Shaping the next generation of local farmers

Even when you're not plowing a field or pulling weeds, farming can be a tough business. With a focus on planning, marketing and networking, Roots Farm Academy teaches aspiring sustainable farmers how to grow plants while also growing a business.
In close view of razor wire surrounding the Shelby County Corrections Penal Farm lies five acres leased by a nonprofit farm incubator with the mission of training the MidSouth’s next generation of farmers.
 
Roots Farm Academy, project of now husband and wife Mary and Wes Riddle, leases the land from Shelby Farms Park Conservancy.
 
Wes’ background is as an attorney, but Mary has a history of working on local farms. She saw farmers going out of business because of a lack of a planning and older farmers heading to retirement. So the couple combined their areas of expertise to solve a problem and start Roots.
 
Currently there are eight farmers including the Riddles in the program. The average age of a Roots farmer is 27, according to sales and marketing director Claudine Nayan.
 
The program tuition is $1,800 and there is no guarantee of graduation. Instead of farmers being put directly on the farm they are sent through a six-month, intensive business curriculum starting in August of the year, where they learn to create a business plan, how to market themselves, and how to brand their future farm.
 
After preparing an approved small farm business model they move into the incubation stage where they manage a quarter-acre plot and demonstrate capacity to commercially produce their planned crops.
 
Viable farms work with the farm academy to receive access to lease or own land, startup capital from community partners, and ongoing marketing, branding, legal, and accounting assistance.
 
The entire process for a Roots farmer to prove him or herself as a profitable farmer is about two to three years. Nayan notes that the retention for farm incubators is 20 percent.
 
Roots itself is a part of the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative, which provides consulting, educational resources, and professional development for farm incubators across North America. Support provided includes a dedicated online resource center with sample curriculum and site management protocols, archived and on-going webinars, one-on-one technical assistance, national data gathering, and metric development.
 
Farmers work together in the academy to figure out who should grow what and what techniques work best with their crops.
 
Through partnerships, Roots is able to use tractors at no cost and also receives leaves and wood scraps from a local lumber yard.
 
Roots sells produce grown by the farmers through its community supported agriculture program, which allows the public to invest in the farm’s harvest and receive regular “shares” of chemical-free produce, herbs and flowers.
 
“It not only says that you want to eat healthy, but it says you’re putting money in the local economy,” Nayan said.
 
The farmers learn food and safety procedures since all the produce is washed and packaged by hand.
 
This year’s shares will be capped at 120, a 50 percent decrease from last year. Roots also is eliminating farm to office drop off, since the organization found there was a disconnect between consumer and farmer. The connection includes being able to swap recipes and talking face to face with a farmer.
 
The Roots Memphis CSA runs from April 27 until October 29 and has two locations this year. The first is 387 Pantry on South Main Street; the second is the Cooper Young Farmer’s Market.
 
Prices for shares range from $20 to $50 a week. The 2016 crop calendar includes arugula, basil, collard greens, cilantro, cucumber, beets, cabbage, chard, eggplant, garlic, ground cherries, kale, lettuce, microgreens, peppers, okra, spinach, sorrel, tomatoes, and turnips.
 
Nayan said that Roots is exploring the Memphis flower market due to brides wanting local flowers for their wedding ceremonies and Memphis buyers wanting to know where their flowers originate from.
 
The MyCoFlora farm, launching soon from Roots farmers Scott Lisenby and Sara Link, will be an option for those looking for local flowers.
 
In their third year at Roots, Link said that the couple had a passion for local food, but they weren’t sure where it would lead them. She found out about Roots while working at a restaurant.
 
“Each year has been a dramatic increase in knowledge,” Link said.
 
Link’s passion is flowers, while her husband’s is mushrooms. They plan to offer seasonal and rare mushrooms, flowers, staple vegetables, figs, pears, apples, peaches, strawberries, blueberries, a small variety of herbs, and microgreens.  The couple recently purchased their own BCS tractor.
 
Another farmer, Mark Johnson, joined the farm academy in August in an attempt to find a second career. Johnson, has been a firefighter for the past 22 years and plans to retire in three.
 
“I love serving my community as a firefighter,” he said. “I wanted to serve my city in a different capacity.”
 
Johnson envisions having a sustainable farm big enough to employ other people eventually and a place to raise his four pre-teen daughters. 

Read more articles by Elle Perry.

A native of Memphis, Elle Perry serves as coordinator of the Teen Appeal, the Scripps Howard city-wide high school newspaper program. 
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