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Sustainable Farming Takes Root in Memphis

The following is a feature from our Memphis Crossroads digital magazine. Click here to view the entire issue.

When a sustainable economic development expert and a sustainable agriculture expert put their heads together to brainstorm ways to address some of the city’s needs, great ideas are bound to take root.

That’s exactly what happened when Wes Riddle and Mary Phillips Riddle joined forces (in more ways than one; they’re now married) to discuss ways to cultivate clean, ethical food while also cultivating entrepreneurs and, in turn, nurture the local economy.

The result was Roots Memphis, a nonprofit organization that combines a sustainable farming academy with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, in which the public can purchase a membership that supports the farmers while giving them a weekly harvest share in return. Now in its third year, the organization is seeing significant success in its mission to foster budding farmers while providing clean, healthy food grown in Memphis, by Memphians, for Memphians.

“I think the reason we’re here and still standing is we got two things correct in the beginning,” Wes Riddle said. “The first thing is we understood that there aren’t enough sustainable farmers in our region to meet consumer demand in the changing food landscape.”

That landscape consists of more educated, sophisticated consumers with a keen interest in the farming and handling practices of the food they buy, as well as in its overall social impact.

“The second thing is if we’re going to have farmers here, there needs to be a new way of going about it,” he said. “There needs to be a process and an institution with the goal of creating these new farmers for a new economy and a cleaner, ethical food movement.”

Co-founder Mary Phillips Riddle, who established the original Roots Memphis urban farm and helped establish Green Leaf Learning Farm at KnowledgeQuest in South Memphis, balances that policy perspective with her experience in making an economic and social impact through food.

“We started looking at farming not only through the lens of putting more food in the city, but also as growing entrepreneurs in the city in order to have an impact on the economy,” she said. “And that’s the really exciting thing for me about what I do. I get to talk about farming not just as ‘Hey we’re growing these vegetables for the market or food pantry’ but also as ‘Hey, I’m helping these people become entrepreneurs, and these entrepreneurs are going to go on to have their own businesses where they’re hiring other Memphians’ and I can start looking at the ripple effect going out from there.”

As such, Wes Riddle describes Roots Memphis as a triple-bottom-line business, with payoffs in environmental, social and economic sustainability. The farming – which was boosted by a move to Shelby Farms Park Conservancy last year – is on a smaller scale, using practices that are more environmentally responsible and restorative than traditional farms.

At the Roots Memphis Farm Academy, classes begin each July. Students spend the first five months in a classroom setting learning the basics of sustainable agriculture theory and practice, as well as small farm business entrepreneurship. They develop an approved workable business plan before moving on to the academy’s incubation phase, during which they each manage a quarter-acre plot of land to produce commercially available crops. The third phase, still in the works and which none of the students have reached yet, will include assistance with accessing their own land, along with start-up capital and ongoing technical assistance. 

Riddle credits the Chamber’s young professional’s council, SoundCheck, with providing inspiration, conversations and connections that play a strong role in making Roots Memphis a success. 

“When the Chamber introduced the SoundCheck program for young professionals, it really spoke to us because we are a program that is really interested in issues that are particularly important to millennials,” he said. “The opportunity to connect with other young professionals and young entrepreneurs in Memphis was something that really aligned with us. We wanted to be a part of that conversation and we wanted to plug in to that community. SoundCheck events are one of the few off-farm things that we consistently prioritize and make time for.” 

At the end of the day, he said, it’s all about making the city a better place. 

“Our business was founded for a lot of reasons, but one of those reasons was a deep love for this city and the desire to make it stronger and more sustainable and bring more prosperity.”

Academy student Lauren Farr of East Memphis is just one of the participants who’s reaping knowledge and benefits from the program. A full-time paramedic with the City of Memphis Fire Department, she has dreams of one day farming full-time on some land she and her husband own just east of the city.

“I’ve always wanted to farm, but I don’t come from a farming family and I had no idea how to even get started. Roots Memphis has taught me so much,” said Farr, who – now in the incubation phase of the program – often gets up at 4 a.m. to prepare meals for her kids, arrives to work at her farm plot around 5 a.m., then leaves at 7:30 a.m. to work at her full-time job. It’s hard work, she said, but well worth it.

“It’s a great experience. Many of my friends and family have bought CSA subscriptions and they’re also so excited. They say it’s the best produce they’ve ever tasted and I tell them, ‘Well, it just came out of the ground a few hours ago!’”

For information on how to become a Roots Memphis Academy student, donor or CSA member, visit

Story by: Erinn Figg
Photo by: Troy Glasgow

Posted: 9/8/2015 7:30:00 AM | with 0 comments
Filed under: Academy, Business, Crossroads, Farming, Inside, Memphis, New, Roots, Small, SoundCheck, Sustainable, the

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The latest news from the Greater Memphis Chamber. For more information, contact Director of Communications Christina Meek at (901) 543-3504 ( or Communications Specialist Jenny C. Fish at (901) 543-3558 (