The Straight Farm Whitehaven Agronomics initiative is teaching Whitehaven families how to use subsistence farming and food preservation to earn extra cash while they spend time together, improve their health, and grow the community.
The Straight Farm initiative, founded by Kimberly Dobbins, provides hands-on training in subsistence farming, or growing enough produce to feed a household. In addition to learning how to farm, participants are also guided in selling surplus produce and food products locally and online.
Dobbins, who has gardened for eight years and worked previously as a food educator, co-founded the Whitehaven community garden in 2013 with partner Methodist South Hospital and support from the UT Extension Office.
In 2017, she had a new idea for growing Whitehaven.
“Why can’t we take this model and expand it, not just from a gardening perspective but a homesteading perspective?,” she asked.
She noticed that the eight-bed Whitehaven community garden on the grounds of Methodist South, located at 1300 Wesley Drive, was a big draw for families from the neighborhood. She also knew from personal experience that growing and preserving your own food could translate to major cost savings and even generate income.
“What if families got into gardening, learned the basics, started gardens in their own backyards, kept produce [to sustain] themselves, and were able to take the leftovers and sell them at a farmers market? How could that help their income?,” said Dobbins.
The Straight Farm Initiative’s program launched in Summer 2017, and since its inception, around 125 people have participated in 15 to 20 classes that have included basic gardening, entomology (the study of bugs), a 4H club for kids, and canning and preserving.
“One of the main concepts with gardening is food preservation,” said Dobbins.
She learned food preservation as a child during visits with her grandparents in Hernando, Miss. Her grandmother would tin, pickle, and preserve the foods that would sustain the family throughout the year and especially in the winter months.
“I thought, ‘I live in Whitehaven, and this is something I want to share with the community I live in.’ That was basically the birth of Straight Farm Whitehaven Agronomics,” said Dobbins.
It was also the birth of the partnership with neighbor Kimberly Toney.
Dobbins and Toney both grew up in Whitehaven in the 1980s and 90s just five minutes from each other, but they didn’t met in person until recently when Toney saw a Facebook post from Dobbins about a food canning class in the neighborhood.
Toney and her brother own the Parkway BBQ Company, a catering company with a commercial kitchen. Preparing food in a commercial kitchen is essential to meeting health code requirements to sell at farmers markets and stores.
The pair saw a partnership between kitchen and garden as an opportunity to grow something good in Whitehaven. Toney offered her commercial kitchen for the classes.
“My brother and I had a vision of our business being more than just a restaurant. It’s more a resource center,” she said.
Toney was also personally interested in learning food preservation.
“It’s like a lost art. My grandmother and aunts could do it,” said Toney.
They describe Whitehaven as a neighborhood in flux. They point to the strong but aging middle class in Whitehaven, and the neighborhood’s younger people who either leave because they feel Whitehaven has nothing to offer them or they stay and fair worse than their parents and grandparents, a phenomenon occurring across the country.
But rather than leave, Dobbins said she’s looking to make a difference.
“Let’s offer something to our community so the community will have something to offer our children. That’s my mindset. That’s the driving force,” she said.
Toney agrees that the two of them are “not afraid to be the trailblazers.”
Whitehaven has been the focus of recent revitalization efforts, but according to Dobbins and Toney, what’s needed is a shift in perception and a renewed sense of ownership so residents have a stake in new development.
“In the ‘80s, Whitehaven was the place to be. But community members didn’t own most of the businesses. We weren’t vested in the community, and when you’re not vested in the community, you have no control really. What you have to say isn’t really important,” said Dobbins.
Toney, whose business also sells an all-natural barbecue sauce, highlights not just the social and economic impacts of initiatives like Straight Farm Whitehaven but the ramifications to physical and mental health.
Low-income communities and communities of color tend to have less access to healthful foods and public spaces for exercise and community gathering. They experience higher rates of cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, stroke, and other diseases. Dobbins noted that when communities constantly see themselves reflected negatively in the media, they begin to believe that they are deserving of that negativity.
“Sometimes that mindset holds a lot of us back from getting out and doing positive things,” she said.
“It’s wasted potential,” added Toney.
Wasted potential often feels like a personal failure, when in reality it’s a lack of access to spaces to learn what you’re good at, test your theories and limits, and connect to that potential, she continued.
“We have to build these spaces."
Dobbins hopes that building those spaces that inspire community vitality will inspire the next generation to do the same, creating a snowball effect of community-led growth.
“I’m a mother of three. I want my children to drive through Whitehaven when they’re adults and find their own personal landmarks. They can say, ‘My mom helped do that, my mom helped [with this]. And hopefully, that will motivate them to become active,” she said.
The Straight Farm initiative is already building stronger bonds in Whitehaven, and there have been several surprising connections.
There’s the friendship of Toney and Dobbins, who’d grown up neighbors but strangers. There was also a woman who came from Nashville to a canning class only to discover that she and Toney had been good friends in college. Dobbins also realized that one of the participants was both her neighbor and an expert tomato grower.
“Because of Ms. Jackie, this summer I am growing tomatoes,” which is something Dobbins said she’d struggled to grow previously. “I’m excited about it now. I have a few plants, and I’m going to go ahead and make some salsas and sauces, and hopefully, I’ll be able to take some of it to the farmers market to sell,” she continued.
Toney also pointed to the atmosphere of the classes as an example of deepening connections.
“A girl’s day out, that was the vibe. Just like we go out together to paint, do the canvas party or pottery party, it had that feel. It was amazing. It was healthy. It was like therapy,” she said.
The momentum of Straight Farm Whitehaven is mounting. The project just garnered a $2,500 Empowerment Fund grant from Community Lift.
Related: “A new Community Lift Empowerment Fund looks to lift up small, neighborhood projects”
Dobbins and Toney are currently planning their late summer class schedule. They’ve partnered with local farmers to receive strawberries, figs and other produce that is good for preserving.
They’re also planning to add quilting and sewing classes, and Toney is exploring other projects in the commercial kitchen.
Their biggest goal is launching an online farmers market with potential for a physical market in the future. The online market would help residents access healthful food grown by their neighbors, but it would also target the tourists flocking to Memphis’ most famous destination.
“Graceland is in Whitehaven. A lot of times, tourists want things from the area, [but they’re] in Graceland in this little bubble, and they don’t get to see the rest of the community. I’m hoping to bridge the gap,” said Dobbins.
Putting the market online reaches over the walls of Graceland and connects directly to customers.
To make their dreams a reality, Dobbins and Toney need volunteers, help getting the word out, and ongoing financial support, and they need residents and other Memphians to forget what they think they know about Whitehaven and look at it with fresh eyes.
“Our community is really a gem. It’s the pearl in the oyster than no one wants to open,” said Dobbins, but with the efforts of Straight Farm Whitehaven, she and Toney certainly hope they start to crack the shell.