“It is my belief that well being is intimately tied to the soil,” Sophia Buggs tells her audience.
With a grin and an air of confidence, Buggs is holding a watering can on a stage, presenting her knowledge of plant life and urban agriculture to a Massillon, Ohio, gathering.
“It was always my grandmother who has always reminded me to stay true to who I am, stay true to my roots and do the thing that you know,” she said “In fact, ancestral wisdom saved me.”
Buggs of Lady Buggs Pharm, on the southside of Youngstown, Ohio, sees herself not only as an urban farmer but as a food educator, herbalist, spiritualist and evangelist.
About 14 years ago, Buggs was living in Florida far from her ancestral roots and her grandmother in northeast Ohio. She felt sick, tired and unhealthy. Her grandmother would tell her to stay connected to nature.
“My grandmother would treat The Weather Channel like a sitcom. She would watch it all the time and then want to talk about how the weather was affecting her garden,” Buggs said.
Buggs followed her grandmother’s wisdom, but it wasn’t until after her grandmother died and she was laid off in Florida that Buggs returned to Youngstown with the idea of getting healthy by growing her own food. She also knew her community did not have access to high quality foods. “I would hear conversations around food and security and how there are communities that are without high quality foods,” she said.
She honored her grandmother the only way she knew how. “I wanted to make my grandmother’s famous zucchini bread, and I had my grandmother’s garden where she grew zucchini, tomatoes and cucumbers.”
Buggs began to grow and eat the fresh vegetables, the homemade zucchini bread and delved into medicinal plants. “I found that in growing all of those plants, I found clarity,” she said. “My depression and health issues went away.”
She continued farming on her urban acre and began an in-depth plant education. Buggs has earned a number of accreditations, including a market garden certificate with Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation and a certificate of intuitive plant medicine with One Willow Apothecaries.
Buggs pays it forward by conducting classes on microgreens, healing gardens and medicinal plants. The “pharm” in her business name alludes to the medicinal aspect of her work.
It is her role as director of The Mahoning Food Initiative, however, that she takes special pride in as she promotes food access all over Mahoning County. The position is a regional collaboration with Trumbull County Neighborhood Partnership. Buggs advocates at farmers markets, pop-up markets and other food related events, and provides agricultural resources and community gardening opportunities for underserved, Black and Indigenous farmers, and market growers.
She also manages the Urban Wellness Market that brings local fresh produce, wellness products and services to communities that are at a disadvantage. Running an urban farm is not always easy. There are challenges in growing food in an urban area.
Urban farm issues
“Urban farms are typically stationed in neighborhood spaces where you don’t have access to as much funding,” she said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is attempting to change that with a recent announcement and a call for grants for urban agriculture and innovation production. It is making available up to $7.5 million for grants through its Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production in order to expand access to nutritious foods, foster community engagement, increase awareness of climate change and mitigate the effects within urban areas.
Buggs is excited about the possibilities. “Urban agriculture is finally getting its recognition,” she said.
Another challenging issue for urban gardens is theft. “There is no fencing and you’re in an area that’s already challenged. You just kind of get hit with the things that just naturally happen in a city in general,” Buggs said. “The urban farm is the most vulnerable space.”
Despite the struggles and vulnerability, Lady Buggs Pharm will stay in the south side neighborhood and continue to advocate and educate.
“I don’t look like a traditional farmer, but I’ll promise you this, I am a farmer. I am the face of food,” she said.
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