Atlanta’s largest urban farm becomes a landowner

Truly Living Well urban farm shows how city folks can grow their own food, provides local food deserts fresh produce.

On the day before Thanksgiving, while the rest of the world was concerned with getting food out of the grocery store, Otis Garrison, his dreadlocks stowed in a purple knitted tam, pushed a wheelbarrow between the raised beds at a farm in the middle of the city, focused on getting food out of the ground.

“Taste this,” he said, holding out a variegated crimson-yellow-and-green leaf from a hibiscus plant. Acidic, aromatic, the leaf yielded a sweet, bitter flavor to a visitor, and a surprise: Who knew you could eat hibiscus leaves?

Introducing new plant-based food to visitors is part of Garrison’s plan. As the Clarkston resident spread compost at the Truly Living Well farm on the Westside, he revealed that his earthy task has an intangible goal: to change the way people think about food.

That is also the goal of this urban farm, sited on three-and-a-half acres between a housing project and the Atlanta University Center. The Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture (abbreviated TLW) was founded in 2006 by K. Rashid Nuri, a self-proclaimed “food revolutionary,” to demonstrate to city-dwellers that one can grow food, eat well and nurture the land in the middle of a paved-over world.

The challenge for Nuri, and his successor Carol Hunter, was finding a place to settle. A donated back yard was too shady. Seven acres of land leased from the Wheat Street Baptist Church was ideal, but the lease was not renewed. Nuri had to literally pull up stakes and leave that Fourth Ward location in 2015. He took 125 fruit trees and hundreds of pounds of topsoil with him to the Westside.

Since then TLW has leased the current site from the Atlanta Housing Authority. This fall the nonprofit farm crossed a major threshold. They were granted the deed to the land with the stipulation that they continue serving as an agricultural and educational center and a community resource.

Signing that deed, said Hunter, was a momentous occasion. “It was a long time coming,” she said. “We’ve never owned our own land. To have this now, especially in these times, it’s very important to us.”

For one thing, it allows the group to continue to grow peppers, broccoli, kale, lettuce, celery, persimmons, collards and many other crops to offer to the neighborhood at their weekly sales, serving as an important source of fresh healthy food in an area that the USDA has deemed a “food desert.”

It also offers the farm stability and a way for its leaders to model the strategy they try to teach: Ownership is critical.

“Historically African-Americans have lost so much land in this country since the 1900s,” said Hunter, a former television producer. “Anytime we are able to reclaim land for farming, it’s good for the community.”

At the Truly Living Well center, produce is grown in raised beds. They generate soil for those beds in several enormous compost piles, where leaves and decaying vegetable matter are transformed into loam. Otis Garrison, farm manager, shovels mulch. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Christina Matacotta

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Credit: Christina Matacotta

The largest urban farm in Atlanta, TLW has collaborated with multiple partners, including the Food Well Alliance and the Westside Future Fund, to help strengthen the Westside community.

Bee Downtown keeps hives at the farm. Clark Atlanta University coordinated an aquaponics experiment at the farm, raising tilapia in tanks and growing crops using their nutrient-rich waste products.

The Atlanta Botanical Garden has helped with guidance on plant science and advice about expanding and coordinating TLW’s brigade of volunteers.

“Keeping the farm going is essential,” said Mary Pat Matheson, the Botanical Garden’s executive director. “But it’s a real challenge. They have a bare-bones staff who are so tenacious. They don’t give up, and they are passionate and deeply connected to what they’re doing. They are the Little Engine That Could.”

The pandemic has tested the farm’s resources, draining away some of its volunteer force. But, with shortages on grocery store shelves, it also brought a more keen appreciation of a vegetable garden’s advantages.

“COVID highlighted the basics,” said Garrison, the farm manager. People saw that growing your own helps you survive. “It brought more people out for Gardening 101.”

Like the pandemic, prosperity can be a problem too. The Westside is booming. The Beltline has brought more intown migration and nearby houses that were valued at $25,000 five years ago are on the market for ten times that amount.

In the meantime, there are people who are food-insecure right in the neighborhood. TLW usually has a collard sale just before Thanksgiving, but this year teamed up with a sorority, Zeta Phi Beta, and with Wholesome Wave Georgia, who distributed 300 pounds of TLW collards to hungry families.

Otis Garrison (right), farm manager at Truly Living Well Farm, and Ivory Flemister (left), media manager at Truly Living Well Farm, stand in the greenhouse at Truly Living Well Farm in Atlanta. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Christina Matacotta

icon to expand image

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Garrison said the success of TLW is part of a boom in Atlanta’s urban farms and collectives, including Gilliam’s Community Garden (in the Westside neighborhood); Gangstas to Growers (a program for at-risk youth and the formerly incarcerated); the Grow Where You Are agricultural collective; and the Metro Atlanta Urban Farm.

“At conferences of people from Black-owned farms, I found out that folks around the U.S. look to Atlanta for a sense of what is possible,” he said.

Those trying to make a living in the business know that urban farms can’t compete with the low prices at supermarkets and big-box stores. Wholesome Wave Georgia offers a program that doubles the value of food stamps at local farms. And, said Hunter, local produce is more valuable.

“Every time you spend a dollar with an urban farm, that dollar is staying in this community,” she said. “The quality is better, it hasn’t traveled for thousands of miles, it’s higher in nutritional value, it will be fresher. You’re not just paying for the food; you are investing in a more robust local food system.”


Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture

Saturdays, 9 a.m.-noon. Freedom Farmer’s Market at the Carter Center, 453 Freedom Parkway NE, Atlanta.

Truly Living Well accepts online orders that can be picked up Fridays, 2-6 p.m., at the farm: 324 Lawton St. SW, Atlanta.