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VOL. 130 | NO. 233 | Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Food-Focused Nonprofits Join Under Memphis Tilth Banner

By Madeline Faber

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Meet Memphis Tilth. Four of the city’s food and farming nonprofits, which cover areas ranging from soil health to food justice to produce distribution, are convening under a single banner.

Dennis O’Bryan with Urban Farms-Memphis harvests turnips bound for Grace-St. Luke’s food pantry. Urban Farms is one of four charter organizations of the newly formed Memphis Tilth. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The Memphis Tilth organization can offer a more comprehensive and sustainable approach to building a better local food system by combining the efforts of the Memphis Center for Food and Faith, GrowMemphis, Urban Farms-Memphis and Bring It Food Hub.

By July 2016, the groups will meet under one nonprofit charter, one board and one mission: creating economically sustainable and socially equitable food systems.

The Memphis food ecosystem got the attention of Seattle Tilth, a longstanding urban gardening and ecology organization in the Pacific Northwest that boasts several area partners and a $3 million annual operating budget.

When established, Memphis Tilth will be the organization’s first national partner and a model for the Tilth movement.

Establishing an umbrella organization has been Noah Campbell’s goal since he joined on as director of MCFF in 2012. He reached out to Seattle Tilth for guidance, and they retorted with an offer of partnership.

“We’re modeling our effort on the best and most experienced similar model, which is Seattle Tilth,” said Dennis O’Bryan, farm manager with Urban Farms, one of the Memphis Tilth founding partners. “They’ve been there for so long and have been through a lot of wickets with their growth and development that will give us both inspiration and guidance.”

Seattle Tilth executive director Andrea Dwyer last month spoke to a packed conference room of farmers, activists and leaders at the Memphis Leadership Foundation. She explained that Memphis would be a forerunner in Seattle Tilth’s efforts to recruit partners across the country.

“You can do it with four people or 40 people. I’d rather do it with 40 people,” Dwyer said at the meeting.

Jack Bickerest, left, and Dennis O’Bryan with Urban Farms-Memphis harvest turnips bound for Grace-St. Luke’s food pantry.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

When she projected a chart illustrating the cyclical relationship among Seattle Tilth’s areas of interest – earth, farm, garden, market and kitchen – several Memphis heads bobbed in agreement.

Memphis has amped up its local food programming in recent years. The mission now has reached a tipping point, as organizations are willing to succumb some autonomy to increase resources and capacity.

“Nonprofit work is set up for people not to collaborate,” said Chris Peterson, former executive director of GrowMemphis. “Everyone is encouraged to be hyper-focused on their own mission. When you have the types of the problems we have in the food system, just focusing on those narrow missions just isn’t enough in food work.”

He said that nonprofits exchanging personal stake for collaboration is rare in any field and especially necessary around food work, which intends to support small farmers, connect everyone with healthy food and shift away from industrial producers to local resources.

It’s a heavy mission, and one that can’t risk redundancy, according to Emily Holmes, who sits on boards for GrowMemphis and the emerging Memphis Tilth organization.

“With a shared vision of what our local food system can be, and combined resources and energy, we can have a greater impact on our local community: more locally and sustainably grown food reaching more people; more secure livelihoods for our local farmers; a reduction in food miles, food insecurity and waste,” Holmes said.

“It’s a rather huge and daunting step,” Campbell said, adding that he hopes more organizations will join.

Having many groups under one roof will allow Memphis Tilth to compete for high-dollar grants and will give it a stronger voice in policy discussions. With a central staff, the nonprofits can unload the burden of marketing, branding and bookkeeping.

Everyone will also be on the same page when it comes to strategic vision.

“Memphis Tilth is trying to propel and act as a catalyst for each of these organizations to better achieve their mission, but we always have to think about where these organizations will be in the next five years,” Campbell said. “We want to strike a balance between professionalizing in terms of running really well-run programs and at the same time, keep that sort of core grassroots identity and ethos.”

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