Emma Self was practically destined to be a grower. Born and raised in Memphis, Self comes from a family of farmers — major soybean, corn and cotton producers in the Delta on her dad’s side and a large family who grew all of their own veggies on her mom’s side. With such a deeply rooted farming background, you could almost say it’s fate that Self has now found herself back in Memphis doing just that – growing greens.
However, Self has transformed what many people would think of as traditional agriculture and put a creative, sustainable spin on it. She now grows tasty little micro-greens in an indoor office at Emerge Memphis and is the founder and day to day operator of “Green Girl Produce,” Memphis’s first indoor vertical farm.
Self’s journey to where she is today began once she came back to Memphis after getting her bachelors in fine arts at the Appalachian Center for Craft located in Smithville, Tn. Self said that she had always loved working with her hands and it was in Smithville that she picked up her technical skill-set, developing a foundation in materials, craftsmanship and an overall personal aesthetic – tools that would later prove really useful for her hydroponic micro-green farm planning.
Post-degree, she found herself teaching elementary school children art at the Evergreen Montessori school, and over time began to take over and restore the school’s community garden. However, she couldn’t shake the feeling that the Memphis that she left at 18 was quite different than the one she came back to almost a decade later. Suddenly “local” and “farm to table” were real things, in real Memphis restaurants, and her interest was immediately sparked. From that point on, she began to do more in the garden with her students and started to research creative urban agriculture techniques – until one day, she decided to jump in head first. She quit her job and went to work for chef Ryan Trimm at Sweet Grass, starting as a waiter and later moving on to design his outdoor seating area with mobile raised gardens.
Self depicted the environment at Sweet Grass as utterly contagious. She described the camaraderie and creativity between chefs as “a truly beautiful blend of passions,” and it was that passion that inspired her to jump feet first into the local food movement. Coincidentally, after deciding to take the plunge, she met Taylor Berger (entrepreneur and Memphis restaurant owner) and the people at Launch Memphis (now Start Co.), and her dream started falling into place. There were conversations on restaurant farm co-ops and how best to serve a market of chefs with a growing demand. While the idea morphed from one possibility to the next, growing micro-greens seemed to make the most sense. One 48 hour pitch weekend, nights of research and many conversations later, and Self received the start up capital necessary to make her dream a reality. While it took a little over a year to stream-line the production process and get ready to grow, Green Girl has been selling her greens since July of 2014. We had the opportunity to taste some this summer and share them with our CSA members, and they are truly delicious.
Her little plants are 40 times more nutritious in their infant stages (when harvested) than when fully grown and are completely packed with flavor. She currently produces brassica’s, which include arugula and radish, and grow in as little as 10 days. She also raises a few slow growing varieties such as basil, parsley, red-veined sorrel, amaranth, and her secret rainbow mix that can take up to 20 days to grow. These plants grow in a 280 sq. foot hydroponic fodder system that Self designed herself. “It took a lot of tweaking,” she said, but she finally has a system that works well, producing 40 – 50 lb. of micro-greens per week at full capacity. The process is simple once the technology of the system is working smoothly. She sows the seeds in the tray, adjusts the lighting and water continuously throughout the growing period, put’s a little love in them, harvests, packages and cleans her system, and voilà, her micro-greens are on their way to you.
What Self is most proud of, she says, “is knowing that I did it…Leaving at 5 p.m., knowing that everything will still be growing when I get back is the most rewarding feeling.” “It means that I’ve made it work.” Self’s story and her little tasty greens are proof that with a lot of research, dedication and hard work, who knows what can happen. If you would like to taste some of these luscious little plants, you can order a Bring It Deluxe CSA today to begin in May! Until then, head on over to Folk’s Folly, Grove Grill, Flight, Peabody, Ecco, Beauty Shop, Sweet Grass, Strano, Bari, Westin, Aldo’s and Miss Cordelia’s to get a sneak peak.
For more of an “inside look” at our producers, keep reading our blog, and to order your CSA with Self’s micro-greens and more delicious, local produce, please visit our online shop today. Eat local. Eat well.
Written by: Cierra Martin, Bring It Food Hub