MEMPHIS (AP) — As the first days of spring began to unfold, 17-year-old Jetia Porter kneeled between rows of collards and lettuce, planted among two acres of farmland in her North Memphis neighborhood of Frayser.
A participant in the Girls Inc. Youth Farm program, Porter and a handful of other girls were at the farm to harvest vegetables they had planted early in the year, protected from the elements by a tarp structure known as a “caterpillar house.” Planting has since begun across the farm’s 26 outdoor plots.
Working her way down a row, with a big red bucket and an arm full of rubber bands, Porter clipped and gathered 10 leafy stalks at a time. “They’re beautiful,” she said. “I love picking collards.”
Before the greens could be sold the following day, Porter explained, “You have to rinse them, put them in the spinner and then we’ll take them to the farmers market.”
The girls’ booth at the Memphis Farmers Market may be the most visible aspect of the farm program, said Sylvia Martinez, a Girls Inc. alumna and vice president of the organization’s Memphis programs. But it’s not the most important, said Martinez.
“The selling of the product is the simplest component,” Martinez said, because the program is not intent on producing women in sales, but on giving “youth a voice in a playground where they can learn how to be entrepreneurs, leaders and advocates.”
The Girls Inc. Youth Farm also maintains a commitment to serving the people of Frayser, where in recent years, program participants and Girls Inc. leadership have fought against now-shelved plans to create a landfill in Frayser between their organic farm and the Whitney Achievement Elementary School.
These days, they can be found in the neighborhood at the Frayser Exchange Club, where girls from the program sell their produce, during lunch time. The accessibility of fresh produce makes a big difference to many residents, said Frayser Exchange Club president E. Shelly Rice. “It just means so much to the Frayser Exchange and to the community,” he said.
Porter, one of the youth farmers from Frayser, said the appreciation goes both ways. “I love my community. I love the people in it and how they support us,” Porter said. “And I’m glad that they do because our community is one of the communities that’s suffering from being a food desert.”
According to Martinez, being immediately accessible to communities that have the hardest time accessing services has been a guiding principle for Girls Inc.
“We need to be able to be a beacon of hope in areas where people are beginning to feel there isn’t any,” said Martinez. She aims to “push the needle” in the numbers of girls the organization serves in Frayser and Raleigh — currently 1 percent of 1,000 girls, Martinez said.
The group is currently recruiting 20 girls for the fifth season of their farm crew program, which pays participants a monthly stipend of $130.
LEARNING LEADERSHIP SKILLS
In their second year in the program, girls can apply for leadership roles on the crew, helping to direct farming, run meetings and operate the business of selling their produce. Girls in leadership roles are paid a $150 stipend a month.
Eight North Memphis schools currently work with Girls Inc. Across Shelby County, the organization works with 33 schools, offering six different programs, serving girls as young as six.
“I like the fact that we all sisters,” 16-year-old Mykala Cartwright said during a break from harvesting at the farm. “We come together every time. We family. We work together and do new stuff and different stuff.”
“It’s teaching us to be responsible,” Cartwright said of the program, “like a better thing than college.”
It is that skills building, conversation and camaraderie, that happens behind the scenes, that embodies the spirit of the program, Martinez said.
Girls meet with business leaders, get advice on checking accounts, run the farm together and lead agriculture workshops among other youth. They also have opportunities to interact with adults and practice public speaking through the program, said Martinez.
After watching the farm grow since its first days, Rice, the Frayser Exchange Club president, said he couldn’t feel more proud of the participants. “It’s unbelievable to see the maturity these young ladies have acquired,” he said.
At the close of a recent day at the farmers market downtown, the girls had sold out of honey, collards and radishes, at a table laden with neatly packaged herbs, greens and plants starts, for people to take home to plant in their own gardens.
Five girls were running the booth, with help from Ernest Trice, a farmer who works with the group to operate two acres of farming on the 9.5-acre lot owned by Girls Inc.
Along with the girls, Trice works with volunteers and other community partners, including the Frayser group Lifeline2Success to operate the farm, from maintaining its irrigation system to keeping the grass cut twice a month.
“Labor is an issue in farming,” he said. “It’s gotta be community-oriented for it to be successful and that’s why all of us are partners to make it work.”
RESTAURANTS JUMP IN
The farm’s success potentially hit a new level recently, Trice said, with a local restaurant expressing interest in sourcing its turnip greens and yellow squash from the farm.
Currently, the Peabody Hotel offers honey from the farm in three locations on its premises, including Chez Philippe, which the hotel describes as “the most opulent dining room in Memphis.”
The Peabody seeks to work with local farmers on principle, but sourcing honey from Girls Inc. was particularly meaningful, said Kelly Brock Earnest, director of marketing. “It’s helping young women and that seemed like a good cause to get behind. They’ve been really great to work with.”
Martinez, the Girls Inc. program director, hopes the progress made in the program’s first five years will soon grow exponentially.
Girls Inc. is now in a capital growth campaign to build a center on its 9-acre site and increase the farm from its current 2.5 acres size to six acres.
“It’s been sweat and blood being able to manage 2.5 acres right. It’s not scaleable for profit purposes,” Martinez said of the farming operation. “It’s scaleable for learning purposes and for experimentation and developing new ideas.”
Physical space, dedicated to girls, correlates to their empowerment, Martinez said.
“There’s no better way to empower a girl than to show them possibilities and help them explore in a safe environment.”
For Porter, who was initially dubious about the program, the room to experiment was key. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be in the sun all day,” she said. “But when I did join the Girls Inc. Youth Farm I enjoyed it. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
“It’s taught me so much,” Porter said. “Like confidence.”