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Girls Inc. farm in Memphis offers mix of jobs, skills

A week ago, Mattie Reese, 17, was afraid of ladybugs, and frankly, not all that crazy about the outdoors.

Tuesday, as morning temperatures edged up to 90, she was building her first Florida Weave, a simple lattice to hold up a summer’s worth of production already in flower or fruit at the Girls Inc. Youth Farm off Dellwood in Frayser.

“The ladybugs we put out last week are still over there on the plants,” Reese said, as the faintest of June breezes floated over the humidity. “Everything ties in with everything. I am here helping the plants; they are helping me. We are helping the bugs; the bugs are helping the plants.”

Saturday, Reese and the five other teenage girls working the 9.5-acre farm will be at the Memphis Farmers Market — next to the coffee booth at the front — selling their organic salad greens and possibly the broccoli and peppers coming in with the summer heat.

But those decisions will be up to them.

“Instead of getting a checklist of what we need to take to the market, they are using this walk to see what everything looks like and figure out when you know if it’s ready,” said Girls Inc. staffer Karen Strachan, as girls in straw hats and T-shirts that say “I am strong. I am smart. I am bold and I run this business” walked the rows with farm manager Miles Tamboli.

“We’re giving them guidance and support and providing the mentoring opportunity, but they, in many ways, are deciding the direction we go each week,” she said.

The idea is teach organic farming, entrepreneurship and small business skills to the hand-picked six, and over five years, scale the program to 20 girls. By that time, Tamboli, 26, expects the farm will be 80 percent self-sustaining through its market and restaurant sales.

“The girls will be building up our market. It is a lot of responsibility, but really we are putting the tools in their hands and letting them figure it out. They are definitely smart enough,” he said.

Girls Inc. is hoping to buck some historical trends in Memphis, where female business owners account for 32 percent of the businesses but generate just over 2 percent of sales.

“We’re behind in Memphis,” said Tamboli, who as a public health major at Tulane University, interned at a then-New Orleans startup called Grow Dat Youth Farm.

“I totally stole their idea,” he says, smiling.

Girls Inc. pays $7.25 an hour for 34 hours of work a week, including afternoon classes in entrepreneurship. The work day starts at 8 a.m. with yoga stretches on a plastic mat. When school starts, the work will shift to Saturdays.

“I am so proud and excited about it,” said president and CEO Lisa Moore. “Frayser has embraced it. Not a day goes by where somebody doesn’t pull over and ask, ‘What is going on here?’ They are happy that something positive is happening on that corner.”

In 2003, the Assisi Foundation donated the land to Girls Inc. for a future headquarters.

“It’s so funny,” Moore said, “because in the drawings of the site, the garden is just a tiny postage stamp.”

Girls Inc. raised $3,000 to $5,000 through IOBY (In Our Back Yard), a crowdsourcing venture with offices on South Main. It also has grant applications out that could produce another $60,000. An anonymous donor is matching gifts up to $115,000. But the nonprofit is focused on produce sales. Last week’s market — the girls’ first — brought in $160.

“Everybody was fully engaged for the whole time. We started at 7 a.m.,” Tamboli said. “I know some of the girls have got to be shy, but none of them act like they are shy. They are on a mission. They very much understand that they are responsible for bringing in the money that funds their paycheck.”

Still, the work is difficult. The grass around the farm is thick with ticks. The bathroom is a one-stall portable. Water for drinking and everything else comes from a spigot near an empty shipping container that is storage shed and rain shelter.

“What do we plant to cover the ground (and protect against erosion),” Tamboli asked the girls.

It was quiet except for the birds until one girl remembered the clover she had seen on the morning walk and the bees it attracted.

“We aren’t going to eat the clover, so why plant it,” Tamboli asked.

“Because it attracts the good bugs that eat the bad bugs, and it also attracts bees,” came a quiet voice from the back.

Originally published in the June 11, 2015 Commercial Appeal.

Posted by Linden Wilson at 9:41 AM