Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Urban Farm

Mary Phillips manages a farm in the center of the city of Memphis. Within a short distance of the city’s residential areas and major transportation and commercial hubs she grows vegetables and even fish. In the spring, she plans to add honey bees. Mary worked with us at Peace Bee Farm to gain experience after she took a beekeeping class while attending college. At Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, Mary studied sustainable agriculture. Now she is building a farm in an abandoned cotton field that sat fallow for 60 years. After trees were cleared and stumps removed, Mary and a few helpers planted their first crops this year. When Rita, Tod, and I visited the farm on a cool, damp fall day, the ground was covered with lush cool-weather crops of lettuce, radish, arugula, turnips, mustard, collards, kale and other salad greens. In the photo, Mary and Rita inspect compost beds of earthworms turning vegetable scraps into organic material to be added to the silty Memphis soil. By amending the soil with organic matter to help retain moisture, the farm was able to produce vegetables this year, Memphis’ hottest on record.

Tod looks over the hydroponic vegetable production arrangement built above a tank holding tilapia fish. Water is pumped continuously from the fish tank to the vegetable growth area. The water gathers nitrogen and nutrients from the waste of the fish. These nutrients feed the roots of tomatoes and watercress plants growing in a bed of gravel. Oxygen-rich water splashes back into the fish tank filled with rapidly-growing tilapia. Elsewhere on the urban farm, chickens live in a coop on wheels. Equipped with a small grazing yard, the coop can be rolled periodically to new locations. As the chickens scratch and feed, they remove weed plants and seeds while enriching the soil with their high-nitrogen waste. A few fainting goats are employed to clear brush and weeds. I look forward to helping Mary establish her urban honey bee hives.


  1. The portable coop is often called a chicken tractor. :)

    As well with her earthworms, if the top is covered with straw and then either a board laid across the top (with a bit of clearance) or even plastic sheets (the painter's plastic drop cloth.. or even garbage bags).. it will lure the worms to feed higher, retain more consistent moisture.

    My lazy way to harvest them.. I lure them with cantaloupe. When they have gone through their food, I lay cantaloupe cut in 1/2 across the top and cover the bin. A few days later a majority of them are working on the melon.. which seems to be their favorite in my bins. The stragglers get tossed in a coffee can when I am using the soil for containers. I tend to have a few rebels that I missed in each of my houseplants too.

    Sorry... vermicomposting geek. Best of luck to Mary!

  2. I am doing research on urban agriculture and hydroponics. Does Mary's farm have a name or a website? Would love to learn more about the work she is doing.


  3. The farm is Urban Farms Memphis. It is a project of the Binghampton Development Corporation. See To help eliminate an inner-city food desert resulting from a lack of access to grocery stores and fresh foods, the corporation is also establishing The Urban Farmers Market in the community. Mary’s farm can be viewed at