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Fallow to Fertile

A city farm takes shape in Binghamton.

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Tucked away at the end of Wills Street in Binghamton, Urban Farms is eradicating one of Memphis' food deserts from the inside out. With a planning grant from the Kresge Foundation and a generous operational grant from a private donor, the Christ Community Health Center and Binghamton Development Corporation teamed up to form Urban Farms — a source for fresh produce and job training in one of the city's more underserved neighborhoods.

"Three months ago, it looked like this," says Urban Farms manager Mary Phillips, pointing to the overgrown deciduous forest flanking the three-acre plot. Now the farm is well on its way to fruition and, if the City Council approves, will start selling its harvest at a farmers market near Sam Cooper and Tillman in August.

"We want this to be a small business, with fish and microgreens for a sustainable business model," says Nathan Cook of the CCHC.

"We already have restaurants very excited about buying our wheatgrass, arugula, mesclun, sunflower greens, bean sprouts, and all kinds of very delicious, very nutritious microgreens," Phillips adds.

Urban Farms will hire three or four people from the community to work on the farm for a year and learn basic job skills with the intention of being placed in a nursery or greenhouse. Other community members can volunteer in the garden or use raised beds outside the farm for their own gardens. "We'd like to use a 'hub-and-spoke' model with Urban Farms as a learning and resource center, so that people can go out and start their own neighborhood gardens," Cook says.

While Phillips attended a farm school and is an apprentice at Peace Bee Farm in Arkansas, she says the project's organizers have relied on the expertise of the UT Ag Extension, Master Gardeners around the Mid-South, and Grow Memphis. With their help, the land in Binghamton has been meticulously plotted and primed for efficiency and sustainability. Cowpeas have been planted to help prevent erosion. A vermicomposting system uses earthworms to convert food scraps into nutrient-rich soil. Eventually, they hope to have a chicken tractor — a movable coop in which chickens feed off of weeds and insects and then fertilize the land.

Not far from the rows of peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, crookneck squash, heirloom lima beans, and watermelon sits a hoop house. Inside is an aquaculture tank with dozens of tiny tilapia and a hydroponic watercress tray suspended over the tank. This hybrid system (known as aquaponics) circulates water from the fish tank into the watercress tray, where watercress and pebbles clean out nitrogen and other waste from the fish. The water is then funneled back into the tank.

"My biggest concern right now is sustainability and making a sustainable agricultural and environmental future for my community," Phillips says. "We've done a lot already. We've put in a rainwater cistern here, and we're putting swales in to capture the rainwater. Water conservation is a big deal."

Phillips has big dreams for the farm: goats, berry patches, beehives. But for now, everyone is marveling at how far the farm has come in only three months.

Visit urbanfarmsmemphis.org or call

257-9627 for more information.

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