but right here in DC, Love & Carrots founder Meredith Sheperd is helping the movement soar. Inspired by the tools she acquired growing up in rural Vermont, Sheperd helps DC residents, businesses and organizations experience the rewards of growing their own food.
What inspired you to start Love & Carrots?
Sheperd: I’d been managing a traditional agricultural and organic farm in Virginia for several seasons and I just wanted to move away from that and get into urban ag. It was really a summer of soul searching. And just biking around, looking for space to do my own garden, I was noticing all the fabulous yards in DC and thinking about all of the opportunity to grow food that’s here. Really, as compared to New York and other cities, there are not a lot of skyscrapers. There’s a lot of great sunlight at grade. That made me come up with the idea of hiring out my services as someone who knew how to grow food. I basically put out a flier, and since then I’ve just been trying to keep up with the business.
Why is DC such a good location for your business?
Sheperd: Physically, it’s a great setting because there are actually business codes that restrict the height that you can have for buildings. I think it’s based on the views of the monuments. The idea is that you can see the monuments from most places in DC. So because of that, there are no skyscrapers really. We don’t have these 40-foot-high buildings like in New York. And there is a lot of great classic architecture in all of the row houses. Unless someone else on your block has a permit to pop up their house, you can’t. So it’s pretty restrictive. Because of that, the sunlight is just very plentiful. And there are a lot of yards. People have a front yard and a backyard and there is a lot of green space in DC. So just that alone is step one in farming. You have to go where there’s sunlight.
In addition to that, Michelle Obama and her movement for school gardens and healthy eating — all of those veins are really strong here, and it’s a national movement. If you look at the numbers, some absurd percentage, like six out of 10 Americans, are gardening now. It’s just exploding. Even within Love & Carrots, in the beginning it was mostly young mothers and single females that were calling me. I think 90 percent of my clients in the first couple of years were female, and now it’s becoming more diverse.
Sheperd: I wanted to make a flier for all of my services, and then I realized I needed a name. So I basically sat in a coffee shop for two days making this flier and thinking of a name. It’s a combination of “peas and carrots” and “love and care.”
So that first summer you were putting up fliers, and you pretty much did all of the work by yourself. What was that like?
Sheperd: It was a lot of hard work. A lot of calling up my friends and having people come out on the weekends. I rented six trucks, so I had to clean out the beds after I loaded them with soil. I learned so much that season. I funded myself, but I didn’t make any money really. I guess I saved enough to buy a truck for $2,400 after the end of the season.
I was operating out of my little row house, so I completely killed all of the grass in my front yard because I had all of my transplants and my perennials. And, I converted a little corner of my basement into a grow room so I had a place indoors to get them started. It was fun. It was just like a big experiment. I didn’t know what would happen, but I was able to build all of the gardens that I said I was going to. There weren’t any major hiccups at all, so I guess I would say it was a success. I learned a lot.
What fostered your passion for agriculture and sustainability?
Sheperd: I grew up in Vermont — in rural Vermont, on a sheep farm. My dad was really big into camping and canoeing and fishing and stuff like that, and I was a total tomboy. I have two brothers. So that was my childhood. I grew up in the woods. So forever — do you remember those “Save the Rainforest” drives? That’s where I saw myself. That’s what I identified with. I wanted to save the rainforest when I grew up. So I think I’ve always been an environmentalist and a naturalist. I was always collecting bugs and tadpoles when I was little.
My second job out of college was at an environmental NGO. I really felt very far removed from everything that had anything to do with saving the environment. So I made the switch to being a wetland scientist for a consulting firm, and with that I was more in touch.
I had a roommate actually who worked for Conservation International, and she was studying urban agriculture in Indonesia. She was the first one to really get me into the food movement and teach me about how Cuba, during the embargo during the ’90s, had to grow their own food. They took over the highway medians and people’s backyards, and grew a whole bunch of food. It really struck a cord with me. So I ended up taking a big trip to learn about permaculture and agriculture, and traveled all through Central America and visited a bunch of different farms. Then I came back and took some classes and started working as a farm hand. Just from day one, I really loved growing food. That all led me to that farm management job.
I think urban ag solves so many problems. It’s not just an environmental issue; it’s a social issue; it’s a social impact issue; it’s a lifestyle; it’s battling obesity. It’s a great answer to a lot of 21st-century problems.
Sheperd: I get to go to people’s houses every day, and when people are envisioning a new garden, there’s so much excitement about it. There’s so much possibility. They picture their children out there, and harvesting and canning. What we eat is a daily decision, and growing your own food is so rewarding. They’re excited about it, but I know that they are not even prepared for how awesome it is going to be. A lot of people just really know nothing. I’ll show up and they’ll say, “Can I grow bananas and avocados?” And they are surprised to hear no. But then when I tell them they can grow sugar snap peas, they are amazed. It’s just so fun.
It’s converting new people’s yards. Sometimes it’s a chore. People have to mow it, and you can tell they just don’t have time to take care of their property. After we are through with it, we’ve converted this annoying messy chore into something that is part of the kitchen and part of their daily lives.
And I love all of the people I work with. I feel like I’m working with all of my friends who get excited about the same stuff. We just geek out about new broccoli varieties. It’s like nerding out all the time. I love it.
About The Human Element:
The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email email@example.com.