By: Billy Mitchell and Hayley Wood

Patty, the founder of Bed Head Plant Nursery, is a first generation nursery and medicinal herb grower.  When asked to define her her role in the farming community, she focuses first on the connecting before the growing. “First and foremost,” she said,  “I feel like a connector. I feel like this person who is constantly bringing people from different walks of life or different perspectives on agriculture, new and old . . . slowly bringing them all together. It’s just like coming from an arts background where everything was community based.” 

That connection piece, which comes from years of practice and being open to other people, can be hard for new and beginning producers – especially those coming back to agriculture after being away for years. Patty offered advice and shared tactics she has used as a new grower, especially as she worked to meet more women of color in agriculture. “

For me,” she shared,  “social media has been my strength.” It allowed her to connect with local growers and universities, like Spelman College and the University of Georgia, as well as connect with growers in Canada and Vermont.  “Through Instagram I have been able to access and tap into this network of women of color herbalists and then women of color growers.” She added, “it’s been awesome…I’ve been really lucky.” It’s not just social media. She has also connected at in-person events at the University of Georgia’s UGArden and online workshops.  Going to these workshops opened her up to a world of growers that she “had no idea existed” and the people she has met are often willing to share their experiences.  If she has a question about when to propagate a herb or what temperature a compost pile should reach, there is often a grower or service provider who is going to be happy to help and share what they know. Patty also said she “realized people in the  ‘green collar industry’ are a lot more open. There’s a lot less gatekeeping . . . And if you’re a person of color, you have to realize that your presence there is adding to the experience because you’re bringing in a new perspective. You’re bringing in a very specific perspective that other people might not have been exposed to.  So your presence is just as valuable as anybody else that’s there. You gotta come in like… I’m awesome!”

Patty spent some time in the University space, an environment that has a lot of resources but may not be something everyone is comfortable with. Patty found that with certain challenges came benefits like meeting “young people that I wouldn’t normally interact with and speaking with professors –  basically getting them to break down things into like these like tiny bullet points of like, what about this? And what about that? So, that was wonderful.” That classroom environment brought value but she found that “the most valuable part of my education was the greenhouse tours that we went on. I went on 10 greenhouse tours within the Athens area and I got to ask the individual growers about their greenhouses.” If a grower does not have access to classroom learning, there is still a lot of value in visiting other growers and engaging with informal education in the farming community. You’ll learn the type of signage they have, how they test their water, and be able to ask just about any question that comes to mind hopefully setting you up to someday be the person who hosts other producers out at your operation.

Patty also worked to access another institution outside of Universities and Extension that might seem insurmountable to a new grower: the USDA’s Farm Service Administration (FSA). First, she said, “historically, you know, it’s hard for black farmers.” (For more information on some of the history referred to here, please take some time to explore this article about the Pigford vs. Glickman lawsuit.) To prepare, she called ahead first to set up an in-person meeting. “I had all my paperwork. That was really important. Having it all together before you get there.” When she got there, she was happy to find out that “they were the kindest, most helpful people that I would’ve ever expected to interact with.” She recognizes that the offices are aware of the history and her personal experience was “that they’re very  careful and very helpful when they see  a person of color coming into the space.”  They took the time to walk her through the documents because, she said laughing, that “anybody from outside of that office looking at those forms wouldn’t know what they’re about.”  They were able to connect her with a soil conservationist from the USDA NRCS office who came out to provide advice on her site and encouraged her to stay in touch and apply for conservation programs. For a producer, there can be great co-benefits of focusing on food safety and conservation. Additionally FSA provides food safety cost share assistance. Patty feels like she “personally was very lucky because . . .  I know all these other people, but someone coming from outside of that could easily get discouraged and just quit. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of emails.”

Thinking about the energy it takes to get connected, Patty recognizes that “putting yourself out there, first and foremost, is a little scary, but the best part is that you’re meeting people that are literally obsessed with the same thing.” A lot of growers would probably agree that “plant people, farmers, and growers are genuinely people that like to work well by themselves. So their work is already really isolating.”  That’s why it’s so critical to build your network. She added, “it’s really wild, like how reaching out to one person can open you up to like your network.” Often, if you attend a food safety training like the Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training or a Current Good Manufacturing Practices training, you’ll hear other producers and processors talk about how important their network is for sharing information.  Those events can help connect you to formal educational opportunities, like an Extension or Community Based Organization training, and informal education opportunities like farm walks and monthly potlucks.

Education is important to Patty. She also works for a community based organization the Wylde Center. a plant nursery assistant and, she said, “on top of that responsibility, besides growing things, we also host hands-on workshops . . .  our motto is bringing people to nature.” Thanks to this work, Patty has some advice for growers who may be working with two groups who are covered by the training requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule (PSR), volunteers and employees. 

Patty shared that “the idea of speaking in front of a crowd was  a lot for me” and  recommended dialing in what you are going to say either by practicing, learning from doing it everyday, or both. She had a piece of paper with notes to help her get her “spiel down.” She had a couple of steps she recommends for training.  First, clearly describe the basic information about the farm and then focus on “safety and housekeeping.” Second, realize that everyone that volunteers, helps, and works  at the farm are mostly doing it for the same reason they genuinely want to help and do a good job.  It’s up to you to create the environment and provide the tools to be successful, whether it’s cleaning and sanitizing seed trays or keeping food contact surfaces sanitary. Third, remember to say thank you and remind them of the importance of the work.  Patty said that she thanks them every single time they come and lets them know that “if you weren’t here, we wouldn’t be able to get this much work done. You want people to walk away really energized and excited to come back and work”

To help create that positive environment, and to keep everyone on track, Patty “standardized procedures . . .  where it’s like step-by-step and basically you give people different options on how to learn.” These standard operating procedures (SOP) give people the chance to learn visually.  She also reads it aloud for people who learn by listening. And, she demonstrates the work and then does it with them to cater “to people that learn through working.”  To help make sure the environment is conducive to training, she said she’ll “show up 30 minutes before I have to show anybody anything and I have all my sections and all my tools and items already placed where they need to go.”

By doing the work, she’s also learned to value the benefits some paperwork can bring.  When sharing organization tips, Patty uses “lots of spreadsheets, lots of lists, and  lots of logs. We are very organized because you have to be . . .  because at some point someone from the outside is gonna ask you, what did you use? When did you use it? What is this thing?” Outside of the benefits of being able to answer a volunteer, employee, auditors, or buyers questions, Patty added that the recordkeeping also helps with the growing because with “weather logs and things like that, you wanna be able to go back to the years previous logs and pinpoint like what sold well, what died out early, what did really well, what seeds germinated the most.” Those records, they can let you know “what is profitable, what isn’t profitable, what works, what doesn’t work.” Employee training records can bring a similar benefit, helping you see what worked and what could be strengthened as you train food safety practices at your operation.

Reflecting on her past work, Patty came back to working collaboratively with her community.  “My advice is don’t do it alone. Always ask for help.  . . . Preparation is incredibly important, not only for the success of your growing calendar, but for your wallet because it’s so expensive.”  It also means taking the time to understand your land, something her permaculture background helps with. “How does water flow through your space? How much light do you receive? Mapping out all of those things. First and foremost, soil tests, water tests, and  getting permits for things.” Understanding your space also means knowing when to prioritize cleaning and sanitizing.  For Patty, “cleanliness is really important . . .  not letting everybody and anybody walk through your space because not just on their hands, but on their feet, they could be tracking in fungus and bacteria.” A concept that applies both in the greenhouse, the field, and the wash pack.

 Patty also focused on a theme that many farmers share – the importance of time management.  In a virtual workshop she attended with Sundance Harvest, Patty said the main message was “you pick your schedule and you pick your timeline.” It is important to know how much time you can dedicate to training on basic farming practices, basic food safety practices, wash/pack management, etcetera  on your farm. How will you set the schedule to be successful and take care of yourself? This may look like committing time, like Patty has, to outside workshops. As a last piece of advice, Patty shared that, like money, “your health and your energy are finite, so working within your comfort is the most important thing to do.” She added, “I think it’s really important that as your farm grows, that you give back to the next generation of farmers because it doesn’t matter what we’re doing if we can’t  share our skills with the next generation.”

For more producer focused stores and information, please visit the Local Food Safety Collaborative website along with the Food Safety Resource Clearinghouse for a curated source of food safety guides, factsheets, templates, and more. Don’t forget to follow LFSC on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates on the latest food safety news.

This project website is supported by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award TBD  totaling $1,000,000 with 100 percent funded by FDA/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by FDA/HHS, or the U.S. Government.

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