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Atlanta's urban farms

The local food movement grows

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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.

Love is Love Farm at Gaia Gardens

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."

Patchwork City Farms

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."

GREEN THUMBS: Bremen James (clockwise from top left), Joe Reynolds, Isia Cooper, Chris Clinton, Hudson Rouse, Jamila Norman, and Cecilia Gatungo - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • GREEN THUMBS: Bremen James (clockwise from top left), Joe Reynolds, Isia Cooper, Chris Clinton, Hudson Rouse, Jamila Norman, and Cecilia Gatungo

Oakleaf Mennonite Farm

"What's growing?" is not a question often heard on East Atlanta Village's streets. More often it's "Who's playing tonight?" or "Where are we drinking?" unless you happen to be Bremen James or Hudson Rouse. They, on the other hand, know exactly what's growing in EAV — because they're the ones growing it.

Less than a mile south of the Midway Pub, and only 6.1 miles from the Gold Dome, lies Berea Mennonite Church, home of Oakleaf Mennonite Farm. With 2.5 acres of crops, a chicken coop, and three mischievous little goats, it's easy to forget that the Earl is right down the street.

"I've always backyard gardened," says Rouse. "I grew up picking peaches and blueberries and strawberries and muscadines and whatever was available in South Georgia with my granny, and always had someone who had a farm available." James fell in love with agriculture after spending time on a farm in Colorado. "I really dug it, so I quit my job and started interning and apprenticing at farms."

As fate would have it, the two men met while James was visiting Atlanta. "We were both doing the same type of thing in our backyards and were looking for something bigger." James and Rouse, both residents of East Atlanta and avid home growers, took over the farm's daily operations in 2011. "We weren't just interested in farming, because we've done that," says James. "We were interested in building a community where there really wasn't one already."

A father himself, Rouse is especially focused on engaging children through farm tours and hosting school groups. "Part of farming is learning to use what you have," he says. "It takes everyday problem-solving skills. But kids don't learn about that anymore. Last year we had kids that didn't know what a tomato was."

Beyond localism and farming, James is especially interested in reintroducing the practice of homesteading into the new American way of eating and food distribution. "It's the most self-sufficient way to run a household and generally includes growing your own food, and then making use of the things that naturally come on to the property like sunlight, rainwater, gravity."

All do-gooding and green-going aside, Atlanta's local food movement has a lot of growing up to do. "We have friends from other cities that are amazed at how many resources we have here," says Rouse, "but they're so underutilized. It's crazy."

In the end, Rouse and James agree that consumers are the final piece of the puzzle. "We did it for a long time without getting paid," says Rouse. "We'd be doing it regardless, but the more consumers there are at the end of the loop, the better and better it gets for the people who are trying to grow."

Crack in the Sidewalk Farmlet

"The economy may implode, but we're still gonna eat," says Chris Clinton as he tends a backyard garden patch. A golf cart whizzes by, hidden from view by the leafy underbrush, and a rooster cock-a-doodle-doos nearby. His partner, Isia Cooper, chimes in, "And we're gonna have fun while doing it, too."

Together, Clinton and Cooper are the founders of Crack in the Sidewalk Farmlet. Just south of East Atlanta Village, the area emits a sense of rural tranquility. "When we moved down here we said it was 'ghetto country.' It's rural but still urban, with a random golf course thrown in."

In the aftermath of the economic downturn in 2008, and the threat of peak oil looming, the couple decided it was time to learn how to grow food beyond a home garden. "It seemed like the only way to really do it was to do it full time," says Clinton, "and if you're gonna do it full time then you've got to make a living off of it."

Tucked away in southwest Atlanta (past the Starlight Six Drive-In, but before I-285), what was once a home garden is now a small urban farm. "We started out in our backyard, and then we took over next door's backyard, and then the backyard across the street," says Clinton. "We've got this master plan to take over the whole neighborhood."

Several similar scale operations can be found around the city and, in many cases, are run by a generation of hip, young urban farmers. "It's kinda like everybody started out with different means," says Clinton, "but every year everybody's growing and expanding. You can just see that in a few years, there are gonna be a bunch of kick-ass farms."

For Cooper, the practices of local farming and foraging are essential, and should be incorporated into modern society. "It's most important to get as close to your food source as possible so you can know, beyond just labels or words, what you're getting," she says.

Growing their own food has given the young couple a deep sense of self-reliance in a society dictated by consumerism. "Issues surrounding food are like a gateway," says Clinton. "Once people start thinking about food, they start to consider the problems with health care, and bureaucracy, GMOs, immigration, the ills of capitalism; it branches out into everything because food connects all the dots. Food connects everybody."

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