Minnis routinely offers tours of Landmark Farms, including its greenhouses. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

You know how, when you get a new car, all of a sudden you start noticing that make and model almost everywhere you look? 

Urban farming is kind of like that – once you take an interest in it, you notice there are gardeners tending their gardens everywhere.

That’s how I met Mike Minnis. Minnis and his wife, Karen, run the Landmark Training Development Corporation, a nonprofit that runs a farmer’s market, food pantry and farm on Carnes Avenue, just off of Airways in Orange Mound. 

But at the core of their work is teaching – anyone, really, but especially teens – on how to be self-sufficient through growing food. 

“We have an urban outreach center that works with mentoring young people,” he told me. “We have a youth urban farming program where we teach urban farming to young people. Our advocacy and mission is to create sustainable agricultural environments in food deserts and communities around Memphis and across the United States.”

In other words, my kind of guy. I truly believe that re-normalizing home-grown food – especially in so-called “blighted” neighborhoods – is critical to defeating poverty once and for all. 

Anyway, Minnis offers tours of Landmark Farms, which sits on two plots of land across the street from each other. If you go, take notes – he’s almost certainly going to drop pearls of wit and wisdom – some of it unconventional – when it comes to growing food:

Mike Minnis feeds the fish at Landmark Farms in Orange Mound. The man-made pond is part of an aquaponics system that sustainably farms both catfish and vegetation. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

Tip No. 1: “Is that a snake?”

Did you just recoil a little bit when you saw the word “snake?” Imagine what it would be like if you saw one basking in the sun on one of Minnis’ rows. But never fear, it’s a rubber snake, like the ones you’d use to play a practical joke on someone. 

Oh it’s still practical. And it’s no joke, Minnis said.

“You get rabbits wanting to eat up your crops. You get squirrels digging up your dirt,”  Minnis said. “The snakes create a barrier. An artificial barrier, because the rabbits and squirrels are afraid of them.”

So unless rubber snakes give you the willies, they’re a nontoxic deterrent for protecting your crops. Get some!

Tip No. 2: Grow your own seeds

“We don’t have a lot of walking space because we try to grow food just about everywhere,” Minnis said as he took me to Garden No. 1. 

That’s where he had collards and kale growing. Often, you’ll hear of farmers harvesting crops before they “go to seed.” Left unharvested, plants will begin to flower and then eventually to produce seeds.

In this case, Minnis’ kale has beautiful yellow blossoms and next to them, seed pods are growing. Over time, he said, those pods will get bigger.

“In 2011, my oldest son bought organic seeds from all over the place,” Minnis said. “It was his idea to garden. So I did a feasibility study and it showed there were two variable costs he’d need to get a handle on in order to see a profit: labor and the cost of seeds. Organic seeds were costing $16.95 for 100 of these, $8.95 for 100 of those . . .

“So, to negate that cost, we started allowing a portion of our crops to go to seed,” he continued. “We harvest the seed and replant the crop. If the plant was good enough to eat, it’s good enough to save the seeds so you can eat it again.”

Throughout the remainder of the tour, Minnis drops common sense hacks and tips like that, along with some serious wisdom. 

He seamlessly weaved together a story about a method he uses to grow high-volume fruit trees into a prelude to the French Revolution. I’ll save that story for another time, as well as his saga to get his fish pond working properly.

A few of his teen students were working the day Ester and I were there, and I couldn’t help but smile thinking about a future generation of farmers right in the heart of the city. 

Minnis also runs the farmer’s market and food pantry on the grounds, making sure that people have something to eat. 

Landmark Farms is at 2411 Carnes Ave. You should go by, take the tour, buy something in the market or otherwise support Mike and Karen Minnis. But remember: Take notes!

(Are YOU a gardener or urban farmer in Memphis? Do you know one? Do you have a specific question or problem with your garden that you need help with? If you answered yes to any of those, email me at [email protected]!)

(Lee Eric Smith is an NNPA award-winning columnist and co-founder of Abundant Earth Global CDC, a nonprofit aimed at blending eco-friendly home construction, urban farming and waste-to-energy production to regenerate neighborhoods. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @l3esmith.)