Pay Dirt 

Academy teaches people how to be urban farmers.

As missionaries in Mexico for 23 years, Bryce and Noreen King may have gotten used to a life spent miles from home. But now the couple is planning to put down some roots — literally.

Bryce and Noreen are students in the new Roots Memphis Farm Academy, a course to teach ordinary people how to operate a profitable farming business on a plot of vacant or blighted land in the city.

"We want food independence, and we want a sustainable small business," Bryce, chaplain of Su Casa Family Ministries, told the class of eight students recently.

The academy, which launched on July 1st, features eight months of weekly classes on everything from soil fertility and sourcing farm supplies to marketing and sales. Last week's class featured guest speaker Nathaniel Owen from nonprofit micro-lender Accion, who gave a lecture on credit scores and what banks look for when they give out small business loans.

click to enlarge Mowing the grass at Roots Memphis Farm Academy.
  • Mowing the grass at Roots Memphis Farm Academy.

"So many people go into farming because they like to grow things, not because they like to balance checkbooks. Half of our course is dedicated to the business aspect," said Mary Phillips, co-founder of Roots Memphis Farm Academy.

Phillips has been involved in various urban farming and community gardening projects locally for years, including a stint with Urban Farms in Binghampton. Now she runs an educational urban farm in Whitehaven under the Roots Memphis name.

Phillips and co-founder Wes Riddle, a local attorney with an interest in sustainable economics and development, got the idea for the farm academy while brainstorming ways that people can start sustainable businesses that support a local food economy and utilize vacant land.

"Memphis has all this vacant land and an underemployed workforce. Plus, this area has an agricultural history," Phillips said.

"It's about local economy building. We are teaching people how to be small business owners," Riddle said. "We are supplying the resources they need to get started. We are helping them reduce costs and barriers to entry."

Students attend classes every Wednesday night through February at First Congregational Church in Midtown. Then they'll start the incubation period in which they're given a quarter-acre parcel of land at Bobby Lanier Farm Park in Germantown.

"They have to run it like a business. They'll need a business plan, and they have to meet certain benchmarks. They have three years to complete two successful seasons managing their business," Phillips said.

If the student succeeds at the Farm Park, Roots Memphis will connect him or her with a parcel of underutilized vacant land from the Shelby County Land Bank or land donated by private owners. From that point, they're on their own as urban farmers.

"People are unsure about the economy. They don't know what the job prospects are going to look like in a few years. Now, they can take matters into their own hands," Phillips said.

The students currently enrolled come from all walks of life, and many of them have little or no farming experience. Some are seeking a career change. Others, like divinity school student Tony Coleman, are hoping to use farming to augment their future plans. Coleman hopes to found a religious, self-sufficient "intentional community" one day, and farming one's own food will play a role.

The academy is full for the first round of classes, but Phillips said they're already getting applicants for the next round. The program costs $1,800 per student, but family members of a student may join for an additional $200. Applications are available at rootsmemphis.org.

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