Farm Size: Farms around 15-20 acres per year
Product: Grains, dry beans and produce
Region: Based in Takoma Park MD, farming peri-urban leased plots around the Capital Beltway
Established: Started farming full time in Maryland as a contractor in 2010
Favorite piece of farming equipment: Imported, used Japanese farming equipment
Farmers and doctors might seem like very different professions, but to Nazirahk Amen, combining the two makes perfect sense.
Born and raised in rural Louisiana, where his family grew produce and practiced animal husbandry on their land, Nazirahk began his professional career as an EMT and a medic in New Orleans. He later moved to Seattle to pursue a degree in alternative medicine and became a licensed naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist in Maryland.
No matter where Nazirahk was based, he was always figuring out a way to grow food nearby. Before heading to Seattle, he spent time practicing organic farming on his family’s land. Then, in Seattle, he spent his free time farming in his community and helping his neighbors grow their own food. As part of his medical practice, he even hosted cooking classes for patients struggling with learning how to cook with healthy foods.
For Nazirahk, the connection between food and health was obvious.
“I always knew where my food was coming from, but, moving to the city, you realize a lot of people have no clue how their food gets to them,” Nazirahk explains. “As a holistic health practitioner, introducing people to whole, non-processed foods not only connects them to the food system, but also improves their nutrition and health.”
Nazirahk founded Purple Mountain Organics in 2004 out of his desire to help others grow food and support the local foods and sustainability movement. Since 2010, Purple Mountain Organics has been doing research and custom farm work at the University of DC-CAUSES Firebird Farm in Beltsville, MD, where food is grown for local non-profits. Through this work, Nazirahk has expanded his reach, assisting farmers across the Mid-Atlantic with small-scale grain production.
Beyond growing food for donation, Nazirahk also grows grains (local rice, heirloom wheat, oats, beans, and dry beans) to sell at local markets. Through his products, Nazirahk introduces people to different types of grains to incorporate into their diets. Grains aren’t typically grown on a small scale in the U.S., because they need to be processed with large, expensive machinery or by hand, which can be very time consuming, to make them into a product. Nazirahk and a few other farmers are part of an innovative movement to bring small scale grain production back as part of the local foods movement. Nazirahk imports used Japanese farming equipment. Because of limited land for agriculture, some Japanese farmers use smaller sized equipment—making the equipment perfect for small scale farms.
Nazirahk is also innovating more sustainable practices in his farming. Recently, he has been trying to reduce the amount of plastic used in the process, based on research on the negative effects of plastic on soil health. He is also looking to reduce tillage, and to grow an increasing diversity of crops, including uncommon products.
“We do everything we can to keep the carbon in the soil and help bring life back to the land,” Nazirahk says. “Healthy soil is essential for our food to keep its nutrients.”
Nazirahk believes the public is viewing local farms like his differently since the COVID-19 pandemic. When global supply chains were disrupted, regional farms filled the gaps in providing resources to those in need. People are looking to regional production of food crops including grain for human consumption more for support and can see how important it is to have resources nearby. Nazirahk hopes this shift can be a pathway to focus more on local, regenerative agriculture, so food can be grown within the regions where it is consumed.
As successful as Nazirahk has been, farming within urban or peri-urban areas does not come without challenges. Land is extremely expensive in Maryland and D.C., especially for urban or peri-urban farmers. Being a contract farmer made sense for Nazirahk and he enjoys the flexibility it allows, but it also shows how difficult it is to obtain land, especially for Black farmers.
“I would estimate about 1% of farmers are Black because of historic policies and inequities,” Nazirahk says. “There needs to be greater land justice in agriculture, which would begin to reverse historic inequities and make agriculture more inclusive.”
Through his work, Nazirahk has witnessed how urban and peri-urban farms have strengthened community health, not only through nutrition, but also by healing trauma, empowering individuals, and forming deeper ties among people and the land. Nazirahk advocates for everyone to be involved in changing the food system: “If we want to change the way we live for the better, growing your own food is one of the most revolutionary things you can do.”