Interview with Dr. Cindy Ayers-Elliott. Photography by Foot Print Farms.
As a farmer, Dr. Cindy Ayers-Elliott helps things flourish: her family, her crops, and her Jackson, Mississippi, community. She gave up her Wall Street career and created Foot Print Farms, a sixty-eight-acre haven that tills not only produce but also health and hope.
Did you always have a green thumb?
No! My green thumb was so red, I couldn’t grow anything. My grandparents and my mom did some farming, but I’ve always done financial things like policies and procedures. I started farming in 2010, when I opened Foot Print Farms. I didn’t know anything about farming, but I knew a lot about agricultural policies and programs that were being written into the Farm Bill. So I did research for a year beforehand, and I looked at all the different programs available through the USDA.
You decided to forgo Wall Street and return to Mississippi. What was your inspiration?
9/11 was my inspiration. I didn’t go back to banking after 9/11 because our office was in Tower Two. Thankfully, I wasn’t there that day. I came back home instead and, for the next five years, worked with an economic development nonprofit for farmers in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Our work made an impact, especially for Black people in the region.
During that time, I also decided to reinvent myself. I received my PhD in urban higher education from Jackson State University, an HBCU. My family always believed that education is important and that one person can make a difference.
Why did you decide to buy sixty-eight acres in Mississippi?
I bought them in 1994, when I first started investment banking. With all the traveling I did, this allowed me to come home to the peace and quiet of the trees and rolling hills, which rejuvenated me. Back then, it was a home, an investment, and my eventual retirement place. I had no fencing. I did no farming on it. I have two sons who grew up happy here in the family house—they learned to fish on the lake and played tennis and basketball.
Tell us a little about Jackson:
My great city of Jackson is the capital of Mississippi and its largest city. Most of the population, including our city council, board of commissioners, and supervisors, is African American. We also have some problems with food deserts, which a lot of cities have.
Would you elaborate on what a food desert is?
It’s a place without access to nutritious food within a mile or two. Inside Jackson, it’s actually five to seven miles for a lot of people. Plus, many residents don’t have transportation to get to a grocery store that’s miles away, so they probably go once or twice a month, which is maddening. And our lower-income communities have some of the highest densities of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, which has resulted in the state being one of the unhealthiest in the country.
In what ways do you help your community?
I’m a full-time farmer, so everything I do is from a business perspective. But we can meet the community where they are because our farm has all the necessary certifications to accept EBT cards. We also went through the USDA process to be a certified farm, which means that we can sell to grocery stores, restaurants, and individuals just like a grocery store can.
Residents can travel a half mile to our farm to purchase food with their EBT cards. We also do pop-up markets and travel throughout the community in our cute little pink bus. We bring fruits and veggies outside the city to some small towns that don’t even have a grocery store within twenty miles.
Employing and teaching people is a big part of what we do on the farm. We bring in residents who might want to be urban farmers, train them, and show them the possibilities. I believe in “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” When people come together, things happen.
So, yes, I’m a farmer, but I believe in doing more than just planting seeds in the soil. I also believe in planting seeds in minds—the harvest I want to see is a better quality of life for everyone.
How has agritourism helped your efforts?
We have an Airbnb located right on the farm called Annie Mae’s Cottage, where people can stay, eat off the farm, and learn farming skills. We’ve had people from all over the world stay there because Jackson is in an ideal location: two hours from New Orleans and two and a half hours from Memphis.
We also use the farm to show inner-city school students where their food comes from. We work very closely with several of the schools—in fact, one of my first ventures was my 4H group, made up of local football players. The coach wanted to get food from the farm to help his players get healthier, but we ended up doing more than that—we trained them and helped send some of them to agricultural colleges. Better yet, they learned something about themselves: that they can make a difference, lead, and have a better life.
Tell us about “sweat equity” and how your farmers earn an acre of their own land:
I lease it for one dollar—they don’t work for me; we work together. They’re part of my farm family. All the equipment is here, and the marketing comes from Foot Print Farms. They can grow produce and get their revenue, and we all harvest together.
The reason they can do this and make a decent living is that they’re not limited to what or how much they can do. I hope that they learn the know-how to get them ready for the next step: getting acres of their own while continuing our partnership. You should see their excitement!
Are people equally excited to see the Pink Bus Lady pull up?
Oh, yeah! I believe that a statement should be made. So when you see me, I might be in my overalls, but my colors are always pink and green, and I always have a hat on. I’m also in my pearls! A girl’s always got to have the pearls.
But for me, it’s a teaching opportunity: showing kids how to grow at home what they’re buying here. And that makes them want to come back to the farm. I’ll have moms tell me their kids would never get up on Saturday morning but now they do to come to the farm, or that they had to buy them pearls or hats for visiting the market. It doesn’t matter whether they’re black, white, Asian, or Hispanic—that’s the response that we get.
How do you choose your crops? Any unique offerings?
First and foremost, it needs to be nutritious because I want to help change the state’s health dynamics. So we get foods that people’s palates know, but we also introduce things that are usually not available in the South. For instance, there’s Jamaican callaloo, a high-protein, high-fiber green vegetable that’s one of my biggest sellers in our summer market.
We also try to do something new every year. In 2020, we got white cucumbers and gold bar zucchini. It’s like we grew gold—we have gold in these hills! [Laughs] It was the talk of the town.
Is balancing business and community needs a challenge?
Farming is hard work. But using more technology and going in with a plan like you would any other business makes a difference. And it’s easier because we have great people helping. No man is an island; this farm is so much more than just me. We’re like the proverbial stone in the pond. The ripples go out and make the water move. New businesses have opened because they started at our farm and got the encouragement, direction, and business sense to get it done.
What does self-sufficiency mean to you? What tips do you offer to achieve it?
To me, that is truly measuring where you are: you can make a living, have peace of mind, and have a good quality of life. You just need to put the right things and people in place and have the right priorities—it can’t just be looking out for yourself. It’s about sharing knowledge. This is especially true with me being a Black woman in the state of Mississippi. It’s important to know that you can be self-sufficient.
And you don’t need sixty-eight acres to be successful; I encourage people to consider getting two or three acres and making sure that their home is on the land. I also emphasize that they don’t need to have the biggest house—it’s much better to live within your means and with less stress. It’s more important to have clean water, food to eat, a roof over your head, and utilities without having to worry about how to maintain that lifestyle. And bask in the small victories. People always want things to happen now, but be happy and celebrate each day.
What will happen going forward, if you have your way?
I like that last part: if I have my way. I always focus on the present and the future. We’re the largest urban farm in Mississippi, but I want to expand Foot Print Farms to more areas of the state so people will have more ownership. If I had my way, more USDA policy changes would happen relating to small farmers versus larger farmers, because they don’t do a good job in separating the large, corporate, commercial farmers from the small mom-and-pop farmers. That’s very important.
It’s also important for people to look at their community health more from the standpoint of food and health together. For example, I’m working with hospitals and doctor’s offices here to start making prescriptions for food instead of just for medicine. And when we talk about changing diets, people need to understand that access to healthy food is a must.
Overall, I want to continue making a better quality of life for people. Like I said before, for me it’s more than just planting the seeds in the soil; it’s about planting seeds in minds.
For more info, visit footprintfarmsms.com