Meet Your Farmer: Dennis O’Bryan, Urban Farms

Urban Farms is a unique farming operation in Memphis, TN,  run through a partnership with the Memphis Center for Food and Faith and the Binghampton Development Corporation. Located on just three  acres of land in the Binghampton community, Urban Farms strives to be a sustainable, educational example of agriculture that works in an urban area.

What started in 2010 has expanded significantly and is growing bit by bit each year. Originally, Urban Farms was the product of a collaboration between the Binghampton Development Corporation and Christ Community Health Service as a part of a grand vision for urban renewal. However, the project has evolved greatly since its beginning. What once began with a combination of farming techniques, including aquaponics, has now morphed into a pilot project for bio-dynamic farming in an urban landscape. Much of the change occurred with the addition of Dennis O’Bryan as Farm Manager.

Dennis joined the Urban Farms team in 2012 from what he describes as an “accident of networking.” O’Bryan came to Memphis in 1986 and worked for the Hilton Corporation for over 20 years. However he always loved working outside and growing food and frequently volunteered with Urban Farms after its creation in 2010. Over time, one conversation led to another, and soon he was leaving his career to put his passion into practice by leading Urban Farms’ day to day operations. He took over the farm in May of 2012, and can still be found at the farm on any given day, digging in the dirt, harvesting, or planting in one of its many hoop houses. O’Bryan  clearly loves his work and finds it personally rewarding. He describes his farm work as his expression of concern for our planet. “Globally we have an increasing problem with top soil loss, droughts and crop failures.” In order to farm sustainably for the future, he argues that we have to reverse bad farming practices and start putting carbon back into the soil, and this is where bio-dynamic farming comes in.

Bio-dynamic farming is a method that was developed by  philosopher Rudolf Steiner and is based on an organic, holistic approach to agriculture. With bio-dynamic farming, soil restoration, composting and plant health are key, and farmers focus on natural processes for productivity rather than chemical inputs. At Urban Farms, O’Bryan is striving to do just that. The overall mission of Urban Farms is to demonstrate the capacity of bio-dynamic farming to contribute to the growth of resilient city neighborhoods, healthy food access, and strong local food economies. He wants Urban Farms to be a pilot location for the city, illustrating that bio-dynamic farming is possible in the South and showing people just how you do it.

Much of O’Bryan’s day to day work is top soil renewal. When the site for Urban Farms was first created, much of the top soil was scraped away. In order to heal the land, O’Bryan accepts 15-20 large garbage cans per week of vegetable scraps and other compostable materials and a few truck loads of leaves. He then mixes those scraps and leaves to create a nutritious compost for his raised beds and Urban Farms’ very own potting mix. By heavily mulching his land and creating raised beds, he traps water and nutrients within the soil, which lessens pest pressure, keeps soil temperature warmer, greatly decreases the amount of water loss and overall creates richer soil. Still,  every system  has its challenges. While he firmly believes that bio-dynamic farming is the answer to a more sustainable system – it can be difficult to make work.

Although the farm is located on three  acres, not all of that soil is currently suitable to cultivate, and this type of holistic farming is difficult on a small scale. When access to land is limited, it becomes more difficult to schedule planting and succession planting, and crop rotation is harder to manage. In addition to the complex system, some farmers argue that bio-dynamic farming is unrealistic in the South, due to increased pest pressure. However, O’Bryan’s faith in this natural farming method remains unshaken,and he’s had some great success overall. “I’ve found that people usually don’t mind a few bug holes here and there because they know then that their produce hasn’t been sprayed. “ Urban Farms plans to keep chugging along in the upcoming years. They are currently trying to revitalize more plots and slowly expand. The farm’s goal is to reach a sustainable scale where they can hire another employee. With some added help, the hope is to expand cultivation and ultimately facilitate future growth.

Urban Farms is currently producing veggies during all 4 growing seasons, and as O’Bryan puts it, is “always growing something.” In addition to seasonal veggies, the farm has day lily’s, a prickly pear cactus, two pear trees, two peach trees, elderberry, and a coop full of chickens for eggs at the farmers market. When I visited, I saw pak choi, tatsoi, onions, carrots, arugula, lettuce, spinach, kale, kohlrabi and mizuna growing in various locations around the farm, and seeds being started for their first round of spring: marjoram, parsley, dill, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. Currently, Urban Farms sells at farmers markets around the city and to a few cash and carry customers in the neighborhood. This summer, Urban Farms will be joining the Bring It Food Hub growing team once again, with a variety of cucumbers, squash, peppers, celery, three varieties of eggplant and four or five varieties of tomato. And through Bring It Food Hub, Urban Farms has been the regular supplier of the Grace-St. Luke’s food pantry. So, if your mouth is watering – and we know it is – try Urban Farms’ pesticide-free produce, along with goodies from other local farmers, by signing up for our summer CSA subscription. Pre-sales are currently open on our online shop.

If you’d like to learn more about Urban Farms or are interested in volunteering and getting your hands in the dirt, please send an email to allyson@urbanfarmsmemphis.org. Urban Farms is located at 198 Wills St, Memphis, Tennessee 38112.

Eat local. Eat well.

Written by: Cierra Martin, Bring It Food Hub