These sisters are making an oasis in one of Pittsburgh’s harshest food deserts

Meet TaRay and Raynise Kelly, a.k.a. the Soil Sisters. 

Based on the Hilltop, one of Pittsburgh’s harshest food deserts, they’re part of a growing movement of Black farmers and gardeners that’s embracing horticulture as both therapeutic and transformational.

In a pandemic that has only heightened food access issues, the sisters have hosted a summer camp and given away tools, soil, seeds, and more to get locals working on their own gardens and “ending food apartheid.” They have an eponymous nursery and greenhouse planned for Beltzhoover and hope it will be a community resource as much as a commercial entity.

TaRay also works as a groundskeeper at Pitt and Raynise as a garden educator with Grow Pittsburgh. Both are certified green thumbs, and both find themselves at the forefront of a push to reconnect with the land and reclaim the art of growing.

We spoke with Raynise about their belief in the power of plants, their plans for the future, and why everyone should have a garden. Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Incline: Why is this work so important?

Raynise: There are so many scientific studies that show the therapeutic benefits of gardening. Dietary health risks are also reduced just by adding a few tomatoes to your daily diet. And you’re more likely to do that if it’s growing in your backyard. It’s more than important work, it’s essential — especially during this pandemic.

The Incline: How has the pandemic impacted your business? 

Raynise: Originally, we said we were going to wait to get our nursery going before growing and selling things. But then the pandemic hit and there was no food. People wanted to grow things and they wanted to grow that certain kind of pepper they usually got at the store but couldn’t find now. So we got in our basement and got our grow lights out and everything we needed to start seedlings, and we put a table and tent up in a vacant lot in Beltzhoover — where our grandparents’ house used to be — and we did a whole social media blast. When people came out that first week, we decided we had to keep going. We can’t wait until we have our nursery. We have to actually get out there now. The pandemic showed that there’s a need for our business and that it isn’t just trendy. No, this is essential.

The Incline: How has the Hilltop changed on the food front? 

Raynise: When we were growing up there were many family owned corner stores that sold produce grown in backyards. It wasn’t a food desert at all. There was food access, and that’s how we remember it. But that changed.

The Incline: Is Pittsburgh a good place to start a business? Is it a good place for entrepreneurs of color to start a business? 

Raynise: I think it’s about finding a niche. There are other nurseries in Pittsburgh, but what sets us apart is the mission work that’s so important to us.

And the support in Pittsburgh has been amazing. There are so many small businesses that have reached out and shown us support and opportunities for collaboration. We didn’t even think that was possible.

I do feel like resources are available, but I don’t feel like they are always well-publicized or easily attainable. I mean, it’s really one of those things — if you want it, you’ll get it. You really have to do the legwork.

The Incline: What’s next for Soil Sisters? 

We’re planning to build the nursery and before that we’ll be looking to do at least two to three workshops. We’ll also be fleshing out our plan for 2021.

Thanks, Raynise. 

Here’s more on Pittsburgh’s Black farmers and gardeners — including the Soil Sisters — and how they’re working to change the local food industry.

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