More Than Just Food Up In Farms Food Hub

BY AMANDA WELLS   |  PHOTOS BY JAMES PATTERSON

Grand and good things most often grow from a tiny seed. In the case of Up in Farms Food Hub, that tiny, unassuming seed was planted when David Watkins, Jr. put some of the Jackson community’s most innovative minds together to discuss a project in the city’s Farish Street District. Watkins had an idea to start a commissary kitchen on the historic street and reached out to restaurateur extraordinaire Jeff Good and his business partner Dan Blumenthal, Chef Nick Wallace, and Grady Griffin, who was with Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association at the time.

“We all met on Farish Street and David asked a key question,” remembers Jeff. “He said, ‘In Mississippi, we celebrated our music and food culture, but how come there’s not really any local food being served?’” While Jeff knew the answer—it’s too hard, highly seasonal and expensive—David’s logical question kept nagging at him. “I kept thinking, we really should dive into that some time.”

From that initial meeting, a relationship was formed between the five men, who began researching local food and how to approach solving the problem of a lacking local menu items in restaurants and in local households in a highly agricultural state. The group bonded together to form Soul City Hospitality, who set out to make a difference through their signature project, Up in Farms Food Hub. “We began applying for grants and winning,” says Jeff, who credits a lot of the success to David being a content expert in the local food movement.

Up in Farms’ mission is to develop and support businesses that lead to Mississippi having a resilient and sustainable local food system—contributing to the health and wealth of all Mississippians. Most small farmers market roadside or at small, local markets. “Mississippi has roughly 42,000 farms, with 30,000 of them making $10,000 or less,” explains Jeff. “We want to help farmers stay on their land and make a living at it!”

The food hub has set out to provide products that are fresh, high-quality and food-safe to restaurants, grocery stores, schools and institutions at competitive costs and with convenient forms of delivery. Up in Farms buys product that farmers are growing and resell it into the marketplace, either to wholesale buyers or directly to consumers through their weekly Farm Packs. To date, over 20 farms have found their way further into the marketplace through Up in Farms.

While Up in Farms brings in produce, processes it and ships it out, the real benefit is the services to farmers that comes along with that. “We provide outreach to farmers, technical assistance, helping link them to resources and getting contracts to buy their product.” Up in Farms started out by investing in the physical infrastructure of its farmers, but rapidly realized that they needed significant training and technical support to produce at the commercial level. The food hub is now where training, technical support, infrastructure, marketing and the best Mississippi produce collide.

Over the last year, Up in Farms has taken off, growing from two employees to a staff of 14. A year ago, with the help of an Agricultural Marketing Service Local Food Promotion Program grant, Up in Farms moved into a single cooler. Today, with the aid of a $315,000 Delta Regional Authority SEDAP grant, along with over $1 million of personal investment, Up in Farms is headquartered in the old Farmer’s Market off of Jackson’s Woodrow Wilson Boulevard. This new facility provides the opportunity to have a functioning food hub capable of supporting the seasonal production demands of local producers.

Social equity is something that Soul City Hospitality is extremely passionate about. Mississippi leads the nation in hunger, obesity and unemployment rates, and has 1.3 million acres of existing cropland not in production. Sitting at the intersection of food and health, Soul City is striving to draw disparate groups into new opportunities, making fresh farm produce available and affordable to all Mississippians. It’s about more than food. It’s about developing people, markets and jobs. “I’m just glad that providence brought us all together,” says Jeff. “I believe there are really good things ahead for Mississippi.”

Lise Foy, owner of Farm Girl Grocery in Pickens, contributes the recent expansion of her crop and market to Up in Farms.

Two years ago Foy became a stay at home mom and started Farm Girl Grocery as a cottage food business, selling artisan breads and canned vegetables and relishes.

Today, that business has grown drastically thanks to Up in Farms. What started as a quarter-acre crop has now expanded into six lush acres, growing everything from bok choy, cabbage and cauliflower in the spring to tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow squash and zucchini in the summer, just to name a few.

Up in Farms provides an outlet for local farmers like Foy to move into commercial wholesale, and diversify and expand their business.