The land was rough – 4 acres at the corner of Sunset and Peachtree roads that offered neither the beauty of the sinking sun nor the mildly sweet scent of the magenta peach tree blossoms that appear each spring.
A dilapidated bungalow sat on the southeast corner of the grounds – the tail end of a buffer separating the Company’s Charlotte Quarry from a cluster of homes along a stretch of busy and beaten Carolina blacktop. The spot had little value by most accounts, but Robin Emmons saw something more.
"It was overgrown. There was a mud hole over there and it was just a mess," she said. "But I saw these beautiful willow oaks and apple trees that were many, many years old and I said, ‘I think I’m in love. I’ll take it.’"
Emmons is energetic and has a bright smile that grows wider when she’s knee deep in rich brown soil. At 47, she’s as comfortable reaching into a chicken coop as she is speaking before a nationally televised audience, which she did when she was named one of CNN’s Heroes of the Year in 2013. Her road had already been long by the time she received the honor and her success, as she readily admits, did not result from her efforts alone.
It was 2008 when concern for a troubled family member drove Emmons from the world of corporate finance. Her brother, suffering from mental illness and struggling in the legal system, had been placed in a group home where, she said, he was fed mostly processed foods. After years advocating on his behalf, she found him overweight and living on a diet she was certain would lead to diabetes and other chronic health conditions.
"After a decade of him living on the streets and my fighting to get him to sleep indoors in a bed, and to get him through rehab, and to make sure he had the right supports in place, I was not about to let a lack of healthy food be what threatened him," Emmons said.
It wasn’t long after that she shed her corporate gray suit for good, opting instead for a t-shirt and a pair of dirty blue jeans.
She expanded the garden she had maintained in the backyard of her Huntersville, North Carolina, home. From that ground grew not just fresh produce for her brother and others in his group home, but the foundation for Sow Much Good, the nonprofit urban farming collective she now heads.
Garden Meets Quarry
Brandon Lindsey, sales manager in the Carolina South District, has been with Martin Marietta since entering the Management Associate Program in 1998. He had worked in North Carolina, Virginia and elsewhere by the time he met Emmons and was doing well in his career. In 2013, Lindsey saw the impact Sow Much Good was having and had another idea.
He received approval from the Company and approached Emmons, offering to lease the 4-acre stretch at the back of the Charlotte Quarry for $1 a year.
"It was a good way to use the land for something other than a buffer, and a good time to do something for the community," Lindsey said. "It was a particularly worthwhile project because of the wonderful things that Robin’s organization does."
The land was secure, but there was still much to do.
‘Overgrown Mess’ Becomes Working Farm
Today, Sow Much Good employs five staffers and a handful of interns, but at the time, Emmons was completely reliant upon volunteers. Enter Mike Hamrick, plant manager at Charlotte Quarry, and his crew.
"We tore down a couple of buildings, removed trees, stumps and brush, and prepared the ground for her to plant," Hamrick said. "It was pretty substantial. We used all kinds of equipment. We didn’t have a tractor, but we paid for one to come in and plow up the ground."
Further, Hamrick and his team provided more than 400 tons of material from their quarry and constructed a parking lot on the site. They later helped Emmons build a shed that, for a time, served as the center of her farmers market.
The micro farm, where Emmons tries to teach the value of eating healthy, locally grown foods in season, now yields several tons of produce each year that is sold, at an affordable price, to the Charlotte community.
Fresh flowers bloom, bees make honey and up to 20 hens lay eggs on the site. Since 2013, more than 1,000 volunteers have tended to a variety of fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, squash, okra, cucumbers, collards, eggplant and lettuce – foods they grow without the use of pesticides.
Partners Proud of Project’s Growth
The project appears beneficial for all involved.
Emmons believes the Charlotte farm is a fine model for her organization and hopes to replicate it elsewhere in the state. Lindsey and Hamrick, happy to have participated in a good cause, both said they’re pleased their efforts on behalf of the Company have been part of such a successful venture. The people of Charlotte not only have another source of fresh food, but those willing also have the opportunity to experience the joys of growing it themselves.
The farm has allowed more than 1,000 people the opportunity to volunteer.
It is through her interaction with these people and others that Emmons tries to repay Martin Marietta for its ongoing support.
"We try to make the community aware that the people behind us who have a hole in the center of the Earth are not to be demonized," she said. "We try to help people see that many of the luxuries we enjoy, like paved roads and this lovely driveway and some components of our homes, are made possible by these folks and that they’re doing a fabulous job of improving their technologies to make them environmentally friendly."
Learn more about Sow Much Good.