Jennifer Payne

Being outside is priority one for this Alpha Omega Veterans Services farmer

Photographs by Michael Butler, Jr.

Like many of us, Jennifer Payne loved the outdoors as a child.

And, like many of us, she traded in that outdoor time for a desk job when she grew up. But that’s where the similarities between Jennifer and “the rest of us” end. Because she quickly decided that she was too young to be miserable and found a way to make a living outdoors.

She started her farming work with Memphis Tilth, then spent time with Green Girl Produce, and recently became garden program manager at Alpha Omega Veterans Services (AOVS). Jennifer is passionate about farming and about engaging people with where their food comes from. Our time with her encouraged and inspired us!

Edible Memphis: Tell us about your work at the Alpha Omega Veterans Urban Farm.

Jennifer Payne: I am a recent addition at Alpha Omega Veterans farm. The team I’m working with are people I was familiar with and respected. So I’m farming with people I knew and loved already.

I’m so excited to be on board with the whole endeavor.

AOVS is a residential facility for veterans who have experienced homelessness. They can engage in the farm through paid work, or just through observation if they want their own space. The garden program manager in particular is a role that incorporates other people into the farm. So, yes, I’m a farmer, but I’m bringing into that other people who aren’t farmers.

Tell us more about how the farm engages veterans.

Half of what we grow automatically goes to AOVS residents. We also do what we call client engagement. It’s that therapeutic component of being outside and touching dirt and experiencing farming—meaningful work. It’s healthy in every way.

Whether you’re eating more veggies or digging a hole in the ground, it’s going to be good for you.

What’s the coolest thing about your work?

Within a day or within six weeks you can see the ground change and produce food. It’s really cool. I took a picture six weeks ago of three beds that we weeded and prepared and planted. They looked clean and well organized. Six weeks later, right before we harvested, they were abundant with greens. It’s not instant gratification, but it’s really fast.

It always seems like magic.

What’s most challenging?

Farming in the South in the summer. It’s really hard with the weather. At the end of the day, we don’t make sense with our sentences.

Let’s back up a little bit. Tell us about how you grew up.

I grew up in Collierville. Both my parents in different ways had me outside a lot. My mom taught me about gardening, and my dad taught me the wonder of the outdoors. My mom and I would plant hostas and grow a little tomato garden. I would walk around with my dad and look for critters in the neighborhood.

I grew up outdoors and fell in love with it.

I started running in high school, and that kept me outside too.

I went to the University of Memphis and studied political science. Then I worked in an office and then from home. I thought, “This is just what life is and what adults do.” I didn’t have another example in my life of someone who spent their time outdoors. I grew a garden and bought some land and grew another garden. Then I thought, “I’m 23. It’s not time to settle for a life of unhappiness.” I applied to Memphis Tilth to be a gardener. I told them, “I’ll make a lot of mistakes, but I’ll learn from doing them and not make the same mistakes again.” So at night I watched YouTube and read books.

I got to play outside, and food happened because of it.

That was a pretty rare chance I got, but it changed the last eight years of my life.

What did you learn in your time at Memphis Tilth and Green Girl Produce?

As community garden organizer at Memphis Tilth, I was bringing people closer to the food system by growing food with and for them. My heart got really excited and broken at the same time. I met some adults who saw food as nutrition and power and choice. But others told me: “I was made to grow this” or “my ancestors were made to grow this, and it’s always been used as a tool against me.” Knowing that people had such a different experience with the food and the food system really changed me.

After I left Memphis Tilth, I went to manage Green Girl Produce, an indoor hydroponic vertical farm. I grew and sold microgreens to restaurants, which was a wonderful experience in business and the restaurant world. I shifted from working with anyone to selling produce to chefs. There was a different threshold of quality. I’m not a good cook, but I know the value of good food. I met all the people who turn produce into things people want to eat. It was so cool to talk to chefs and hear about the design of food.

From there I was recruited to AOVS.

I’ve finally settled on the fact that I’m an outdoors person, and I just really need to work outside.

You’ve seen different aspects of our local food system up close. What are some of the strengths and weaknesses?

I think we’re really good at food. We’re a great restaurant city. Tourists come here for food. We’re in the South near the Delta, so we’re good at growing food. I do think the way food has been produced for a long time hasn’t been good for people or the planet. That’s the thing I love about AOVS. It’s a way of farming that benefits the ground and people.

We need to celebrate farmers markets and farmers. That’s the best way to get our food.

In Memphis there are two great markets on the weekend and smaller markets during the week. I don’t know that more markets is the answer, but more people shopping at farmers markets. You talk to the people who grew the food, and you’re bringing people that much closer to the food.

What was your work like as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged?

I was at Green Girl Produce. I’d left for the day and by 11:00 that night, 100 percent of our customers—all restaurants—had closed. I just turned my phone off and went to bed. I walked into work the next day and had to think, “What do we do? We work two weeks ahead hydroponically. In two weeks I’m going to have tons of microgreens and nowhere for them to go.” A job that was usually planned became—every day, what does it look like to be a farmer today? It was wild.

The biggest Hail Mary for us and other farms was home deliveries.

There are some farmers who were selling to restaurants exclusively who now only deliver to homes five days a week. Their entire business model changed.

How are you seeing COVID change our food system?

People  initially were scared to go to the grocery store, and, because of that, some of the farmers I know had up to a 600 percent increase in sales. I hope that never goes away because that’s the best place to be—to have a smaller web of your food system with less shipping in and less flying in.

What do you anticipate for the future of our local food system?

I would hope for everyone to know a farmer.

It makes your food so much more personal, and it’s more fun that way. I’ve gotten to know the people at Home Place Pastures. I would probably be fine not eating meat, but I want to support them so I have a subscription. You can choose to buy or not buy. That’s your power as a person who buys food.

How can we make our food system here in Memphis more equitable?

I think a lot of people are still in the dark about where you can get fresh food and how you can get it.

We have a lot of work to do in making that equitable.

A step in the direction of a more equitable food system, in general, includes paying farm workers and food service workers a living wage—because they’re people, but they’re also growing and preparing what we eat to nourish our bodies.

What step can every Memphian take to make a better food system?

Take some time to think about the whole food cycle, and figure out a way to do a few things better.

It’s difficult to do everything well, but just pick a place to jump in, whether you compost or buy meat from a local meat producer or go to the market to get  your veggies.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

I get inspiration from being so close to what I’m doing and from farming being so hands on. I see the effect that I have on being outside. As a runner, I immediately see the effect of me running because there’s a path left because I stepped there. As a farmer, I see the result of my weeding and don’t have to wait long to see the result of planting something. My impact is always visible.

The more time you can be outside or engaging with nature, the more quickly you see your impact, whether good or bad.

What kinds of meals do you eat at home?

Raw vegetables. Anything you can cook with eggs. Cooking for one is no fun.

Where do you like to take visitors to Memphis?

I love to take people to Shelby Farms. There’s usually something there for anyone. Even if you get hungry, there’s food there.

What has helped you get through COVID?

I’ve been able to maintain contact with a lot of people because I spend so much time outside.

I never lost my running partners and coworkers. Being outside was the healthiest thing in the world for me. It was also a great way to invite people still to have that social interaction. It wasn’t hard to figure out ways to invite people to share space responsibly because we could do so much outdoors.

What do you do for fun?

Running and reading.

What do you like to read?

My favorite is to listen to an autobiography on Audible with the author reading it. My number one book by far is Dolly Parton’s autobiography [Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business]. Her story is wild, but hearing her read it is like her telling you the story.

What music are you listening to lately?

Brandi Carlile is doing a lot for me right now. The songs “Raise Hell” by Brandi and “Move Together” by Ndidi O are on my morning playlist.

What’s something that few people know about you?

They know everything because I put it all on Instagram and I talk so much.

What matters most to you in life?

People. People knowing that they’re worthy and worthwhile and deserve great things. They deserve to feel good and enjoy what they eat and how they feel. That is absolutely the most important thing. I hope what I grow and what I sell helps people find that out. Because of what you put in your body, you can feel stronger and think more clearly.

When you know you deserve good things, you’re less likely to be someone who takes and more likely to be someone who gives.

You’re not living out of fear; you can be more generous.

Do you have a mentor?

A farming mentor—Chris Peterson [AOVS farm manager]. He taught me that the quality of your work matters.

If you could have a meal with any Memphian, who would it be and where would you go?

We would skip the meal and go running. I’d want it to be with a complete stranger. Talking to strangers skips the chitchat and gets right to the good stuff—and you never know what the good stuff is going to be!

What else do you want us to know?

Just take a look at the Edible Memphis CSA Guide. Those are all my favorite people—people who are moving in the right direction.

Manda Gibson is copy editor at Edible Memphis. Her pastimes include encouraging her kids’ quarantine baking, admiring her compost pile, and silently judging the grammar of everyone she meets.

Michael Butler, Jr., loves everything Memphis. His goal is to show the beauty in Memphis that others overlook. He’s a photographer, videographer, Memphis tee collector, foodie, lover of tacos, and mayor of South Memphis. @_one901