A unique social movement has taken root in Atlanta. Small urban farms continue to pop up within the city limits, bringing farm closer to table than ever before. And with the growing popularity of farmers markets, and general food awareness, it's likely that this new trend is here to stay.
Driving south on Glenwood Avenue, East Atlanta quickly fades into East Lake. A right turn down a residential street dead-ends at a fence with a sign that reads: ORGANIC FARM, DO NOT SPRAY. The gate is overrun with honeysuckle. It smells like flowers and the forest floor.
Once inside Gaia Gardens, the only sign of city life is an occasional plane flying overhead.
Love is Love farmer Joe Reynolds is the fifth farmer to grow at Gaia Gardens. "Judith, my sweetie, and I don't own this, we are landless farmers that grow and sell as Love is Love Farm."
The land is owned by East Lake Commons, a cooperative housing community in East Lake founded 15 years ago by a group of forward-thinking individuals. "When they bought the land," says Reynolds, "they challenged the developer with creating a really amazing, tight-knit community, while reserving a little less than half of the land for a working organic farm."
As the current leaseholder, Reynolds' operation must honor guidelines set by the housing community. For example, the farm is required to be certified organic and grow a wide diversity of crops at all times.
Another stipulation of the lease is that the farm must provide a Community Supported Agriculture program, a CSA for short. With a CSA, members or subscribers pay for a share of the anticipated harvest before the season; once harvesting begins, they receive weekly shares of vegetables and fruit.
"It's helpful because I can't really predict every detail that the farm has to deal with," says Reynolds. "But with the CSA I know how much food we need to have, and I can really do a lot of budgeting around that information," he continues. "Another reason I love the CSA is I get a really deep feeling of community with those folks. Some of them have been with me ever since the first day that we sold food."
Often, the criticism of buying food from local farmers is that it costs more, especially when mainstream food prices are so low in comparison. "I get that," says Reynolds, "but nobody's making a fortune. I make a really modest salary. We run a pretty tight ship cost-wise."
For Reynolds, the bigger questions is: How do you make it so that farmers don't have to drop their prices while people who don't have the economic means to meet those prices can still have access to that food?
Even with the obstacles Reynolds feels lucky to be a part of the significant social movement toward localism in Atlanta. "When I entered adulthood, I just wanted to do something meaningful and farming is just kind of a win on so many levels. It's not only meaningful, but it's also good work, and there's a lot of it."
Just a few blocks south of Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, near the heart of Atlanta's historic West End neighborhood, Cecilia Gatungo and Jamila Norman of Patchwork City Farms prepare for market. Huge greenish-purple leaves are carefully snipped, bundled, and placed tenderly in a basket. "It's actually a mustard green," says Gatungo. "An Asian variety. It's red and tastes just like wasabi, but it mellows out when you cook it."
Gatungo and Norman met and bonded while cleaning up parks and volunteering at the Good Shepherd Community Garden in West End. "We were talking about how lousy our Kroger was when we realized that we had a shared goal," says Norman. "We both wanted to grow food for ourselves and our families." Jumping in headfirst, the two began growing a variety of fruits and vegetables in Gatungo's front yard. "It was insane. Our neighbors thought we were crazy."
Soon, what began as a successful home garden grew into a commercial operation on half an acre of land leased from the Atlanta Public Schools System. By farming in West End, Gatungo has found a way to reconnect with her roots. "As a kid, everything we ate came from our garden. I wanted the kids in the neighborhood to have that, too."
During a time when diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease plague Americans everywhere, Norman is grateful for the health benefits of urban farming. "Nature's already got an eating plan that we should be working with that's helping us stay healthy and in the right rhythms."
As small urban farms like Patchwork City begin to take root in Atlanta, progress depends on whether or not consumers are willing to move away from buying cheap, processed food, and buy into ideas like seasonal eating and farmers markets despite relatively higher prices.
"When people support local agriculture, they're making an economic and political choice," says Gatungo. "A choice to support the local economy and to pay a fair price for their food. A lot of times we get asked why our food is so expensive. My quickest answer is, 'You can pay me more, or you can pay your doctor more.' There are hidden costs to everything."
"Supporting local farms creates jobs and keeps people employed in an industry that is helping your health and helping the environment," says Norman. "It's just the right thing to do."