FARMER & FOUNDER - SOW MUCH GOOD
Urban Haven in Charlotte, North Carolina
To get to Robin Emmons’ farm headquarters for Sow Much Good, you drive through suburban sprawl, past fast food chains and strip malls until you reach a little brick building surrounded by trees, growing fields and chicken coops. Sow Much Good sticks out from its surroundings like a breath of fresh air. It was before the Spring thaw when Urban Exodus visited; activity on the farm was just getting moving and the fields were being prepped for early Spring crops. Sow Much Good is based in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina. Although the state is rich in agricultural production, many urban neighborhoods and rural towns in North Carolina are considered food deserts, with very limited access to affordable and healthy food. The mission statement for Sow Much Good is to 1) provide direct access to fresh, affordable food 2) educate and engage residents to adopt healthy eating habits 3) advocate for the right of every person to have real food security. After a successful 20-year career working in the financial industry, Robin Emmons felt a pull to leave and change the trajectory of her life. A week after leaving her job, she helped her brother get settled at a mental health facility. While being treated, she saw a rapid decline in her brother’s health due to the mostly canned and sugary food served at mealtime. An avid gardener, Robin decided to tear up her entire suburban backyard and expand her food production, donating all the produce she grew to the facility. Her brother’s health immediately improved and the seed was planted for Robin’s new passion and path in life. In 2008, Robin started the non-profit Sow Much Good. She wanted to use food as a vehicle to promote social justice on important issues, such as food access in marginalized communities. With her corporate background, Robin has used her diverse skillset and contacts to find eager corporate sponsors willing to donate supplies, farmland, and money to continue to expand the offerings and programs Sow Much Good provides to the greater Charlotte communities it serves. The demo kitchen was donated by Ikea, their tractors by John Deer, their two farms and even their vehicles were gifts from companies wanting to help this important cause. The non-profit now runs a variety of programs including a low-income EBT CSA, summer camps, financial wellness workshops, cooking demos, free lunches for kids when school is not in session and farm stands in underserved areas that provide both fresh, affordable produce and plant starters to encourage people to grow their own food. Nothing goes to waste at Sow Much Good, even a fallen tree from a winter storm waits for the portable sawmill to arrive to turn its trunk into large banquet tables for their farm dinners, summer camps, lunch programs and workshops. Robin’s work has received a lot of press attention and in 2013 she was named a CNN Hero. She uses her media attention, speaking opportunities and workshops to continue to raise awareness about the inequities in our food system that eliminate the basic human right of access to clean and healthy food. Her future plans are to expand to more underserved areas and to create a playbook for other non-profits to mimic Sow Much Good’s model. To see what this passionate woman has been able to create in less than a decade, there is no telling how far she will go in making a difference in the lives of people who would otherwise not have access to fresh, healthy food. Robin Emmons truly is a farming hero. (Click here to jump to her interview)
What motivated you to leave the corporate world and start Sow Much Good?
My motivation to leave the corporate world came from a long held inner knowing that my passion and purpose awaited me beyond the walls of corporate towers, in conference rooms, and the offices in which I spent my days where the focus centered solely on profit at the exclusion end expense of people
Initially what was the hardest part about making this transition?
The hardest part of that transition was an uncertainty about what that passion and purpose ultimately would be and how it would impact the life I'd until that point built? Without question, I was held in my corporate space for longer than I might have liked by fear of the unknown: How would I make a living? How would I honor my commitment to my partner to contribute to our household obligations? How would I explain the apparent throwing away of perceived opportunity from my educational achievements and the social network I'd built withing the framework of my corporate life? My questions were many and my anxiety about leaving the life I'd for years known high and stoked by fear of the unknown.
Tell us a bit about Sow Much Good and its community offerings. Why did you decide to start this organization in Charlotte?
Sow Much Good is a farming business structured as a non-profit entity under IRS rules. The company offers farmer's markets in low income communities where other options do not exist, along with educational programming designed to empower communities to take control over their food source and their health. The company also advocates for the right of all people to have access to healthy, clean, food. The organization was started in 2008 as an individual grassroots effort to address the need of an mentally ill and formerly homeless sibling suffering the on-set of disease attributed to a less than optimal diet and lifestyle. From that act of love for a family member, the organization grew rapidly at the realization of a burgeoning local foods movement that did not included homeless, mentally ill, low-income and otherwise challenged populations. The growth of the business was fueled by a fundamental belief that all people deserve and have a basic human right to consume clean food that supports a most essential need.
What has been the most rewarding part about building and growing this organization?
As I am an entrepreneur with a socially driven agenda, I find great reward in building the business and developing programs and services that will benefit my community. The brokerage of a 5 acre land deal to establish a full service, post and beam market in a low income community; the creation of a CSA program designed specifically for low income families that accepts SNAP/EBT benefits, the negotiation with a Fortune 100 CEO of an iconic brand to secure support and needed farm equipment and funding - all very rewarding and satisfying. But equally so, is the grandmother who visits SMG's farmer's market and from whom I receive a hug and tears as she tells me about her childhood growing up on a farm in the South, the daughter of share cropper, and how so very proud she is of me!
What are your thoughts on the future of farming and food access in America?
I am hopeful about the future of farming in America as I see communities across the country working to recreate a local food system that is transparent and good for communities. There is wonderful farming work taking place to reclaim local food and farming that has increasingly disappeared from the landscape in just the last two generations. That said, I am not naive to the challenges and the real and urgent work that needs to be done in not just growing food, but also in growing farmers and pipeline of food workers beyond farmers needed to process, package, prepare, and distribute the clean food that this new farming movement is producing. Essentially, newly trained and younger farmers are but one element of building a larger local food economy. To sustain the work we've begun, we must look at the whole and not only one part relative to the system of farming and production, but also the opportunities for all people to not just have access but to also participate in important parts of the food system, making a living and a life right where ever we as individuals may live.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to grow their own food in the city?
Appeal to the leadership in your city to utilize dead spaces, brown fields, and vacant lots that detract from the vibrancy of communities to secure land. Leverage the power of like minded individuals in your community to raise social capital to strengthen political power that can encourage city officials and representatives to work with the community in building a vibrant local food economy. Organize, and plan for the near and long term and develop a clear understanding of what you want to build for the benefit of your community. Ask yourself the hard questions and get clear. If a community garden is the goal, understand well if that is realistic in terms of the knowledge, broad interest, support and community capacity.
Do you have any books/authors/heros that you would recommend to people wanting to learn to farm and/or help alleviate food insecurity?
I am at this time working on my own, but there is certainly a body of work out there that already exists. Will Allen of Growing Power is who immediately comes to mind given his long time work in the space and his thoughtfully penned book "The Good Food Revolution - Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities." I consider this giant of a man and the movement the God Father of the local foods movement.
Walk advice would you give to someone thinking about starting a non-profit farm for their community?
The first advice I would give to a person starting a non-profit farm or other entity, would be to think of your non-profit as a business because it is! A designation of 501(c)(3) is a tax structure not a business structure. You will need money to grow the business like any other legitimate business and grants are not a sustainable source of income on which to rely solely. I believe that one of the first missions of any non-profit should be to become profitably, not for the enrichment of one's self, but for the ability effectively execute its mission, serve more people, expand its reach and to increase its impact. I have learned these lessons through my work with Sow Much Good and now know that it is possible to have a socially conscious and beneficial mission that values people, while also generating revenue that supplements grant funding, allowing the business to continue critical operations.
Where do you draw inspiration and passion from for your work?
My inspiration comes from the work itself. Miracles and magic are constant and the synergistic relationship of nature's cast: wind, water, air, sun, flower, creatures - big and small, all play a role in maintaining a delicate balance that is the eco system that supports all life.
What do you appreciate most about the structure of your work days now?
I most appreciate the constant representation of what matters most in the human experience: Our connection to one another, our individual and collective responsibility to steward the planet on which our very lives depends, and most importantly our right to experience joy in our work and our day-to-day lives.
Have you noticed a change in yourself since leaving the corporate world and starting Sow Much Good?
I have noted stark changes in my view of my role in serving my community and in how I perceive the world around me. I have found my voice and developed a deeper capacity to stand in my truth and to embrace my authentic self. I no longer feel the obligation to follow the mainstream script and I have gained clarity of my true worth, my purpose and my place in the world. In short, I have found a freedom that I have long desired and I am profoundly grateful.
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
The place where I find inspiration is in silence on the land and in nature. There is a calm and magic in those spaces that can both be seen and felt. It is meditative, reflective and spiritual, and I am fed in ways that we as human beings scarcely admit we have need, but we no less feel a real hunger that cannot be satisfied by what we consume.
What are Sow Much Good's goals for the upcoming year and beyond?
Goals for the organization for the current year are to increase our production levels by 30% to yield 15,000 pounds of fresh produce in the current season allowing us to serve thousands more people in the community. To do so, a concurrent goal to increase SMG's donor base and revenue streams is essential. To accomplish a longer term goal of launching a full service grocery model in a low income community, SMG will continue fostering relationships with well established natural grocery retailers to gain best practices, guidance and support, and to develop a strategy for launching a pilot.