Seeds of Progress
Some might say that sustainability and eating local are new trends, but history reveals that agriculture is the basis of civilization, reaching far beyond its proliferation in the Fertile Crescent. These farmers know that history personally as their passion for farming brings them into the sunshine and rain of their fields, protecting and cultivating the food that lines the tables of their farmer’s market booths or the shelves of local grocers. Each one has a unique history and philosophy, but all agree that local produce tastes better, and they all work to share that knowledge and wisdom with the rest of us.
Delta Sol Farms | Proctor, Arkansas
“The South is awesome. It’s so nice to move away and then come back.”
Large tracts of land plugged full of the infant stages of soybeans, corn and cotton span the countryside that leads to Brandon Pugh’s Delta Sol Farms. Nestled in the swampy Delta landscape of southeastern Arkansas, Pugh’s farm is an organic oasis amid Arkansas’s mono-crop agricultural fields. The 20-acre certified organic farm is run by a 30-member CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), or agriculture driven by member-owned shares of the farm’s produce. Pugh grows at least 20 varieties of vegetables that a household might use in a week, such as chard, carrots, summer squash, white sweet potatoes, beets, tomatoes and peppers.
“I got certified organic because my family is from here and my parents were here. My family has farmed here off and on and it was just a different way of farming. I’d worked on organic farms and always had a vision of starting one back home,” he says. “And also just to show people that we can do it here in the Delta.”
His brother farms 3,500 acres of soybeans, but Pugh doesn’t judge. “I’m not the number one environmentalist,” he says. “At the end of the day, farmers are just trying to make a living.”
The 34-year-old sports Carhartt and flannel and keeps a positive attitude about the beauty of everyday life.
“The best thing about being a farmer is getting to witness cool stuff,” he says. “You get to really enjoy your days. They’re full, long workdays. It’s meaningful work.”
Pugh’s interests have always been in sustainable food production. He graduated with a degree in sustainable agriculture from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, then took an intensive course known for pumping out successful organic farmers at the University of California Santa Cruz. He ran a farm in Sebastopol, Calif. for five years before moving back to his hometown and starting an organic farm on his grandparents’ land.
“It’s hard to make a living farming. It takes a minute, and out in California it’s more expensive. It’s much more affordable to be back home. Being from a small town in West Memphis has so many advantages. I’m loving it more and more every day.”
Pugh works on getting the message out about healthy and local foods in Memphis, too. He served on the steering committee for the Farm to Table Conference at Rhodes College in February.
He has two green houses full of spring starts, some of which he plans to sell at the Cooper-Young Farmers Market in April. He’s known for his beautiful bouquets of cut flowers full of tulips, sunflowers and lilies. This year he’s growing snapdragons, too. He recently started raising pigs and cows and plans to purchase another tract of land to make room for more.
Richardson Vegetable Farm | Senatobia, Mississippi
“Agriculture is the center of the wagon wheel. Everything comes into agriculture one way or another.”
Walking into Steve Richardson’s greenhouse is like walking into a full-scale nursery. Warm, dense humidity hangs in the air at just the right temperature to germinate a seed. He’s been farming his whole life, so he ought to know.
Richardson grew up on a farm in Edwards, Mississippi and started plowing with mules at age seven. At 13, he raised his first crop for sale, an acre of cucumbers. He remembers never wanting to farm, but realized in college that agriculture could be more than just backbreaking labor. He finished a master’s in agriculture and became Tate County’s agricultural extension agent, using his 20-acre farm for research.
“Before I tell someone to try something, I will grow it and then I will advise them on whether it will work or not, so when I tell you this is going to be good, I’m going to have tried it first,” he says.
When he retired in June 2006, he expanded to the 75 acres that he works now.
“My job was to teach people how to be profitable farmers,” he says. “If there were alternatives to what they could do — these guys were cotton and soybean farmers and if there were alternatives that could help them make more money. That was my responsibility as county agent.”
He’s known at farmers markets for being affable, always smiling and ready to share the fruitful knowledge of his long lineage of trial and error. People call him the “sage of Senatobia” and he’s something of a godfather to farmers just getting started.
“When I help somebody do what I’m doing, there is no competition for me ‘cause there’s a lot of room in the market for vegetable production,” Richardson says.
He fondly tells of a man that he taught to farm who in turn taught others to farm. That’s his source of pride. That and his melons – they’re his best seller. He grows watermelons, five types of honeydews, several cantaloupes including the Howell heirloom variety special to Senatobia and a new discovery created in his fields that he calls the Avant. Some have yellow flesh, some orange and others green. Some are as large as basketballs and others bite-sized. But he doesn’t stop there, he grows heirloom and red tomatoes, six colors of peppers and countless other vegetables that he sells to grocery stores and at farmer’s markets in Southaven, Hernando, Batesville, Senatobia and Holly Springs, Mississippi as well as the Downtown, Cooper-Young, Botanic Gardens and South Memphis Farmer’s Markets in Memphis, Tennessee.
He built his own house, fixes his own farm equipment and runs a 75-acre vegetable farm while maintaining the books and managing the crops in a climate plagued with pests, diseases and unpredictable weather — it’s no wonder people seek the 55 year old’s sagely advice.
Roots Memphis | Memphis, Tennessee
“Growing food is something that everyone needs to know how to do.”
The half-acre parking lot of the Clarion Hotel in Whitehaven might seem an unlikely spot for an urban farm, but Mary Phillips has done just that. Her 30 raised beds stand two feet from the ground full of black loam and over-wintered chard and kale and provide the foundation for the Roots Memphis farm.
Urban farms are increasing in popularity as a resurgence in urban gardening and access to cheap land have created a place for farmers to enter the cityscape.
Phillips knows that with the right set of ingredients anyone can grow their own food. As an urban agriculturalist, her goal is to teach others how. “I’m always producing through the framework of education. My philosophy is always grow with the mission of teaching people how to grow.”
She began her urban farming experience in fall of 2010 as the farm manager of Urban Farms, a farm located in the Binghamton neighborhood of Memphis geared toward increasing access to healthy foods and resources such as education and tools for home gardeners. Then she worked at Greenleaf Learning Farm, a garden-education program of the South Memphis nonprofit Knowledge Quest, teaching kids about health, nutrition and how to grow their own food.
Last fall, she branched out on her own, built the Roots Memphis beds and began cultivating greens, beets and carrots that would overwinter. She has set aside an area inside the farm for food trucks to park during lunch hours so people working nearby can come hang out in the garden and catch a quick class, or become inspired to take one in the future.
Her newest plan is a farm incubator program that she will co-run with a partner.
“The idea is to connect aspiring farmers with entrepreneurial and agricultural education and then an incubation period in which these aspiring farmers can put those skills to use,” she says.
The program will help the student receive a free piece of land to farm, start-up funding, membership in a tool share program and consultations with experts to reach profitability.
She’s excited about the fava beans and the garlic, building a shade structure for onsite classes and finishing the greenhouse.
Josephine and Randy Alexander
Tubby Creek Farms | Ashland, Mississippi
“The great thing about growing food is it’s something anyone can do. The great thing about farming is you’re producing something of real, tangible value.”
A dirt road leads up a small hill, past the portable chicken coup where Americana hens lay green eggs, through the tall yellow grasses until it opens to an expansive flat meadow in the middle of which lies the Alexander’s main four-acre garden.
The two are focused on sustainable living and restoring their 70-acre farm’s natural ecosystem.
“Our big thing is learning about our farm and our natural system and how to make nature work for us,” Josephine says.
Josephine and Randy Alexander are something of a dream team. Randy keeps the books, maintains their Internet presence, washes and packs the vegetables, bakes the bread, and tends to the upper gardens and the greenhouse, while Josephine does most of the fieldwork. Soon enough, they hope to fix the tractor so Randy can till the fields, Josephine’s least favorite farm chore.
Josephine jokes about how life on the farm can be hectic. During the middle of the chaos, she says, “We just look at each other and say, ‘we’re just living the dream.” To which Randy replies, “That’s what you say.” They both laugh. “And we really are,” she says. His voice becomes serious as he replies “Oh yeah, absolutely.”
The two were living in what they called a “glorified cardboard box” while working in the nonprofit sector in Memphis. Josephine was the executive director of GrowMemphis while Randy worked at Memphis Center for Independent Living. When the two decided to move in 2011, they chose the countryside, opting for the homestead and a chance at their dream of sustainable living. Within a year of building and working, the farm looks as if they’ve lived there for half a decade. They have portable chicken coops and grazing areas for their laying hens and broiler chickens, a green house, a refrigerated area for food storage and an orchard with blueberries, blackberries, muscadine grapes and peach trees that won’t bear fruit for a few more years.
They run a 30-member CSA that provides customers with more than 100 varieties of 30 different vegetables, many of which are heirlooms. Randy’s favorite is the Green Zebra tomatoes, while Josephine loves the carrots. She says there’s nothing better than a carrot straight from the ground.
They talk about the first cabbage they ate from their land being a religious experience and the Bloody Mary mix they make from their tomatoes being one of the perks of living off the land.
The two have dates in their fields and watch the sunset, or the swallows fly into the air. Life at Tubby Creek Farms is . . . dreamy.
Nichole and Ben Dickey
Dickey Mushroom Farms | Potts Camp, Mississippi
“It feels like the right thing to do, to get out of the rat race, and to do something that you enjoy doing and that is good for the future, too.”
The Dickeys’ farm lies off the beaten path past lush, expansive meadows that catch the magic of dusk like the romance of northern Mississippi. However, the Dickeys aren’t farming outside. They work in white coats in their laboratory transferring spore samples from test tubes to Petri dishes with scalpels, nothing a traditional farmer would imagine doing. But the Dickeys are growing mushrooms, and not the funny kind — they’re serious about the medicinal quality of their product.
“It’s really just coming around now to where people are starting to be familiar with healing properties of mushrooms,” Ben says, “It’s on Doctor Oz all the time, ‘Mushrooms are great for you, eat different types of mushrooms.’” Nichole adds, “It’s one of the new super foods.”
The study of mushrooms’ healing properties has recently increased in popularity in The United States, though they have been highly regarded in Asian medicine for years. They are known to help fight cancer and are used in bio-remediation projects to clean up toxic waste sites.
While walking through the woods at Ben’s family’s farm, they found mushrooms growing in the wild. At the time, Ben was working as a pastry chef. He showed a fellow chef his find and he mentioned they were worth a lot of money. That got Ben thinking. The two began cultivating mushrooms and heirloom vegetables at their home in midtown Memphis and quickly outgrew their space.
At the end of 2011, the two decided to take the plunge into cultivating mushrooms for a living at Ben’s family farm. They attended a seminar by the leading mycologist Paul Stamets and realized they could do it. Last March, they built their lab and began their venture. Now, they produce around 20 pounds per week and run workshops teaching others how to cultivate mushrooms at home. Their one or two hour workshop titled “Fundamentals of Fungi” teaches the health benefits, different growing methods and micro-restoration techniques of mushrooms.
The Dickeys sell medicinal mushroom tea, sundried mushroom powders and fresh shiitakes, morels, pioppinos, lion’s heads, and five varieties of oyster mushrooms at the Cooper-Young Farmers Market and to a few restaurants in Oxford and Memphis. They will begin selling at the downtown Memphis Farmers Market in April.