By Robin Beaudoin
The notion of “roots” to a Memphian will spark feelings of affection for the region, the beginnings of rock and roll, and a family tradition. Mary Phillips has her own roots in Memphis’ Midtown area near Evergreen. After a period in Seattle, Washington, she returned to Memphis, where she is now guiding others to establish roots of another kind with a homegrown program to feed a hungry city through Plate Project, while growing a population of responsible agriculturists through Roots Memphis Farm Academy.
“I’ve always been interested in agriculture, as long as I can remember,” Phillips said. “I had an opportunity to live and work on a farm in Kansas, where I was bit by the agriculture bug. I worked on farms here and there, and when I decided to return to Memphis in 2008, I saw a real need for urban agriculture here and to turn my passion and experience into something that could provide Memphians with clean, healthy, ethically grown food.”
In a 2010 Gallup poll, Memphis was ranked the hungriest city in the country, with a staggering 26% of families stating that they could not afford to buy food for their families over the past 12 months. Memphis also ranks in the top five of American “food desert” cities, where either income or unavailability makes it impossible to get fresh food and produce to 16% of our city’s population. This is where the urgent need comes into play for fresh-food programs such as Plate Project.
“With Plate Project we provide CSAs (community-supported agriculture shares) for families in need. We work with churches, neighborhood institutions, and food pantries to identify families that would both want a CSA and could put it to good use. We have 50 families right now, so we are actively fundraising to provide these families with one of our food shares. All bags are at the same pickup point, just as our other CSA customers, so there is not the stigma of receiving charity.”
The program has grown steadily each year since its inception. “We now have 10 acres out here at Shelby Farms, and have applied for Certified Naturally Grown certification as we do not use any harmful chemicals at all,” Phillips said. “We believe we should be environmentally and socially responsible and economically advantageous for our farmers.” The Roots program goal is not only to teach a social conscience, but profitability.
“Most of our students are between 25 and 35 years old,” Phillips noted. “These are people who want a career change or who didn’t like the path they were on and found the Roots Memphis Farm Academy.” With an affordable $1,800 tuition and scholarships available, Farm Academy currently accepts no more than ten students per year. “We have already had several apply for our next session that starts in August,” Phillips added.
THE COURSE HAS THREE PHASES:
BUSINESS. Each student receives a six-month business course to learn to put a plan in writing and the ins and outs of the legal and financial side of the business. They also help teach creative marketing.
INCUBATION. Students receive a quarter-acre plot of land to put their plan into action. Produce is sold into a CSA at Cooper-Young Farmers Market and a few local restaurants, with the largest portion being sold to St. Jude. Currently the school is producing leafy greens, beets, radishes, and spring herbs such as cilantro and parsley.
LAUNCH. RMFA helps farmers incorporate their businesses and eliminate any barriers they might have to starting their own farm business. This may be assisting them with finding financing, land that they’d like to lease, or help from a tool-share program available through the school.
Mary’s husband Wes Riddle is the executive director of the organization, teaching the business-planning portion of the process. His background in law and business development allows him to mentor with regard to the business and finance side. Phillips is the one getting her hands dirty. “I teach more of the agricultural theory side of things,” Phillips said. “I have my dream job right now. I’ve somehow lucked into the best of both worlds. I get to do this every day, and Memphis is a hungry city.” Roots Memphis has committed to bringing ethical and sustainable food to the city.
To become involved with Roots Memphis, take part in a CSA, or to learn more about sustainable farming, visit RootsMemphis.org or call Mary Phillips at (901) 326-5878.