Dominic Nell is a busy man.
On Wednesdays, you can catch him outside the Umar Boxing Center in West Baltimore, distributing over 1,500 pounds of fresh produce to the local community on behalf of Food Rescue Baltimore. On Thursdays, Nell is in the classroom running an afterschool program with The Food Project, where he teaches classes on anything from meditation to plant-based cooking. On Fridays, Nell is harvesting microgreens at his indoor farm, preparing his specialty produce to be sold at the farmer’s market early the next morning.
Nell—or, as he’s better known, Farmer Nell—is the founder and owner of City Weeds, an innovative urban agricultural business in Baltimore, Md. that is striving to make healthy food options available in the city’s food deserts.
“There’s a real need for accessible, fresh food in the city of Baltimore, and especially West Baltimore,” said Nell. “City Weeds is trying to put an end to food deserts in the community.”
A food desert is an area where residents don’t have reliable access to healthy food, either because there isn’t a supermarket or farmer’s market nearby, or because residents don’t have the economic means to buy it. As a result, residents often look to fast food chains and convenience stores to meet their nutritional needs. Food deserts are strongly associated with poor health and have been linked to several chronic conditions, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
According to the 2015 Food Environment Map, one in four people living in Baltimore City reside in a food desert. African Americans are disproportionately affected—the map found that 34% of black residents in Baltimore live in a food desert, compared to only 8% of white residents. Youths were also found to be disproportionately affected, with 30% of Baltimore City’s school-aged children living in food deserts.
However, Nell has his own name for food deserts.
“I call them 'food apartheid,’” he said. “Deserts are naturally occurring. But, from what I’ve seen, these food deserts are man-made. They’re by design, and they’re targeting primarily black communities.”
Now, Nell is on a mission to put an end to food apartheid in Baltimore and change the narrative around nutrition in the city.
From community artist to grassroots activist
“I took on the moniker of Farmer Nell as a way to be distinct from my work,” said Nell. “Everyone can believe in what Farmer Nell stands for. That name is my Iron Man suit. It’s my Batman mask.”
Before he founded City Weeds, Nell was a community artist, photographer and filmmaker. He discovered his passion for food justice in 2016 when a photography gig brought him to the City Seeds School of Food, a Baltimore-based training program for food entrepreneurs looking to launch or grow their businesses.
This was around the same time that Nell was learning how to grow microgreens with City-Hydro, a vertical farm experimenting with innovative, space-efficient solutions to the urban food crisis in Baltimore. “Once I experienced growing microgreens, I was totally won over,” said Nell.
Microgreens are the edible, leafy green seedlings of vegetables that have been harvested early in the plant’s life cycle. They are commonly used in restaurants as a decorative garnish, adding a flavorful pop of color to a dish. They’re also extremely healthy. “What a lot of people don’t know is that microgreens are more nutrient-dense than anything they’re used to seeing on their plates,” said Nell. “They sound weird, but the health benefits are incredible.”
Indeed, a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that microgreens pack five times the vitamins per serving of their conventional, mature counterparts. Additionally, microgreens require far less space than traditional crops, making them an ideal candidate for urban communities where growing space is limited.
Inspired by his experiences with City-Hydro and City Weeds, Nell began harvesting his own microgreens and selling them at Fresh at the Avenue, a community farmer’s market in West Baltimore that specializes in affordable, locally sourced foods.
“I wanted to show people that, ‘Hey, I cut this kale yesterday, and now it’s on your plate today,’” said Nell. “A lot of people growing up in food deserts don’t know what it’s like to have fresh produce accessible like that.”
City Weeds takes root
As Nell’s microgreen sales began to pick up, he saw an opportunity to change the narrative around food in Baltimore.
“Rather than sell my products to restaurants, which would have been profitable, I wanted to make my food accessible to the people of Baltimore who needed it most,” said Nell. “I wanted to be the change I wanted to see in my community.”
Nell’s commitment led him to found City Weeds, a business dedicated to bringing fresh, affordable microgreens to low-income communities throughout Baltimore. He expanded his operations, going from a casual gardener to a full-time farmer in just months.
Soon, Nell was partnering with local cafes, corner stores and liquor stores that were interested in stocking his microgreens. Rather than traveling up to a mile to the nearest supermarket, residents could walk down the block and pick up nutritious microgreens at an affordable price. Nell even began selling microgreen starter kits, so that anyone could grow and harvest food in their own home.
Growing a new generation of activists
Farmer Nell’s biggest investment in the community, however, goes beyond nutrition.
Nell is the founder of Be More Green, an afterschool achievement program that encourages youths to lead healthy lives and empowers them to start, grow and sustain businesses that enrich Baltimore’s low-income communities. Class topics range from gardening and marketing to meditation and breathing exercises.
“I teach kids how to grow food and be their own businesspeople,” said Nell. “I want them to recognize that they can have ownership over their community.
Nell says that he is constantly being humbled by the kids he meets. “Youth are the engine that makes City Weeds go. They’re our future. It's a real blessing to work with them and we’re looking forward to making things happen in Baltimore.”