AYA Farms (Dreaming Out Loud)

“The judges’ feedback helped me to think through the next iteration of my business plan, it helped me find the answers to the questions that I had, and most importantly, it helped me think of questions that I hadn’t asked yet.” –Christopher Bradshaw, AyaFarms

AyaFarms is the latest initiative of Nashville native Christopher Bradshaw. AyaFarms will be integrated and biodiverse urban aquaponic farms, growing fresh vegetables and fish in abandoned buildings and rooftops right here in DC. AyaFarms is Chris’ third DC-focused initiative. He founded Dreaming Out Loud, a nonprofit youth development program and Aya Community Markets, a farmers market and holistic health experience targeting DC’s “food deserts.” Chris and AyaFarms entered the 2012 William James Foundation competition.

Are you in business, or still planning?
AyaFarms is still in the planning stage. We are currently exploring sites in the city to build a pilot/demonstration farm, as well as seeking seed funding to build the site through diverse private and public sources.  We hope to have a site identified by the fall, so that we can begin raising funds for springtime construction of the pilot-farm.

What problem is AyaFarms trying to solve?
AyaFarms will alleviate environmental concerns in the food system like pollution from transportation and the fact that 60-80% of our potable water is used for agriculture. But also the farms will address social concerns that you see in the DC community regarding unemployment, community health issues surrounding food like food deserts or low access communities. These folks can’t afford good food, don’t have access to good food, and they pay the penalty economically and socially for that.

How did you become interested in this problem?
Aya Community MarketsIt was a progression. Our nonprofit Dreaming out Loud started with afterschool and summer programs where we were teaching youth to develop character and leadership, and we noticed issues of food access in those communities, so we started Aya Community Markets. The farmers market got us thinking about the food system as a whole and how we can improve access to good, healthy food in these communities.

What is your solution to the problem?
Aya Community Markets is the solution to the access side of the problem. AyaFarms is a social enterprise that will address the production side of the food system. AyaFarms will be biodiverse aquaponic farms that are located in abandoned lots, on parking garages, on roofs of large buildings (abandoned warehouses or factories), producing vegetables and fish. We’re going to start with leafy greens and lettuces, and our fish will likely be tilapia. The farms will employ folks from low income and underserved communities, and we’re looking at a co-op model so the farms are owned by the members of the community.

Who are your customers?
Our customers will be market goers who come to farmers markets, restaurants and other food related businesses and eventually grocers and institutional clients such as universities, prisons, and schools.

Has the William James Foundation competition and mentoring program helped you on your way?
Yes, incredibly. The judges’ feedback helped me to think through the next iteration of my business plan, it helped me find the answers to the questions that I had, and most importantly, it helped me think of questions that I hadn’t asked yet.

What other resources have you found that are particularly useful for social entrepreneurs?
Various meet ups such as #SocEnt Wednesdays, the Young Nonprofit Professionals Networks, the DC Social Innovation Project’s Spotlight Series are all great networking events; however they can’t match WJF. I’ve also benefited from becoming a StartingBloc Fellow which has opened many doors, stimulated conversations and helped inspire me by witnessing the vision, growth and passion of my peers. If you are in the DC area, the DC Grant Alert catalogs some significant opportunities, as does the Foundation Center.

For readers who want to know more about what you’re up to, where can we send them?
You can go to dreamingoutloud.org.