Katia Faroun | Features Editor
When TaRay and Raynise Kelly were kids, organic and locally-sourced produce was easily accessible. They’d be able to find fresh fruits and vegetables in shops on the corners, no matter the day.
Today, corner shops instead have shelves lined with processed snacks and junk food, rather than the nutritious produce the sisters grew up eating. And they saw the need for change.
“There was a lot of older people that remembered Beltzhoover as having fresh produce and good grocery stores, and so I felt like their grandkids deserve the same thing and their great-grandkids deserve the same thing,” TaRay said. “… It needs to come back full circle.”
In 2020, Raynise and TaRay founded Soil Sisters Plant Nursery, an organization with a mission to get seedlings and plants into the hands of Pittsburgh residents. Their hope is to grant food accessibility to those who lack the resources by growing sprouts, hosting educational workshops and eventually selling fresh produce to those in the city.
The sisters have always been surrounded by greenery. Though they grew up just south of the Monongahela River, the Kelly’s have roots further south, and aspects of rural living were inherited by their family — specifically through the gardens of their grandparents. Raynise and TaRay both got the green thumb gene and pursued careers related to botany: Raynise now works with Grow Pittsburgh as a learning garden educator and TaRay works in the grounds department at University of Pittsburgh.
Through Soil Sisters, they’re able to fuse their knowledge together and share it with the community they’re so fond of.
“We knew we wanted to have it in the city. We knew we wanted to have it in Beltzhoover — where we’re from — to give back to the community. That was just the number one thing,” TaRay said.
As Black women, Raynise and TaRay recognize they’re involved in a field that doesn’t consist of many people of their same race. And as small business owners, they know that having connections might be the most helpful part in obtaining funding and grants.
“Sometimes it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” TaRay said.
Because of Raynise’s involvement with various Pittsburgh organizations through her positions on different farming coalitions, the sisters were able to form connections with the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Circles in Pittsburgh, who mentored them through the startup of their business.
Soil Sisters had been in the works for a couple years before launching in 2020 — right as the pandemic started. Since they didn’t yet have the funding to start a physical nursery, and because of the logistical challenges brought on by the pandemic, Raynise and TaRay started up their business online, focusing on their social media presence.
While most business owners feel the pandemic brought them more challenges than rewards, TaRay claims it has actually given their business the boost it needed.
“People were looking for that; people wanted food,” TaRay said. “They wanted to grow. They wanted to garden.”
So far, TaRay and Raynise have navigated the pandemic and their virtual business by attending events at coffee shops and having pop-ups on the land where they plan to build their nursery: the site of their grandparents’ old Beltzhoover home, which burned down in 2010. Until they have enough funding to create a physical nursery, they’re using money out-of-pocket to grow seedlings for flowers and vegetables and sell some succulents and air plants.
“We’re talking about seedlings? We’re a little sprout,” TaRay said with a laugh.
While minority business owners often find themselves to be disadvantaged due to their race or ethnicity, TaRay believes she and her sister have received more support because of their identities as Black women. Sparked by the protests following George Floyd’s death over the summer, the sisters have found that more people are being intentional about supporting Black business owners.
“People really have taken a liking to be interested in Black businesses right now,” TaRay said. “That’s not something that we were expecting.”
TaRay feels optimistic about Soil Sisters’ success and the future of their business; she and Raynise plan on launching their second season on Earth Day and hope to have a physical location for their nursery by the end of the year. And TaRay aspires to make giving back to the community — along with a green thumb — part of the Kelly family’s DNA.
“This is a generational thing,” TaRay said. “I don’t want this to just stop with me and my sister — I want the Soil Sisters to be Soil Brothers, and then nephews and sons and cousins.”