Dr. Cindy Ayers-Elliott will be the first to tell you that the real story of Foot Print Farms is not about her, even though it is her brainchild and has taken root and thrived thanks to her innovative thinking and careful stewardship. The original concept was simple. She had a 68-acre plot of land in the middle of the City of Jackson, surrounded by neighborhoods starving for fresh, nutritious food and hope for their economic future.
When the Mississippi native returned to Jackson after 9-11, she was looking for a new direction. She wanted to be a part of something where she could make a difference and she didn’t have to look any further than her state’s alarming health statistics to find a mission. Everywhere she turned there were reports of staggering rates of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
“The problem was already identified,” explains Ayers-Elliott. “It didn’t take research to see that too many Mississippians were seriously unhealthy.”
Many of the state’s greatest health challenges could be directly traced to poor diet, but even more startling to Ayers-Elliott was that in a place with some of the most fertile soil in the world, there were people, especially those from disadvantaged neighborhoods, who lacked access to fresh, affordable food.
It turned out, Ayers-Elliott had been preparing to take on this challenge her entire adult life. She had graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a BA degree in business administration and a master’s degree in urban planning and finance. She had held jobs as an investment banker in San Francisco, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and New York City. She had served as president and chief executive officer of the Delta Foundation, a community and economic development non-profit focused on helping small businesses and farmers in the Mississippi Delta. She also had earned a Doctorate in urban higher education from Jackson State University. And, she had purchased a 68-acre homestead in 1994 as an investment for the future. She had the education, the experience and the raw materials (the land) to carve out a new chapter of her life that would directly address the needs around her.
Having worked with small farmers in the Mississippi Delta, Ayers-Elliott was aware of some of the incredible resources that are available to everyone, from backyard or back porch gardeners, to big operators who farm large acreages. She turned to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and to Alcorn State University and Mississippi State University to find out everything she could about how to transform her 68 acres into an efficient, sustainable working farm. And, Foot Print Farms was born, but that’s where the real story begins…
Ayers-Elliott had several goals in mind as she worked to get her farming operation going: 1) She wanted to create a business that could sustain her economic needs; 2) She wanted to grow food that she could make available to people living in the food deserts around her; and 3) she wanted to develop a model for small farming that involved the community, creating jobs and offering opportunities for people to learn how to grow their own food, and also grow a sense of their own potential.
With the help of people like Dr. William (Bill) Evans, associate research professor in vegetable crops and soil fertility with MSU, Howard Ashford, A. Shae Williams and Ayers-Elliott’s sons, Foot Print Farms started with a few raised beds of herbs and vegetables, and evolved to the modern farming operation it is today. Some of the keys to Ayers-Elliott’s success are her embrace of the latest technology, her use of the resources available and the diversity of her production, which now includes row crops, high tunnel green houses, and aeroponic gardening – producing a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs, as well as goats and chickens. About 85 percent of improvements to the farm were made possible by NRCS subsidy programs for small urban and rural farmers. For example, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) helped her install cross-fencing and two watering facilities.
These days, Foot Print Farms is making fresh, naturally grown food and education about healthy eating available in many underserved Jackson neighborhoods, by partnering with churches, schools, foundations and community organizations. It is fostering skills and knowledge about growing, tending and marketing food products by reaching out to community members who become willing partners by giving of their time and sweat equity to make the farm successful. In return, they can earn their own plots of land to grow their own crops.
“The co-op model works because we share the work and rewards,” notes Ayers-Elliott. “When folks from the community get involved, they are learning about growing their own food, but they are also learning that it can be a source of income to improve their economic status and prospects for the future.”
“A perfect example is the Wingfield High School football team,” Ayers-Elliott continues. “When coach Jeff Gibson came to me several years ago to ask for a donation to their football program that was in sore need of financial help, instead of writing a check, I offered players a chance to earn the money for equipment and other items by working on the farm and growing their own crop of watermelons. Each player committed to working five hours a week, and by the end of the summer they had produced 1000 melons and the proceeds from their sales, helped to buy weights, T-shirts, sweat suits and pregame meals. But the lessons they learned about the rewards of hard work and working together to accomplish something were even more valuable products of their efforts.”
It turns out the Wingfield team’s success on the farm carried over to other aspects of their lives, resulting in improved academics, lower dropout rates, and less temptation to get involved in the drugs, gangs and crime that plagued some of their neighborhoods. Today, several members of that original team are in college majoring in agriculture or plant science and are looking forward to careers in farming.
Foot Print Farms also has proven to be a great outlet for others like Chrisshawn Alexander, a mom who lives nearby and is learning about growing healthy food for her family and tapping into a new source of income.
Besides having a presence at the Mississippi Farmer’s Market and other locations around Central Mississippi, Foot Print Farms is also certified as a farmers’ market, which means people can use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Electronic Benefit Transfer cards on the farm to buy fresh produce.
“Foot Print Farms is a true cooperative effort in that we plant together, we harvest together and we market our products together, while each maintaining our individual plots and reaping the financial rewards,” Ayers-Elliott explains. “It’s a model that can easily be duplicated in other places and I’m looking forward to seeing some of our current partners do just that – to take what they have learned here and spin it off to make a difference in other communities.”
This is only the beginning for Foot Print Farms. Dr. Ayers-Elliott is now looking toward developing an agritourism aspect to the farm, where visitors can experience farm life, learn new skills and take with them seeds of inspiration they can sow in their own communities when they return home.
Publisher’s Note: As I interviewed Dr. Ayers-Elliott I was reminded of the Bible story of the loaves and fishes and how they fed the five-thousand. It just goes to show that with faith and cooperation we can accomplish great things – maybe even solve Mississippi’s health woes – one garden plot or planter box at a time.