Love of farming goes back to childhood for local farmer

“(Being a farmer) pays off when a customer comes back and tells me how good (my produce) tastes,” said Debra Lockard, shown here talking shop with a patron at the South Memphis Farmers Market in October. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)
“(Being a farmer) pays off when a customer comes back and tells me how good (my produce) tastes,” said Debra Lockard, shown here talking shop with a patron at the South Memphis Farmers Market in October. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

For as long as she can remember, Debra Lockard has been about getting that green.

No, not money – though she’s definitely about that, too. Actual greens. As a child, her grandfather gave her a little patch of land, right there in the front yard. In it, Lockard would cultivate greens – turnip, collards, mustards…

“I don’t know, there’s something about greens that I love to pick greens,”  said Lockard, who now runs Lockards Produce from the family farm in Glimp, just north of Memphis. “I can still see him today saying, ‘This is her green field.’ And I would just sit there and pick greens. 

“To this day, they have to say ‘Would you come out of the green field?’” she continued. “I just love picking greens!”

These days, there’s more to Lockards Produce than a patch in the front yard, and Lockard is growing much more than just greens. In total, Lockard said that more than 165 acres has been passed down since the family bought the farm nearly 90 years ago. 

She owns 30 acres of that land and, with her helpers, runs her farm on about seven acres of it. Her brother owns the rest. But that’s plenty of room to grow the greens, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and whatever else Lockard believes will sell at local farmer’s markets – just like her grandparents and parents did when she was a child.

“I grew up here in Memphis, I went to school here, but we would always go back up to the farm and harvest,” she said. “We would harvest and bring the harvest back here to Memphis and sell it at the farmer’s market. 

“And (we’d sell to) people in the neighborhood,” Lockard said. “They knew that they could come to us and get some good vegetables and fruit.”

While farming has always been in her blood, she hasn’t always been a farmer. Lockard returned to farming about four years ago, after a lengthy career as a teacher, technology coach and school principal. She also spent time caring for her aging parents until their deaths. 

One unexpected drenching can set off a cascade of events that can set back a small farmer, Lockard said. Take for example last April, when the National Weather Service reported that three inches of rain fell on Memphis in a 24-hour period.

Lockards Produce is certified naturally grown, meaning she only uses natural methods to fertilize her crops and manage pests. Her methods require a little more work and attention. And even if you do everything right, Mother Nature still has the final say. 

“The rain came at the beginning of the last season,” Lockard remembered. “Because of that, we were late getting crops in the ground. And when we did place the crops in the ground, continuous rain washed our seeds away. We would have to start over.”

Lockard is excited about what the new federal Farm Bill means for her and other African-American farmers. Not only does the legislation make it easier for farmers to pass land onto their heirs, it also bolsters funding at land-grant HBCUs and earmarks money to teach the next generation of “agripreneurs” how to farm.

She’s not planning on missing out. Even on New Year’s Eve, Lockard said she was applying for grants. If successful, she’ll use the funds to shore up her operation, including securing a food processing facility, food storage, transportation and a high-tunnel greenhouse to extend her growing season.

And once a teacher, always a teacher…

“I want to train students on how to be a farmer,” the former educator added, noting that some youngsters at her church approached her about learning to garden. “To get them started looking at agriculture as a business opportunity. I feel I’m being a good role model to them also.”

Think you have a green thumb? Well, like any other business, Lockard recommends starting small – perhaps with a garden in your yard. “That way you won’t waste so much money, if you try it and find out you don’t like it,” she said.

But can you be a full-time farmer in the Mid-South? That takes a major commitment, she said.

“For those who can get in and put in 100 percent, not working any other job, you should be able to sustain yourself,” she said. “But most people can’t do that. The weather affects you. Also finding a market to sell your produce can be a challenge. For most people, agriculture can be supplemental income.”

As a retiree, farm income only makes up a part of Lockard’s finances. But farming makes plenty of work for Lockard, who isn’t above doing the heavy lifting herself.

“Being a woman in agriculture, there’s so much that we have to be able to do,” Lockard said. “I’m just now learning how to work my tractor. I got a three-point hitch, and I drive the tractor. So I have to be able to lift the hitch, which might be 40 pounds. And other things like that. It’s very physical.”

And all of that doesn’t count the usual stresses of being an entrepreneur, she said. 

“I have an overseer on my farm, he’s one of my helpers,” she said. “But if something happens, I get an immediate call and sometimes that means stop, drop (what I’m doing), gotta go. That’s a challenge when you don’t live adjacent to your farm.

“And then, trying to maintain your family life, your home, trying to put in a vacation when you’re trying to grow. . . .that’s the difficulty of it.”

But she knows it’s worth the challenges when the taste of freshness brings her customers back for more.

“It pays off when a customer comes back and tells me how good (my produce) tastes,” she said. “When they talk about what quality it is, and how it makes them feel.”

Though the days can be taxing, she doesn’t mind a bit. She’s got generations of Lockards smiling on her.  “I know my parents are happy because all they knew was that I wanted to farm,” she said. 

“I don’t call it hustling. I call it having fun and living my dream and making people happy.”

This article originally appeared in The New Tri-State Defender.

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