By Brenda Williams

Growing up on her family farm in Glimp, Tennessee, Debra Lockard helped with planting, harvesting and trips to the Scott Street Market in the Binghamton neighborhood of Memphis. The market is gone, but Debra’s love for farming is still going strong, and she can still be found on the farm planting, harvesting and selling her produce to farmers markets. But only being able to sell at farmers markets limited the opportunities to expand her family’s farm and make it a financially sustainable business for generations to come.

Debra recently started selling her sweet potatoes, red potatoes, bitter melons, purple hull peas, okra, cucumbers, squash, banana and jalapeno peppers, herbs and tomatoes to the Shelby County School District in Memphis, restaurants, grocery stores, and buyers she can depend on to buy large quantities of what she grows. But to be able to sell to places like to schools and grocery stores, she had to become GAP certified by the USDA.

Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP, was put into place by the USDA in 2002. It’s a voluntary audit that verifies produce is being handled to reduce the chance of food-borne illnesses that affect some 48 million Americans every year. It is required by most grocery stores, food distributors, schools and hospitals. A binder full of documentation, plus a farm visit, is required to have certification — a significant undertaking for a small scale farmer.

In 2017, Debra attended a meeting of the Mid-South Food LINC value chain, an initiative by Communities Unlimited to build a healthy foods value chain that links both rural and urban farmers to schools, hospitals, food distributors and other large scale buyers, food deserts and other market opportunities. The initiative creates a healthy foods economy in the Mid-South and Memphis and offers new opportunities for small scale farmers, entrepreneurs and existing small businesses. Debra took advantage of the opportunity for free, on-farm training for GAP certification, which allowed her to sell to some of the buyers she met at the meeting.

As part of the Mid-South Food LINC Value Chain, she attends regular meetings to talk about progress, challenges and gaps that still need to be filled in the value chain and how she and others can work collaboratively to fill those holes.  Debra explained she especially appreciates the collaboration with other farmers, saying, “I’m still learning and networking with other growers.” She is excited for the Mid-South Farmers Network, recently launched with CU support on Facebook and which connects farmers and customers.  The Farmers Network launched a mobile app for customers to identify pop-up markets, farmers markets and other opportunities to buy food locally directly from the farmers.

Debra will continue to sell at the farmers markets because, in her words, “Farmers Markets are imperative to keeping our residents healthy. This is especially true in poverty-stricken areas where transportation is an issue, and anchor grocery [stores] decline to open locations.”

While rural towns and urban cities seem like two different worlds to some people, “[it is] the food that connects us rural and urban folks,” says Debra Lockard.

Communities Unlimited is facilitating the Mid-South Value Chain, one of 13 Value Chain Coordinators selected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and tasked with connecting small scale rural farmers with customers in urban areas to build healthy farms and a healthy food system and increase availability of locally grown healthy food for those living in food deserts and those who are food insecure.