Want to visit or volunteer?
The Lovejoy City Garden, 2296 Steele Road in Lovejoy, is open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For details, call City Hall at (770) 471-2304 and ask for Cassandra Hettermann or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On a plot of land across the street from a federal detention center, row after row of perky peppers, peas, cucumbers and eggplant sprout from the ground. But this is no ordinary garden.
The mayor of Lovejoy tilled the soil. The town’s city council members can be found shelling the butter beans. Inmates, on loan from the Sheriff’s Office, help harvest the produce.
The massive garden is one of Lovejoy’s answers to the great recession that shook the country, and especially Clayton County. Since May, the garden – roughly the size of 10 football fields – has yielded 25,000 pounds of produce, all of it given away at no cost, to anyone in need.
» PHOTOS: Spend a day at the Lovejoy City Garden
Mayor Bobby Cartwright came up with the idea of the free garden a year ago, to help mainly the town’s citizens, and sunk $4,000 of his own money into the vacant city-owned lot. It’s more popular than he ever dreamed.
At the height of the recession, Clayton’s unemployment soared to 13 percent, eclipsing the rest of metro Atlanta, which hovered around 10 percent. Five years into the recovery, Clayton’s unemployment rate is 9.4 percent compared to 7.6 percent for the metro area. And, despite, the announcement of several recent big job-creating ventures and talk of resurrecting its transit system, many areas of the county are still contending with high foreclosures and poverty.
Lovejoy is a blue-collar city of about 7,500, with many elderly people on fixed income or working families trying to get by, according to Cartwright.
Roughly 2,000 people, a few from as far away as Macon, have made the trek to Clayton County to visit the garden. Some come out of curiosity, others out of need.
Neetsinna Ricks, an unemployed waitress and mother of two, has helped pick the crop. It’s her way of “paying it forward” for produce she gets at the city’s community center, where the food is distributed.
In the future, Cartwright envisions adding a canning system to help people store food, a place where visitors can buy the produce below-wholesale prices (food would still be free to Lovejoy citizens) and possibly some tables where visitors can play checkers.
Those involved in urban agriculture and gardening say the Lovejoy garden is one of the largest and most unusual operations of its kind.
“It’s pretty unusual because of the volume,” said Fred Conrad, community gardening manager for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which works with nearly two dozen gardening organizations in 12 metro Atlanta counties. Conrad noted that Lovejoy’s production in the past two months nearly surpasses the amount grown and distributed so far this year by groups affiliated with the food bank.
The fact that government officials are so involved in the day-to-day operation also is a new twist.
“It’s rare for a city to be so supportive of urban agriculture like that,” said Michael Wall, program director at Georgia Organic, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that works with farmers and communities to connect families with organic food.
The garden has become an oasis for a county still struggling to recover from a brutal recession.
“What I’ve seen with the elderly and the unemployed is that the biggest thing since the hard recession hit was making a choice between medicine and food,” Cartwright said. “Our elderly who draw Social Security get very little benefits. So the options of this garden and getting fresh vegetables from us on a weekly basis helps fill that void they don’t have the money for.”
The Lovejoy City Garden sits across the street from the city’s biggest industry and employer, The Robert A. Deyton Detention Facility, which houses federal inmates awaiting trial.
“We’re working-class people,” Cartwright said. “If a man or woman missed a day of work, something will go lacking.”
It was that working-class sensibility and a yearning to reconnect with his south Georgia farm roots that prompted Cartwright to start the garden last year. With a 1949 Farmall tractor he bought as a teenager and other old farm equipment he had, Cartwright set about transforming the lot that city leaders had hoped to turn into a train station.
Other city leaders joined in, applying for a grant. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development responded with a $140,000 grant that has been used to install a fence and irrigation system and hire a full-time worker.
On a recent Friday morning, council members Rebekah Wright and Mary Ann Carp sorted butter beans in the city’s maintenance building. Nearby, city code enforcer Cassandra Hetterman tended a pea-shelling machine.
“People come up to me in the store and they’ll say, ‘Thank you so much. My children had vegetables this week,’” said Carp, who works there three to four days a week.
“I’m just happy citizens recognize we’re trying to do something good for them,” said Wright, who comes a couple times a week. “This is what we’re supposed to do.”
Outside, a group of people worked off their community service time whittling down a mountain of butter beans. Four prisoners on loan from the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office also are on hand to help. Sheriff Victor Hill is so impressed with Lovejoy’s garden that his department has set up, with Lovejoy’s help, its own two-acre plot.
The housing crisis and glut of vacant property has forced cities to look for ways to reuse land to benefit communities, said Michael Wall, an expert on community gardens. Detroit is renting vacant lots for $1 to resident gardeners as a way to deal with its foreclosures. Baltimore and Minneapolis also have embraced urban agriculture.
Lovejoy’s garden is “quite impressive for a first-year operation,” said Lester Bray, an adviser to Fayette County’s Plant-A-Row for the Hungry program, which has produced thousands of pounds of food for the Atlanta Community Food Bank over the years. Lovejoy and Fayette now swap surplus produce.
Hampton resident Beverly Cantrell squealed with delight when she saw the list of recent offerings on the Lovejoy Community Center board included Fayette’s surplus peaches. She was one of about three dozen people in line.
The 63-year-old retiree lives on a fixed-income and has two grown children and three great-grandchildren living with her. She comes several times a week for the fresh produce. “Every little bit helps,” she said.