Tuesday, February 20, 2024

How Kaneisha Miller rebuilt the middle of nowhere into an agritourism destination

Major east-west route U.S. Hwy 80 once served as an early auto trail across the Southern part of the nation. Formerly known as the Dixie Overland Highway, the trail stretched from Savannah, Georgia, to San Diego, California. It became known as “the shortest and only year-round, ocean-to-ocean highway.” No longer a transcontinental thruway, it’s currently a familiar route for area visitors and Black Belt Region folk traveling to Culloden, Georgia, for fresh produce. Their destination: EM Farms.

“When I first started my on-farm market, I remember one Saturday I only made $7,” said owner/operator Kaneisha Miller, 29, chuckling.

“I stuck with it, though. I have earned more than a $1,000 on some Saturdays because my fruits and vegetables are so popular.” Miller is the only black female farmer in her town to offer an on-site farmer’s market, agritourism stop and national, trendy events like goat yoga. She joins more than 60 unique farms in Georgia that offer locally grown foods. Her roadside farmer’s market covers an acre and a half. Altogether, she owns 6 acres. However, working four plots, a seasonal high tunnel (or hoop house) and new planter technology called a vertical hydroponic tower is more feasible for this one-woman show.

Bold red-and-black signage helps direct guests into Miller’s rural retreat. One that’s outfitted with a flower-embellished metal shed to handle the day’s sells. “I like to think of EM Farms as youthful with a feminine touch,” she said of her two-year agribusiness. Visitors can see exactly how the farm’s crops are harvested. They gain instant access to fresh okra, peppers, kale, collards, turnips, corn, broccoli, tomatoes, peas, strawberries, muscadines and canned preserves.

“My market is open from May to August,” the third-generation farmer and now self-made entrepreneur said, “and, I get really good business.” Miller learned the dealings of farming from her alma mater Fort Valley State University (FVSU). There, she majored in agricultural economics. In between coursework, she also interned with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

Interning as a soil conservationist turned into a full-time job. “Helping farmers with technical and financial assistance showed me that there are a lot of moving parts to farming,” said Miller, who’s been with the federal department for six years to date. Before and after she leaves work, Miller dedicates hours to cultivating her own land.

“Don’t think for one moment what I do is easy,” Miller said. “Farming is the hardest thing to do.” Before she heads to her NRCS post, she wakes up at 5:30 a.m. weekdays to prep her farm. When she returns home, it’s more field work until nightfall.

“I’m a perfectionist,” she said, “I’ve had to learn how to let things go, especially when the weather isn’t cooperating.”

Instead, she farms under a new rule of thumb: Soil test always. Plant on time. And let God do the rest. “I can’t control the outcome, but He can,” Miller said. And He has. Miller has attracted new business through special events on top of her word-of-mouth farming operation. Social media and community networking has played a crucial part in EM Farms’ foot traffic as well.

Throughout the academic year, Miller often partners with FVSU, which donated the vertical hydroponic tower and 55 tomato transplants to EM Farms. NRCS has helped equip the farm with a brand-new 4-inch well and the high tunnel system through its financial assistance program. “I continuously invest in my agribusiness and ask questions,” Miller said. “It’s learning as I go.”

Miller takes her agribusiness to heart. She named it after her grandmother, Emma Maude. “She was an incredible Southern cook,” Miller said. “My paternal and maternal grandpas were farmers, too.” To keep her family’s farming heritage alive, Miller plans to add a restaurant to the on-farm market within the next five years.

The concept: Guests handpick their produce then watch it cook into healthy, lip-smacking breakfast and lunch fare. “I want to have more jams and jellies for them to choose from as well,” said Miller. “I can see it now. My grandma would have loved all that is happening out here.” And Miller offers this advice to beginner farmers who will face many challenges while starting a new business single-handedly:

“If you’re unsure about your purpose in life, ask God to show you,” she said. “He will. Also, put energy into your goals, give to others, treat people right and literally ask Him for your desires. He will bless your business in ways you never imagined. It all starts with faith and ends with action.”

Visit emfarmsllc.com to learn more about Georgia farmer Kaneisha Miller and her Southern agritourism site.

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