The vacant homes and lots on Jennette Place near Walker Avenue and Mississippi Boulevard in South Memphis began germinating like an urban form of kudzu. They appeared like an invasive species in this proud neighborhood, spreading quickly, choking the life from viable properties and growing into a scourge that at one point seemed impossible to eradicate.
Roots Memphis Farm Academy farm manager and co-executive director Mary Phillips uses a seed block maker to transplant Red Russian Kale seedlings.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
But hope is now growing on a nearly acre-sized urban farm at 590 Jennette Place and is spreading as quickly as “the vine that ate the South.”
“We’re growing what was a 3/4-of-an-acre farm and we’re tripling that,” said Marlon Foster, founder of Green Leaf Learning Farm and executive director of Knowledge Quest, a South Memphis nonprofit. “Where people see it as blight or land with no value, we see it as green assets.”
Foster is part of a growing urban agriculture movement in Memphis, a system that could one day produce a sustainable supply of healthy, local food, provide jobs and help transform blighted urban areas.
Ramping up urban agriculture infrastructure and efforts to produce a truly sustainable industry – economically and in terms of food supply – will be the topic of discussion Friday, March 7, at an Urban Land Institute of Memphis conference. The conference, which runs from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. at the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, features Steve Luoni, director of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center.
For Foster and others, an interest in agriculture has turned into an avenue for creating viable businesses and fighting the city’s staggering blight problem, including the tens of thousands of vacant or tax-sale properties that sprouted like weeds in many inner-city neighborhoods.
“We spent a long time talking about some of the issues Memphis had in terms of vacant parcels, access to food and jobs,” said Mary Phillips, who founded Roots Memphis Farm Academy with Wes Riddle in 2012. “We put our heads together to see what would make sense to arrest these overarching needs.”
On a half-acre farm on Brooks Road near Smith & Nephew, Roots Memphis Farm Academy provides business management and sustainable agriculture classes. Students take part in an eight-month academic program, which includes small-farm business entrepreneurship, planning and management. Next, students move on to an incubation phase, during which they manage a quarter-acre farm plot and demonstrate the capacity to commercially produce the crops reflected in their business plans.
The goal is to produce commercially viable farms smaller than commercial farms but larger than personal farms.
“There’s not a lot of production or supply to meet the demand for local, chemical-free produce,” said Phillips. “We are trying to develop a robust farm business community. Once we see the development of multiple regional farms, that’s when we’re really moving toward sustainability.”
Luoni said producing a sustainable urban agriculture system requires thinking about it like an ecological municipal utility, one that includes green infrastructure and public spaces for growing, processing, distribution and consumption.
Roots Memphis Farm Academy co-executive director Wes Riddle waters vegetable seedlings in the organization’s Whitehaven hoop house.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
“I think if you want to have a local food economy, it’s really helpful to think of agriculture as urban infrastructure like we do water and electricity,” said Luoni.
Local business groups and governments have taken a keen interest in the movement.
The Memphis Area Association of Realtors donated $25,000 to help Green Leaf fulfill a plan to grow the size of the urban farming initiative to eventually include a total of 25 lots.
“They sought us out based on what we were doing and now we have hopefully emerged as an example of how we can move forward on blight mitigation,” Foster said.
Shelby County government awarded a $27,451 planning award to the Food Advisory Council of Memphis and Shelby County through Grow Memphis to develop a comprehensive analysis of the existing urban agriculture system. The information can be used to better understand the local urban farming system and be combined with existing data on vacant or derelict properties to combat blight.
“I think it’s a really exciting time to be doing this type of work,” said Christopher Peterson, executive director of Grow Memphis, which provides training and funding for urban gardens and acts as the local policy voice for the urban agriculture movement.
From his growing urban oasis on Jennette Place, Foster couldn’t agree more.
“It was us just trying to be responsive and be good stewards,” Foster said. “Now, it’s kind of emerged as this vehicle for community development.”