COVID-19 Farmer Stories: Tianna Neal, Keysville, Georgia
Located on several acres of the once renowned Boggs Academy, now Boggs Rural Life Center, in Burke County, Georgia, Starlit Roots is an organic vegetable farm in its first year of operation. Hoping to grow into a wholesale business that provides local schools with fresh produce for their students, Starlit Roots business has adjusted to supporting consumers directly through a local online farmers market during the pandemic. One thing, however, has remained constant in owner/operator Tianna Neal’s vision: in addition to farming seasonal veggies, Tianna reserves a section of the land she leases to provide farm education to community members.
Coming out of a few years of training alongside experienced growers and within new farmer collectives, Tianna has maintained a passion for keeping community central to her farming mission. “As an organization, Starlit Roots strongly values agricultural education and is currently establishing a training program for new and aspiring farmers that will provide training in sustainable small-scale crop production.”
“I love to teach. When I learned how to grow I was really empowered because I just didn’t know it was in my capacity. And so I want to show others that it’s in their capacity.” Farming in a food desert, where her community has no access to grocery stores for more than ten miles in any direction, Tianna aims to transform her local food system by building up what’s already there. Tianna shares that “being located in a food desert inspires me even more to educate people to sustain themselves. But also to really take control of their food system and not really believe the lie that’s always been given to them.”
“I want others to be empowered by the idea that one can have some type of control over [their] food. You know, not necessarily full control, but you can have some control over your food.” She hopes to continue the education program, and grow her own business to hire employees, and apprentices who want to learn what it takes to start a successful farm business.
Tianna has a background in entrepreneurship, and when she found agriculture she knew “this is where I’m supposed to be.” In her first year, between the support from Georgia Organics that provided her with a wash-pack station in addition to a supportive cohort of fellow beginning farmers, and receiving a Young Farmer Grant to purchase other capital investments like silage tarps and a seeder, Tianna tells us “I’m really being given a lot of the resources that I need to make this a successful operation.”
“I know a lot of young farmers, they have a vision too, but having the resources is a whole other ballpark.”
While she was fortunate to receive nonprofit funding to support her first year of business and the massive capital undertaking that new farm businesses require even in a year without a pandemic, Tianna never even looked toward the government as an option for support. She didn’t apply for federal COVID19 relief because she felt she wouldn’t qualify being in her first year of operation.
Tianna has dedicated her operation to resourcing her community, both with nutrition through the food she grows, and with the knowledge and support of her teaching so everyone can build up their own food security. And yet, in order to sustain her business and her town, Tianna has had to rely on private resources from nonprofit groups to build up the business capable of the pivots demanded during COVID. These were small amounts of support, one $5K grant, and one donated a wash-pack station, and yet that little support made all the difference for being able to carry herself, her business, and members of her community through a time where a little extra funding goes a long way toward essential services like food production.
Contact your Senators and let them know that young farmers like Tianna need support in the next round of federal COVID-19 relief.