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Okrapreneurs

Girls Inc is raising a fresh crop of social entrepreneurs.

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It's a sunny day in Frayser, and 16-year-old Zia Higgins is about to take her first bite of raw okra.

"It's weird," she says, rolling it around in her hand. "It's kind of furry."

She's not wrong. The okra has a funny shape, and the fuzzy texture does not immediately scream "food." But Higgins takes a bite anyway, and pretty soon the other girls follow suit. It's crunchy and surprisingly sweet — and disappearing fast.

"Y'all better stop now," Higgins warns through a mouth full of okra, "or we won't have any left to sell."

Higgins is one of six high school students employed at the Girls Inc. Youth Farm. Over the next year, she will be paid $7.25 per hour to build and run a sustainable food business. Naturally, that means planting, thinning, fertilizing, weeding, and trellising. But it also involves financial planning, marketing to restaurants, and selling produce at the farmers market.

The point, director Miles Tamboli says, is to raise up a generation of social entrepreneurs in North Memphis.

"Opportunities for young, black women in this city have been limited," Tamboli observes. "I want to show them that they have the civic experience, the critical thinking skills, and the discipline they need to do whatever they want with their lives."

Each day begins at 8 a.m., when the girls warm up with a series of yoga stretches. From there, they go on a "farm walk": a trek around the 9.5-acre campus to see what needs doing. Today that means harvesting tomatoes, zucchini, and okra. It also means locating a treacherous hornworm that has been terrorizing the tomato plants.

While they search for the offending caterpillar, the girls sing "My Way" by rapper Fetty Wap.

They're an inspiring bunch: energetic, hard-working, and whip-smart. But Tamboli is right. Many have not been given the opportunities they need to succeed.

"At school, they don't care about us," says Nikeishia Davis, a rising senior at MLK College Preparatory School. "But Mister Miles [Tamboli] cares about us. I learned more here in two months than I learn in a whole semester at school."

The Girls Inc. Youth Farm came into being through a series of happy accidents. The first is the land, which was gifted to Girls, Inc. by the Assisi Foundation in 2003. The plan was to build a new headquarters, but the funding fell through.

The second happenstance is Tamboli himself. He graduated from Tulane with a degree in public health, then interned at an organic youth farm in New Orleans. The experience, he says, was transformative, and he dreamed of recreating it in Memphis, his hometown.

"I saw a creative solution to so many social ills," remembers Tamboli. "It was not about pamphlets or awareness campaigns. It was about producing something real. Growing food with young people has an impact on so many different parts of their lives."

Back in Frayser, Destiny Woody has spotted the hornworm. It's three inches long and plump, about the size of a middle finger, but it's nearly impossible to spot, on account of being the exact same shade of green as the tomato plants. At Tamboli's urging, Woody snips it in half with a pair of garden shears, and a bunch of green goop squirts out. "Ew!" the farmers scream.

Over the next five years, Tamboli says he wants to make Girls Inc. Youth Farm self-sustaining. In the long run, he'd also like to sell 80 percent of his produce within Frayser.

"We want to feed everybody," he says. "Not just 20,000 Midtowners who will pay $5 for a pound of tomatoes."

It isn't going to be easy. Transforming this land, which lay fallow for 20 years, will involve countless hours of hard work in scorching heat. It also means working side-by-side with millions of insects, including 500,000 honeybees from the farm's nine hives.

But the biggest transformation here isn't agricultural — it's in the lives of these young women. Having been planted and watered, they are now beginning to bloom.

"I'm out there at the farmers market, stocking, doing inventory," Nikeishia Davis says. "And I'm thinking, one day, I'm gonna be my own boss."

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