When I first moved to Mobile two of my main goals were to find a place to recycle and a place to compost. Someone gave me the name of Victory Teaching Farm to inquire about composting and I was immediately intrigued. I love everything that Tarrant and Cathy are doing at this budding non-profit. They have the passion, drive, ingenuity and the PERFECT location minutes away from thriving downtown Mobile to create some big waves in terms of local and sustainable farming…just read their vision for where they see this going…how could you say no to that? Doesn’t it make you want to stand on a chair and say YES! That HAS to happen!! Well, I sure hope it does because that is what giving a damn is all about. Thank you, Tarrant and Cathy for doing what you do and working day in and day out (literally) to make this a reality for yourselves and your community.
Tell me about the women behind Victory Teaching Farm and how the idea was conceived and then born?
[Cathy and I] met years ago while working for the same nonprofit as early childhood trainers and eventually both changed paths but by chance ended up at the same community center. Cathy was program director for the childcare program and I was child and adult care food program monitor for Mobile and Washington County. The nonprofit was already in existence, something I had worked on during my transition and in our spare time outside of our community center duties we were working on developing a life skills program surrounding self-sufficiency and overall health and well-being. Our office overlooked a vacant green space at the community center and one day while discussing the types of programs we needed in place, the idea of putting a community garden in that spot came up and the next thing we know we are holding a ground breaking for our first garden site.
We started reaching out to potential partners that could help us expand our idea community-wide and our first stop, what we thought was the most obvious partner, was Bay Area Food Bank, now Feeding the Gulf Coast. The director was extremely open to the collaboration and once again the next thing we know we are breaking ground on a garden at the food bank. We wrote a few collaborative grants and started to develop programming to begin expansion into the community but they ultimately decided to continue the effort on their own. This was a turning point for us and we knew we had to make the decision to go it alone. Someone recently shared their insight on why a “no” is sometimes great! This is one of the many “NO’s” that today we are so thankful for, because Victory Teaching Farm is now a reality and we wouldn’t be here if it were not for all of the “NO’s” we had to endure to get here.
What provided the inspiration that made you feel that taking on this non-profit was something you had to do?
I started working for a nonprofit at 19, and after close to 15 years there was nowhere left to go in the organization and I thought “this can’t be it, I have to do more and be more”. I returned to school and took on the organizational leadership program at Spring Hill College and used this as my catalyst to begin establishing my own 501 (c) (3). The organization was born and I got to work seeking potential colleagues. Cathy is the only one who stayed for the long haul and we are both grateful she did.
What opposition have you faced?
Many, many “NO’s”. No to space, no to funding, no to partnerships. We feel that all of this opposition is because people still don’t fully understand what we are and what we are trying to accomplish. We are a new concept for our community. There are many gardens but we are the only urban teaching farm in South Alabama.
How do you secure funding?
We are still working very hard to secure enough funding to cover administrative costs and hopefully begin to build our team beyond Cathy and myself. We write grants and have an annual fundraiser, “the down to earth FARMRAISER” which this year was our first and we were successful with the event, but our goal is to be bigger and better every year. We want to become completely self-sustaining with the operations of the farm. Grants are great but very competitive and a risky method to ensure you can continue operations. The produce we grow is sold in community markets at the farm, open to anyone but with a target of the surrounding neighborhood which is a USDA designated food desert. Educational field trips are fee-based. This allows us to have a revenue stream that supports our two primary functions at the farm, and that is education and food production. Our goal is to always be able to provide our programs at the farm and utilize grants for special projects and outreach community wide.
What is important about local, community farming? Why do you think it’s something a city like Mobile needs?
Knowing where and how the food we eat is being grown and being able to purchase it freshly harvested near to where we live or work is important for a city like Mobile that is trying to grow and change for the health, betterment, and wellbeing of its citizens. Not only is locally and organically grown food good for our health, but the environmental impact we could see from educating the public on ways to eliminate fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides is huge. Then there is the economic impact. The market for fresh, local and organic food is there, the supply is not. We want to help connect those dots and help to create a local food system in Mobile.
Imagine the number of people who, by just growing food, could support their families. Imagine if all of our local restaurants were able to source almost everything locally, or there is a market in everyone’s neighborhood. Imagine our children eating school lunches that have been sourced local and are free of chemicals. It is possible and the potential economic impact has not yet even been realized. We hope to help this become a reality.
How do you already see it building community?
The neighbors living around the farm welcomed us with open arms. One of the neighbors is on our board of directors and works directly with us in engaging youth from the neighborhood in our programs through volunteerism. The neighbors buy produce from us when we hold markets and regularly stop by just to see what’s growing, many times meeting other neighbors in the process. Food is one thing everyone has in common and everyone we meet has a story about grandparents growing food, or trying a small garden in their own backyard, or even favorite things to cook. What we eat is key to our health and everyone wants health so there is great interest when someone finds out about Victory and our mission. People want to be involved and we first-hand witness people from all walks of life, varying socio economic levels, ethnic and religious backgrounds, and even different generations, connect when they are at the farm. Food is a connector and all of our differences are just that and nothing more which is such a great feeling to have in your work and an even greater thing for our community.
I love the outdoor classroom on the property. What is your main focus when you are teaching through and/or about the farm?
The entire farm is a natural hands on classroom but we start everyone’s visit to the farm, whether a preschool child or a senior citizen, with the fundamentals of why we are here doing what we are doing. We want people to walk away knowing how important and yet how easy it is to grow our own food. We focus on sustainability and why how we grow our food impacts our health and the health of the environment. We discuss food deserts and the importance of a local food system and how it can impact entire communities and the economy.
What are you plans and goals to make the farm fully sustainable?
Sustainability for Victory Teaching Farm means many things. Knowing that many nonprofits lose programs or cease to even exist because their existence depends on the grants they receive, we did not want this to be the reality for Victory. By creating revenue streams that are attached to our programming we can continue to fund the work we do through the work we do! Being sustainable also means the primary resources we need such as soil, seeds, water, and power come from natural renewable resources. We currently compost to create our soil and are working towards seed saving to continue food production season after season, rain barrels for water and solar and wind power for our electrical needs. We will continue to seek grants, donations and fundraise to do special projects throughout the community but never will worry that the farm will cease to exist.
If money was no object, what vision would you imagine for the future of Victory Teaching Farm?
We are working every day toward this vision and little by little we expect to accomplish our goal. Although, having the funds to carry it out in one full sweep would be amazing for our community. Our vision for Victory Teaching Farm is to be THE full seed-to-plate one stop shop education center and incubator, completely accessible to anyone in the community regardless of age or ability. Anyone could come to the farm and learn how to grow food sustainably, cook, preserve and can food. The kitchen would serve as an education center but also as an incubator for those wanting to pursue the many avenues in the food industry, whether through products that they market and sell, or culinary experience to work in food service industry. We will add chickens, bees and hopefully other farm animals and the farm will continue to produce as much food as possible for the space and take the Maysville community off the map as a designated food desert. AND…. Every child in Mobile county will have been to the farm and now have an understanding of the importance of what we do and how.
What can other people who give a damn about Victory Teaching Farm do or how can they get involved to help you achieve your goals?
Invest in the future of local food through financial support, volunteerism and essentially just spreading the word about Mobile’s only urban teaching farm.
Share a fun story!
When people say they didn’t know we were there or have never been to Victory we can tell them, “Even Elvis has been to Victory Teaching Farm”. We get requests for service projects and this was one of the most unique. “SHE”, in her white sequin jumpsuit and pork chop sideburns, volunteered and planted with us as part of a national day of volunteerism. Being able to say that Elvis has worked at the farm especially for those “ELVIS Lives” believers is such a fun thing and definitely a conversation starter!