Robin Emmons had a nice corporate job, but she longed to do something else. Problem was she didn’t have a clue what that something was. She admits for a while she was seduced by her nice paycheck, “the bling and all that went with it.” Yet, she said, “I felt dead in that environment.”
Farming certainly never crossed her mind. But she traded designer suits and an office for t-shirts and jeans and tilling the fields. She is founder and director of Sow Much Good, a non-profit that provides access to fresh, organic produce to underserved communities in the Charlotte, N.C. area and educates people on healthy eating.
“I had no clue this is what I would be doing,” she said, laughing.
She quit her job in March of 2008. She found out that same day that her older brother, who suffered from mental illness and had been homeless for over a decade, had been sitting in a jail cell for two weeks.
Emmons followed his case as he was transferred from jail to state hospital to jail again. She filed to become his guardian. He ended up at a transitional house where he received psychiatric counseling and other services. His mental health improved but his physical health declined.
On a hunch, Emmons checked to see what he was eating.
“He was being fed out of cans and was eating sugary foods,” she said, fully understanding that the financially-strapped program caring for him was doing the best it could.
By this time Emmons, a vegetarian, had started growing her own vegetables.
“I planted a few extra rows for my brother’s program,” she said. “I took them excess eggplant, zucchini and whatever was coming up.”
She learned from her mistakes. She did not grow up on a farm. She grew up in urban Roxbury, Mass., where her father only planted a few tomatoes, she said. She moved to the South as an adult and said, “I saw all this green land. I dropped a few seeds into earth and was awed by the miracle of how they sprout.”
Then she paid attention to the thriving food movement around her. “But it was very white, male-dominated and elite,” she noted. “People who didn’t have a lot of financial resources or were displaced were left out.”
Emmons decided to do what she could to include these forgotten people—and her efforts were noticed.
“I was this brown girl, an anomaly” she said. “Farmers started coming out saying they read about me and asked me did I need land. These were redneck farmers with no connection to me other than our common humanity. They understood.”
One of her helpful “redneck farmers” is Danny Phillips, who she said has been generous, donating land, sharing his knowledge; teaching her how to prepare the soil, even how to drive a tractor.
“Sometimes people who appear very different are concerned about the same issue,” said Emmons. “It’s been a wonderful revelation for me.”
She now has a total of nine acres in Charlotte and the nearby area. Martin Marietta donated land in a low income neighborhood. Her three micro farms produce eight tons of food a year.
She started with 50 volunteers, many friends who came to help her dig up her backyard and plant.
“We grew 3,000 pounds of food,” said Emmons, the amazement still in her voice. “I donated that to my brother’s place and to some other nonprofits.
“We understand access (to food) is only one piece of the puzzle,” said Emmons. “Essentially, there are behaviors that can be changed, but that’s a long-term proposition. We try to help people to understand the connection between food and their overall health. We do nutrition education to let people know diabetes is not their birthright.”
She continued her community education efforts, received more media coverage, and her volunteer group grew to 120.
“I think people have a romantic notion to work the land. We will take them in their naiveté and train them,” said Emmons.
Sow Much Good provides cooking demonstrations and “uncooking demonstrations,” when Emmons teaches people how to prepare raw food dishes.
“We are teaching people the canning process also, which is a lost art,” Emmons said. “Our grandmas used to do it and we didn’t pay attention.”
She admits she had to take a course to learn to can also.
“We’re trying to encourage people to grow in whatever space they have. We’re giving them some sovereignty over what they are consuming and eating,” said Emmons. “We’re teaching them how to prosper without giving all their money to the grocery store, which isn’t even in their neighborhood.”
At Sow Much Good vending stands, volunteers sell seedlings and seeds. “We accept EBT–or whatever–to give people options for how to pay,” Emmons said.
She and her volunteers go into “urban deserts,” those parts of a city where healthy foods are hard to obtain, the kind of neighborhood she grew up in. Organically grown tomatoes are $3.50 a pound in some grocery stores, but Sow Much Good sells them for $1 a pound.
“I am blown away by her passion,’ said Carol Williams, who volunteers at the stands, selling vegetables and educating people about nutrition. “I don’t know anyone else who grows food and goes to these deserts and sells to this area at low prices. I talk to people who come to buy and they tell me they have to go far for fresh fruit and vegetables and they are so thankful.”
Of course, Emmons said in the best future she would be able to fold up her stands and go home. “This would not be an issue here. I could move on to world hunger,” she said, laughing.
For now, she said, “My hope is to scale up. To empower people in their neighborhoods to have control over food source and revitalize communities right where they are.”
Sow Much Good is building an urban farm market, but Emmons won’t abandon the other neighborhoods. She is working out a way to have people either pick up their produce or have it delivered.
“Why not support an urban farm or grandmother taking her blueberries and canning them?” said Emmons. “We can stimulate the local economy right in our community. It’s about empowering people to take care of themselves.”
(Photo: Michael Hernandez)