Mchezaji “Che” Axum stands in a hoop house at the University of the District of Columbia’s Muirkirk Research Farm, a resource for urban farmers in the city. /WHITNEY PIPKIN FOR NPR
Mchezaji “Che” Axum is the Director of the Center for Urban Agriculture and Gardening Education in the College of Agriculture Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES) at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). Mr. Axum leads a team of researchers at the Muirkirk Research Farm in Beltsville, MD and oversees UDC’s Master Gardening, Specialty and Ethnic Crops and Urban Forestry programs.
He has worked for the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Plant Sciences Institute (USDA-ARS-PSI) for 20 years, taught middle school science, and has worked as a successful farmer and sustainable farming consultant. He is a graduate of the College of Agronomy, now named to the College of Natural Resource Management at the University of Maryland and a Certified State of Maryland Nutrient Management Consultant. Che serves on the board of the Harry Hughes Center for Agroecology and is a member of the American Agronomy Society/ ASA, the Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), and the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA).
Q: Why are urban farms important?
Che Axum: Well thats a very good question!
Currently we have about 7 billion people on our planet. Believe it or not, we currently produce enough food to feed everybody. In 2025, if our population forecast are correct. we will have another 2-3 billion added on the the 7 billion. This is when all bets are off ! We really don’t have much more arable land to use. We will have to produce more food and better producers really quickly!
“Agroecology Day” at Muirkirk Research Farm on October 16, 2014. A total of 50 students from Woodson High School, McKinley Technology High School and IDEA Public Charter School attended the event, focusing on the link between sustainable food systems and environmental systems.
Q: How many students at UDC are involved in the urban farming program and what do they learn?
CA: Its currently growing at a very rapid rate. We do not offer a degree in agriculture, but student can take courses like Intro to Sustainable Agriculture and Agroecology. In addition to this “most importantly” they are able to use the farm as a “living laboratory” to gain experiential learning experience in the art and science of agriculture. This is priceless!
The secret to great-tasting wheat, Klaas told me, is that it’s not about the wheat. It’s about the soil.
How important is the soil for growing nutrient-dense food?
CA: Its everything. In many conventional farming systems “yield per acre” is the end goal. Well… yields are very important, but we strive for the “amount of nutritional density per acre.” What’s the use of growing acres and acres of food that cannot even provide support for our human immune systems. And yes it starts with the soil… the word soil is derived from the word “solium” which means , seat, chair or throne. The soil is the seat or foundation upon which health sits!
Mchezaji “Che” Axum
Q: You are currently experimenting with crops that specifically meet nutritional needs of D.C. residents with HIV and AIDS. What can you tell us about these experiments?
CA: Yes.. every crop that we grow is sourced specifically for its nutrient density! For example there are many specific nutrients that are essential for human immune system functions, like Beta-carotene for example. We then grow crops which are specifically high in the nutrient. We will go further into this in the future. We are currently looking for funding which will assist in this very important research objective.
George Washington Carver (front row, center) poses with fellow faculty of Tuskegee Institute in this c. 1902 photograph taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston.
Q: George Washington Carver is one of your hero. He is quoted as saying:
Reading about nature is fine, but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books, for they speak with the voice of God… I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.
What are thoughts on “nature as an unlimited broadcasting station”?
CA: I cannot say enough about Dr. Carver, My mentor, sage and saint! Carver was able to tune into this”unlimited broadcasting system” because of his “quiet Time.” These hours between 2 am and 4 am. Many of us do not utilize this time of the morning for this purpose. He would walk outdoors and receive all the answers he needed to assist humankind in its quest for sustainable agricultural food , fuel, feed and fiber production.
Q: Che, thank you for your time, is there anything else that you would like us to know?
CA: We are all connected to agriculture if we consume food. Grow some food…and grow it well!
Chef Spike Mendelsohn, Che Axum and Dean Sabine O’Hara.