Girls Inc. takes mission to roots with Frayser Youth Farm

Part of Girls Inc.’s focus on Frayser is through its Youth Farm, where girls are employed as farmers to cultivate some 50 vegetable varieties all while learning entrepreneurial skills.
Working in the heat of the summer, fingers in dirt and bugs swarming around doesn’t sound like a typical job for high school girls.
 
Typical isn’t the mantra at the Girls Inc. Youth Farm in Frayser, where an all-girl farmer workforce cultivates up to 50 types of vegetables while learning how to be entrepreneurs.
 
The Youth Farm is a fully functioning 9.5-acre farm where girls learn skills of entrepreneurship as well as how to grow vegetables.
 
“It’s a platform for youth development in that the natural systems at the farm and systems of business management teach a lot of really valuable life skills,” said Miles Tamboli, Youth Farm Manager. “There are a lot of metaphors that come out of farming, like learning how to wait for gratification when you plant something. There’s anything from a one- to three-month cycle that you wait for your produce to come up. That’s not a timeline we see very often in schools. Often young people are pushed by you’re hungry so you get a snack. That’s an instant result.”
 
The farm is part of Girls Inc.’s overriding mission to provide quality programming for girls ages 6 to 18 that is meant to equip them for successful adulthood. In 2014, Girls Inc. developed a growth plan that targets Frayser as one of two areas of emphasis to expand the number of girls served. Part of that is through programs in a variety of Frayser schools, and another is through the farm, which launched in 2015.
 
“We had a commitment from the beginning that the goal of the program is to equip girls with skills to be successful,” said Lisa Moore, President and CEO of Girls Inc. “The girls are addressing a critical community need while learning entrepreneurial skills.”
 
The Girls Inc. Youth Farm is hiring eight new farmers for the upcoming year. Applications must be submitted by May 1, 2016, for the farm crew that begins work in June. Three of the current six high school farmers who were hired last year live in Frayser.
 
The program is open to all girls age 16 to 18 who live in the city of Memphis. Participants apply like they would for any other job. There is an emphasis on girls in the Frayser area, but Moore stressed that the farm is part of the Girls Inc. mission to serve all of Memphis. Ultimately, there will be about 20 farmers hired in a year as the farm grows.
 
And while there will be “only” eight farmers working the crops, that’s just the actual paid crew. Another 500 or so girls engage with the farm, whether on a field trip or in participation in a middle school farm-to-school curriculum.
 
Girls hired for the work are engaged in social entrepreneurship, leadership and civic training with local leaders and through volunteer activities. The girls learn a healthy lifestyle, gaining an understanding of how healthy living connects to ecology, food and community.
 
They also develop academic and leadership skills by running all aspects of the farm, including the weekly participation in the Memphis Farmers Market. They gain leadership skills by participating in community activities, including attending the Frayser Exchange Club during the summer.
 
Civic engagement lessons were real last summer when plans were submitted to turn an adjacent property into a landfill. The girls gathered information from the community and came up with their own stance on the issue, even calling Memphis TV news stations to tell their reasons for being against the proposal. The property owners ultimately tabled the idea.
 
Part of the social justice component is teaching the girls about food deserts and how their work can play a role in providing fresh produce to the community. For now, much of the vegetables grown on the farm are sold at the Memphis Farmers Market Downtown. The eventual hope is that up to 80 percent of the produce will be sold in and for the Frayser community.
 
That plan is still being worked out. In fact, it’s part of the entrepreneurship education the farmers receive. They are working through ideas to come up with where and how to sell produce in the Frayser community.
 
“There isn’t an existing infrastructure for selling food in this way in Frayser,” Tamboli said. “There used to be. Frayser has a history of truck farms and market gardens. But there is a generation gap there. … We’re researching ways. We want to sell at least 80 percent of our food here in 38127. We don’t know what that looks like yet. We want the girls to figure that out.”
 
That could be a farm stand that is set up on a regular or semi-regular basis. The farmers will survey the community to get input on what that looks like.
 
When the girls aren’t getting their hands dirty on the farm they’re learning business skills. That can be seen at the Memphis Farmers Market where they run the cash register, record inventory and any other task. But they also learn the skills necessary before putting them in action.
 
“They do take a break over the holidays but in the winter months they’re engaged in business planning,” Moore said. “They plot how much they want to grow for the future season. They’re engaged in teaching others. They do a community action plan. They will do workshops at the Ed Rice Community Center. It’s not farming skills but life skills.”
 
Of the nearly 50 vegetable varieties, Tamboli said there are actually as many as 100 types grown. That diversity is important because insects can dictate what flourishes; tomatoes, for example, didn’t do well last year.
 
“Sometimes crops fail,” Tamboli said. “That’s an exercise in resilience. That teaches us to diversify our interests and keep pushing even when it seems like things won’t work. Even though tomatoes failed we had a great okra harvest. It’s strange to think of resilience training when you think of young women of color. They face so many hurdles. They’re getting experience of having to deal with failure and how to overcome those hurdles and make things work.”
 
When the farm started last year about three-quarters of an acre was cultivated. This year it should be about two acres. Eventually, the farm will be scaled up to six acres under cultivation.
 
The land that isn’t farmed yet is still being used to teach the farmers important lessons. The rest of the level land has cover crop, things that aren’t for harvest but will enrich the soil with nutrients and help build the ecosystem.
 
Much of the flowering cover crop produces nectar. And with 11 beehives, it’s a lesson in sustainability as the bees then pollinate many of the crops.
 
“It teaches the girls in the program about ecosystem management and stewardship of land,” Tamboli said. “A lot of this is experiential in-depth STEM learning, but we’re not using a book. We’re using soil.”
 
If they weren’t working on the farm, the girls likely would have a part-time job elsewhere. It takes a special person to go through the program.
 
“The farm is an equalizer in a sense,” Tamboli said. “Most young people haven’t been on a farm and if they have they haven’t worked on one. When we start in June it’s 30 hours a week on the farm. It’s hot, dirty and there are bugs. It’s an unknown situation for everyone, no matter their background. Everybody is taken to the same level of understanding and from there they start to build community. They’re like sisters now.”

High Ground's coverage of community sustainability efforts is made possible by Memphis Light, Gas and Water.

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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