A mere 7 years ago, Frayser, TN received national attention for its high school’s, Frayser High’s, astounding teenage pregnancy rates, with 11% of its student body pregnant at some point during the 2010-2011 school year. Already in a low income neighborhood with 95% of students eligible for free lunches and a high dropout rate, teen girls in the 38127 zip code faced the unique obstacle of navigating both economics and womanhood in a struggling neighborhood. After Shelby County Schools (SCS) subsumed Memphis City Schools, many of the failing schools, including Frayser High, were shut down to preserve SCS’s test scores and retention rates, leaving many local students to travel farther for their education or begin attending the substituting charter schools, which have lower education and teacher certification requirements, admittedly sparking further debate about the efficacy of charter schools that goes beyond the scope of this article. Overall, Frayser teens were doomed to continue living in low socioeconomic classes with little education and few opportunities for advancement. Local teen girls, many soon-to-be mothers, were hit especially hard. Needless to say, hope was scarce.
Even as an adult, regardless of gender, in Frayser, was and continues to be difficult. In an area that typifies urban decay, 38127 residents face problems of unemployment, political disenfranchisement, familial fragmentation, crime, and dated and deteriorating infrastructure and urban landscape. Households live paycheck to paycheck, and access to nutritious food is limited, nearly nonexistent, qualifying the area as a food desert. This is the kind of lifestyle wholly unfamiliar to most of you readers.
Luckily, Frayser has been granted an opportunity not common to many of its counterparts: a girl-run organic farm just around the corner from many of its schools and neighborhoods. Started by Girls Inc. of Memphis in 2015, the Girls Inc. Youth Farm, the only one of its kind in the country, has a crew of nearly 20 local teen girls, growing vegetables and producing honey on site from their 15 beehives sustainably. Alleviating the blight of food deserts, the farm provides fresh produce for the Frayser neighborhood, selling nearly 50% of its yield in 38127 and aiming to soon sell 80% of its yield there. Additionally, the farm is a common space for all residents, who can come visit and even help out as they please. It is a flourishing green space in a falling greyfield. In fact, it is a very physical manifestation of hope.
The true beneficiaries of the farm, however, are the farm crew, the nearly 20 girls from all over Memphis, particularly the Frayser area, who have joined Girls Inc. to change their futures. The farm upholds its mother organization’s aim: to inspire girls to be strong, smart, and bold, preparing them for successful futures by providing opportunitites for improved health, knowledge, and confidence through hands-on, real-world applications. Through organic farming practices, crops sales both locally and at the farmers market, and collaboration with the community and each other, the farm crew embodies strong, smart, and bold in their education of health and nutrition, entrepreneurship, and communication. These girls are changing the face of Frayser. No longer are teen girls doomed to become young mothers and struggle to high school graduation. Now, 38127 girls can aspire to college education and careers typically not seen in the area. By growing a radish and selling it herself, a girl’s worldview can extend far beyond the boundaries of Frayser.
Like all good work, the Youth Farm is not single faceted. It does not only advance the economics of Frayser residents and Girls Inc. girls. It’s part of larger trends in farming: the increase of women in agriculture and a growing investment in sustainable, organic methods. In the past 3 decades, the number of female farmers has tripled, making 30% of today’s farmers women. The Girls Inc. Youth Farm is girl-run; all but one staff member is female, that man being one of the staff farmers who is wholly qualified, separate from his gender, to work and guide the girls. Moreover, the Girls Inc. girls provide the bulk of the womanpower. In fact, the Girls Inc. girls are considered the girls who run it. It is their farm, their space, their work. They are the face of the program on the land and at the market. Farm by farm, the national agriculture workforce is becoming more diversified, and the Youth Farm is a part of that.
Not only is the farm a feminist force; it is also inspiring environmental benefit. Woman-run farms tend to be small, organic, and sustainable, and the Youth Farm is no exception. The girls employ organic practices. Using compost produced on site, cover crops, crop rotation, and biological control methods, the farm can leverage natural systems for soil health and weed and pest control instead of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, thus maintaining a healthy ecosystem and growing good food the way nature intended. In a world dominated by industrial agriculture, monoculture, and cash crops and motivated by financial gain and not good product, every farm, including the Youth Farm, that defies the standards and opts for gentler, more natural approaches is engendering positive change.
All in all, the Girls Inc. Youth Farm is transforming its community, its girls’ futures, and farming itself. It’s doing things right and for all the right reasons. I’m proud to say I’m on its staff, working alongside some strong, smart, and bold girls to grow strong, smart, and bold produce and honey. If you want to support the Girls Inc. Youth Farm, start by checking out the Instagram (@girlsincyouthfarm). Additionally, come meet the farm crew and check out what they’re growing at the Memphis Farmers Market every Saturday from 8AM to 1PM. As a nonprofit organization, Girls Inc. of Memphis will put every dollar they earn from the farm back into the organization to help provide opportunities for girls ages 6 to 18 in Memphis. Any support you’re willing and able to offer, even if its just a follow on Instagram, is greatly appreciated.
Happy eating and happy farming,