It’s not even noon and the temperature is already nearing 100 degrees. The humidity isn't far off. That’s what you get for visiting Mississippi in August. Nettleton, Mississippi, to be exact. If you’re looking at a map, the small town (pop. 1,922) sits about 130 miles southeast of Memphis. Just 20 miles north you’ll find Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. But today, the only serenade we’re getting is from the grasshoppers. Their loud buzz is as thick as the air.
Welcome to Mississippi’s only Answer Plot® Community Garden. This unassuming garden sits back off the road, a sign at the driveway the only real indicator that this isn’t your typical plot of black-eyed peas and sweet corn.
Earlier this morning, the property’s owner, Jesse Cornelius, was explaining how it had been a tough summer for the corn. It was so wet and hot it steamed right on the stalks. In all his years farming, Jesse had never seen corn cook in the field like that before. The peas are doing well, but the rain has meant the weeds are growing thick and fast. Many hands are needed to keep them at bay. Luckily those are easy to come by. You see, Jesse is the agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Nettleton High School where more than 100 students in the Nettleton FFA Chapter call him Mr. Corn. It’s fitting.
Just after noon, a yellow school bus turns in the driveway and makes its way toward the garden. We’ve been waiting for Jesse and the students to arrive. As the door swings open, more than 40 kids unload from the bus, buckets in hand. Today’s troops, a class of mostly freshman, are given instructions. They’ll be picking peas. Stick to the plot on the right, the left side needs more time. They quickly set off to work.
An idea is planted
Hanging back from the group, Jesse explains how the garden started in 2010 when he heard about the Answer Plot® Community Gardens from a former FFA member who had continued on to a career at Land O’Lakes, Inc. At the time, the Land O’Lakes Foundation was starting a program in partnership with WinField master agronomists, Land O’Lakes, Inc. member cooperatives and the National FFA Organization to grow food for those in need. Today, FFA students across the country grow, maintain and harvest gardens at 24 locations in 14 states.
Nettleton is one of three gardens that started that first year. Jesse thought a garden would be a good way to add a hands-on element to his ag classes. He also felt it was a unique opportunity to teach students about hunger in their community. And so, seeds were sown. Six years later, the garden—and his students’ understanding of hunger—has grown.
Have we mentioned it’s hot in Mississippi? The students aren’t phased. They’re used to the heat and the work involved in maintaining the garden. At some point during their high school careers, every FFA member will have first-hand experience planting, weeding, picking, shelling and delivering produce. Jesse laughs that shelling peas back at the school just might be their favorite activity.
This is important work—and it’s needed. Approximately 20 percent of the Nettleton's population lives below the poverty line. Just up the road, the Nettleton F.A.I.T.H. Food Pantry accepts produce for its Food Pantry Day the third Saturday of every month. When the pantry isn’t taking produce, students haul vegetables to the Salvation Army soup kitchen in Tupelo. There it immediately goes into the kitchen and is turned into lunches for the community.
Meanwhile, agriculture is Mississippi’s number one industry, employing roughly 260,000 people—17 percent of the state’s workforce—either directly or indirectly. Jesse thinks it’s important for students to understand the connections here. He hopes they’ll walk away from the garden with a better understanding of where their food comes from, the work involved, how they, personally, can help bring food to tables. In fact, in 2016, the gardens grew 440,000 total servings of produce. Jesse and the kids were proud to donate 43,200 of those servings to their community.
After 30 short minutes of work, the buckets are now filled to the brim with peas. They are loaded onto the bus and one-by-one students take their seats for the short drive back to school. Jesse takes one last look at the garden. Although it was a challenging year, it’s done its job. Most importantly, he says, the students will know their garden has helped them made a difference in someone’s life.