• Print

    The City Farmer: New ideas about urban farming may help spread area growing

    Mary Phillips - The Commercial Appeal -

    I recently began managing Roots Memphis, a new urban farm in Whitehaven, and as one might expect, it's a lot of work. Calluses are reappearing, freckles are more pronounced, and my constantly sore muscles make me wonder why I ever bothered getting a gym membership.

    However, in shoveling dirt, planting seeds, living seasonally, eating healthfully and making connections with an often-overlooked community, I feel better than ever. I'm self-employed, doing meaningful work that benefits my city. With the help of friends and neighbors, I've transformed a parking lot into a garden. Working for myself is difficult and nerve-racking, but so far the benefits have far outweighed the problems.

    And, every day I work, I wonder why, in a city with such high unemployment rates and huge amounts of vacancy and blight, urban farming isn't a more viable employment option. I've been lucky. I met a benevolent business owner with an unused piece of land. He wanted to see it put to good, productive use, and I was able to take the land and create a business plan for it.

    But for every well-intentioned landowner with money to invest in community agriculture, there are hundreds of vacant, overgrown lots, either forgotten by negligent owners or sitting unclaimed in the land bank. And while blight and unemployment may seem like unrelated, disparate issues, by providing willing workers with access to land, education, and capital, creating urban farming businesses can activate blighted spaces and provide Memphians with a means to self-employment.

    There are a few organizations seeking to address these issues. For the last few years, GrowMemphis has sold its community gardens' produce at the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market through a cooperative selling model. There are a few individual growers who sell their produce at the GrowMemphis market booth to supplement their own personal income, but most of the vegetables you'll find at the table are sold by the community gardens solely to fund the upkeep and maintenance of the individual gardens.

    Gardeners don't only sell together, but they plan crop rotations together so there is always a large variety of produce at the GrowMemphis booth. Chris Peterson, the executive director of GrowMemphis, noted, "The gardeners are working and growing collectively. We try to foster a spirit of collaboration so that the gardens aren't competing against each other. That way, everyone wins."

    GrowMemphis, with the help of Knowledge Quest, Community Lift and the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market, is launching a business training program for urban farming entrepreneurs. Chris Ramezanpour, a trainer and business adviser for this project, explained how the idea came about:

    "From conversations with Chris Peterson and Christian Man (from Knowledge Quest), we started considering the value of using these gardens and larger-scale sites as income-generating opportunities, along the lines of the existing GrowMemphis cooperative growing model. The commonly used food security model is limited in scope and participants. More people may want to be involved in an urban farm model if they could make money off it, instead of just growing greens for dinner."

    Many gardeners, Ramezanpour noted, are limited in growing for multiple seasons when they do not have enough money to make necessary garden repairs. Also, many would-be large-scale urban farmers lack the access to capital to purchase the equipment they need to grow their business. Urban farms need to generate enough income to meet those basic needs.

    So, by combining farm training with business skills training, GrowMemphis is seeking to assist gardeners and farmers to create new businesses. Ramezanpour said, "Through the provisions of this training, coupled with access to small-scale loans at the end of this project, participants will be able to use this opportunity to take a new set of skills and turn a small-scale urban plot into a supplementary income opportunity for them."

    One of the goals of this project is to provide access to markets and assistance in managing retail accounts. Ramezanpour said, "No one can use training just for the sake of training. This program model is most successful where there's a context for application. That's how you stimulate growth in the economy."