“Not today,” said Mr. Leonard Keyes as he and Dr. John Stanley surveyed the plot of land on Keyes’ farm in Mize, Mississippi. “Too dry.” Stanley stood beside him holding a tray of squash transplants and nodding his head in agreement.
Earlier that morning, Stanley, sourcing manager for Up in Farms Food Hub, had visited the farm of Mr. James Gregory about 30 miles down the road in Florence. He’d brought Gregory some of the same transplants—some nice-looking seedlings from Standing Pine Nursery in Byram. John had stood beside Gregory, too, and surveyed that plot of land. “Not today,” said Gregory. “Too wet!”
Keyes and Gregory are part of a community of African-American farmers in Mississippi who have had full lives and careers outside of farming but never lost touch with the land. Growing food better than anyone else is what gets Gregory—a Vietnam War veteran—up every morning. “This is my life. It’s my passion. No one grows a better watermelon than James Gregory!”
But Stanley reflects on the conundrum these farmers face. “They are resilient. And they grow amazing produce. But they are constrained by their current inability to manage the water on their land. That constraint disrupts the timing, quality and quantity of their harvest, making it very difficult for them to fill consistent commercial contracts.”
That’s where Jackson-based Up in Farms comes in. It’s the first business to emerge from Soul City Hospitality, started in 2014 by entrepreneurs, restauranteurs and chefs to develop and support businesses that lead to Mississippi having a resilient and sustainable local food system—one that contributes to the health and wealth of all Mississippians.
Gregory and Keyes are just two of the farmers Up in Farms is working with who face similar irrigation and drainage issues. The harvest-timing issues also pose a challenge for the hub as it tries to fulfill orders placed by a group of local grocery stores who are supporting the hub’s fall growing plan.
Vowell’s Marketplace, McDade’s Marketplace, Ramey’s Grocery and Piggly Wiggly are excited to support their local producers, but stressed the need for consistency in the timing and quality of the orders. “We want to help redevelop the communities our stores serve,” says Todd Vowell, president of Vowell’s Marketplace, “and we depend on Up in Farms Food Hub to get local product at the price and the quality that our customers expect and deserve.”
With these concerns in mind, Up in Farms approached USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) about irrigation and drainage improvements for 23 of its farmers. Walter Jackson, a conservation agronomist for NRCS in Mississippi said, “It’s not just about the water wells and irrigation; the fundamental opportunity for these farmers really lies in good soil management—which can simultaneously reduce the need for irrigation and protect against drought.”
Now Up in Farms and NRCS are working together on a proposed suite of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a voluntary program that helps private landowners plan and implement conservation practices that improve soil, water, plant, animal, air and related natural resources on agricultural land and non-industrial private forestland. “We recognize the quality of these smaller scale producers,” says NRCS State Conservationist for Mississippi Kurt Readus. “They’ve been terrific stewards of their own land for decades. Including them in our EQIP program will help them address some significant resource concerns with respect to water quantity and sedimentation—while also helping them reach their productivity potential.”
This kind of collaboration is exactly what Jacqueline Davis-Slay, director of public and private partnerships for NRCS, had in mind when she helped forge a cooperative agreement with Soul City Hospitality—the parent company of Up in Farms Food Hub.
Soul City is a Value Chain Coordinator in the USDA Food LINC program, helping strengthen and grow local and regional food supply chains for both economic and social good. They literally connect farms to tables by working with producers, transportation, packaging, processing, storage and retailers.
“We saw an opportunity working with them to connect the dots on the ground between environmental and economic sustainability. Through this partnership, we’re using conservation stewardship to promote economic growth in some rural communities that truly need it,” said Slay.
David Watkins, Jr. represents Soul City in the Food LINC program. He said, “Our primary goal is to help producers in economically distressed areas earn a living growing food at a price the people in that community can afford. But the farmers can’t do it alone. That’s why it’s so exciting to see government agencies, academic institutions and local buyers come together to help solve this.”
Watkins added that Mississippi State University’s Truck Crops Experiment Station in Crystal Springs is also playing a vital role in this fall’s growing program. “We had eight crops in our fall suite, until MSU came to us with a proposal for a broccoli trial,” Watkins said. “Members of the Mileston Cooperative took the transplants. Hopefully after this trial, we will know enough about growing broccoli here for it to be a centerpiece of next season’s suite of crops.”
More information about the broccoli trial is available in a short YouTube video titled Up in Farms Food Hub, Fall 2016 Broccoli trail.