Amplifying the Sheats’ Farm Restoration Project
Mike and Shyretha Sheats, the couple behind the multi-faceted The Plate Sale, spend their time juggling pop ups on Athens game days, taking care of their three-year-old daughter Luna, and working in Athens restaurants. In recent months, they’ve added sanding floors to their list, working to update Shyretha’s grandmother’s home and farm.
The 12-acre Farm Restoration Project, located in Oglethorpe county east of Athens, includes an old chicken yard, smokehouse, and heaps of old-growth foliage packed with wild plums, bamboo, and bitter orange trees. Shyretha’s grandmother had lived on the property until she passed away in 2012.
Shyretha, who grew up on the property just next door, saw it as an opportunity to build on the hard work her grandmother had done. “The least we could do is come back and keep it up,” adds Mike.
“When you have that opportunity to restore something that’s been in your family, everyone in this community is in good support of that,” says Paul Sorah, farmer at Hearts of Harvest and member of the Athens Land Trust. Sorah has advised the Sheats how to navigate some beginning challenges on their farm.
As of October 2019, the Sheats have got their first cover crop, rye, in a pasture they plan to plant in the late spring. They’re thinking about starting with crops like peas, beans, and leafy greens, in addition to cut flowers and herbs, to continue conditioning the soil. With combined experience in the culinary and agriculture world, as well as support from mentors in Atlanta and Athens, the Sheats aim to one day provide employment and housing on the farm.
The couple is embracing land ownership, and planning on running a business collective off of the farm. Showing us an aerial photo of the farm taken in the 90s, Shyretha calls it “the blueprint”.
“Right now, the property is mostly overgrown,” says Shyretha. “We have a vision for the project as a whole, but it’s a process”.
Their goals are wide-ranging. “We want to grow things that are bountiful, that we can extend to the neighborhood,” in a CSA or pay-what-you-can model, says Shyretha. Longer-term projects also include growing ginger for a ginger concentrate beverage, adding high tunnels, and, of course, a future brick and mortar restaurant.
With all their projects, the Sheats have the support of the local food community. “Down here, we’re pretty tapped into the importance of local food systems,” says Sorah. “Small farms are the backbone of the future of sustaining accessible food for communities. We all support each other, because we understand that we’re much stronger as a collective together”.
The Sheats are well aware of their role in today’s conversation. Nationally, the USDA reports that black farmers made up 1.4% of the country’s 3.2 million farmers in 2012. The same study reports that in Georgia, black farmers make up 4% of the state’s total farmers.
“Here, our family could keep the land and build off of what has been done for 40-60 years,” says Mike. Gesturing to Luna, playing nearby, he adds, “and we can pass it on to someone else – creating generational wealth”.
Mike is also interested in the using the land to showcase the food from this particular region. “Most of the spotlight on southern food is about low country cuisine or Appalachian food,” he says, but “the Georgia woods are a totally different environment”.
The Sheats are aiming to secure a location for their restaurant by the end of 2020, as well as leasing out agricultural space on the farm. Currently, they’re staying busy with opportunities networking for resources, sponsorships, and funding.
On the host committee for the Georgia Organics 2020 conference in Athens, Mike and Shyretha are looking forward to the networking at the conference, connecting with progressive farmers to talk about the future of farming.
“We’re discussing how we can contribute, how to we fit in the scope of farming,” says Mike. It’s about preservation, he says, “but it’s about amplifying as well.”
“It’s making a statement, and using this as a voice to then tell the stories that we want to keep going”.