Throughout the state, small farmers are using both traditional farming methods as well as some very innovative methods to provide fresh, local and seasonal produce to the markets they serve.

Never before has the local farmer been held in such high esteem. As more people become savvier about what they eat, they want to know not only where their food came from but who grew it. The names of the farms as well as the farmers are as well-known as the celebrity-status chefs who use their produce to prepare their signature dishes.

Some may think of ‘salad days’ as the period of life when someone is young and does not have much experience. A secondary meaning is an early period of success. The latter definition certainly describes Leigh Bailey’s Flora-based company, Salad Days. Leigh hit the ground running with her company just a few year ago and hasn’t looked back. Not a traditional farm by any stretch of the imagination, Salad Days grows hydroponic bib lettuce, spring mix, basil as well as beefsteak, heirloom and cherry tomatoes.

In an agricultural state, Salad Days is changing the way farming looks in Mississippi. “It’s different, that’s for sure,” says Leigh. “But like any other farmer, it’s feast or famine, even though we have a controlled growing environment. We either have too much or not enough – it’s a moving target all the time.”

Salad Days distributes their produce to restaurants from Houston, Texas to Panama City, Florida. “We send our produce to the Delta, Vicksburg, Natchez and Meridian.” Salad Days lettuce is also available in Whole Foods and other local markets.

Van and Dorothy Killen take great care with their crops at Two Dog Farms in Flora. Starting small with a couple of acres a few years ago, the Killens now farm between 15 and 20 acres and sell their produce to restaurants in Jackson and New Orleans. “It’s all about building relationships,” said Van. “People want to see the farmer, not a food distributor.”

The Killens sell direct to the public as well through a CSA (community supported agriculture) program. “We do our CSA two times a year,” explains Van. “We do a fall program that goes about ten weeks, into the third week of December, and we do a spring/summer program that goes about 12 to 15 weeks.” Patrons subscribe to the CSA and pick up a box of fresh-picked produce each week, assuring that they will be eating in season. Producers of local-made food products are often included in the boxes, such as kombucha, kimchee and sauerkraut from Sweet & Sauer, and lettuce from Salad Days.

Each Saturday, a market is held at Salad Days from 9am to 2pm with lettuce and tomatoes for sale, as well as produce from Two Dog Farms next door. Local honey and eggs are also sold, and other items in season.  

In Jackson, Cindy Ayers is making a huge impact with her 68-acre Footprint Farms. “We grow vegetables on about 15 acres, and we raise goats, horses, and fish for the next phase of our farm—agri-tourism.” Ayers explains that crops can be grown year-round in the six high-tunnels which allow for a more controlled growing environment. One of the programs she has initiated at the farm is to train high schoolers on how to farm. “Some of the young farmers we’ve been working with now own their own tunnel, and with the profits they make in a year or two, they can purchase their own acreage.” It’s important to Ayers to share her knowledge of farming with others. “We try to utilize people where they are with the skills they have. They put in sweat equity while we teach them. We want to look at different ways to attract people to not only soil-based farming but to water-based and aeroponics.”

Ayers has branched out from produce only to include plants with medicinal purposes. “We are growing lots of herbs, and plants such as Jamaican sorrel which is a very natural form of vitamin C, and it cleanses the blood and reduces inflammation.”

Agri-tourism will be a big part of Footprint Farms’ overall business plan in 2018. “We have added a cottage that can be used for receptions or for staying the night. Visitors can have as much of a hands-on experience as they may desire, from actually gardening or fishing to just kicking back and enjoying a cocktail on the front porch.”

Ayers sells her produce to restaurants and grocery stores, and she has a farmers market at the farm seven days a week. “We also take our pink veggie bus into food desert areas where fresh produce isn’t readily available. We’ve sold out of church fellowship halls and parking lots. We also do a CSA all year that we call ‘Farm 2 Plate.’”

In Philadelphia area, high tunnels are found scattered among the five separate Tribal communities of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The bulk of the produce is grown in 19 high tunnels. Choctaw Fresh Produce began when the food and beverage director for the casino came to John Hendrix, director of the economic development for the Tribe with the idea of growing fresh produce for the restaurants. The mission expanded to the Diabetes program, where teaching young people the importance of fresh produce in a healthy diet was key. A CSA program has been established for the people in the Diabetes program.

A new program for Choctaw Fresh Produce this year is a kiosk program that operates on the honor system. “We set up tables by the time clocks in the resorts where employees check in and out of work,” says Daphne Snow, general manager for Choctaw Fresh Produce.  “They take what they want and leave the money in the box. Last season was the first time we tried it and it worked great. Now those folks don’t have to stop on the way home—they can take their fresh produce home and have it for dinner that evening.”

All of the produce grown at Choctaw Fresh Produce is certified organic. That’s a difficult designation to get, and one Leigh Bailey said she can’t qualify for at Salad Days, even though she uses no chemicals or pesticides and her produce is non-GMO. “You can’t get the certified organic designation if you don’t use soil. We grow our produce in water.” Killen says that the produce he grows on Two Dog Farms is “organic-inspired,” or natural and sustainable. And at Footprint Farms, Cindy Ayers is using natural methods. “We try to grow as close to nature as possible. We use plastic on the ground to keep the weeds at bay instead of using herbicides.”

With so much locally grown produce, there is no reason to purchase produce grown out of state or from another country. In addition to reducing our carbon footprint, eating local means eating food that’s in season. In most cases, it has been picked within a couple of days of consumption. It’s for those reasons and more that local chefs are putting more emphasis on locally-sourced foods. Derick Emerson is a four-time James Beard semifinalist and owner of several local restaurants including Parlor Market, Caet, Local 463 Urban Dining and Walker’s Drive-In. “We source from several local farms, such as Two Dog Farms, Reyer Farms, Amorphus Gardens and Salad Days,” says Emmerson. “I know the farmers, I know their families, I know where they grow and how they grow. Not only that, they grow what we want. When they are ready to buy seeds for the next season, they’ll ask us what we want. They support us and we support them. That local aspect extends to the meat and seafood we source as well. We are providing fresh food to our customers and supporting the local economy. Farming is not an easy job, especially because they are so dependent on Mother Nature. We are glad to have those farmers here, and glad they are doing it so we don’t have to.”