Atlanta’s urban farmers show creativity growing food in the city

Any patch of land can become a farm.

That’s the lesson I’ve learned talking with farmers on my visits to the Atlanta area’s more than 40 farmers markets.

<<See photos of Atlanta's urban farms here

Some ply their trade on dozens of acres far from city lights, while others weed their gardens within sight of schools, golf courses or the Georgia Dome. All sell at local farmers markets or through a community-supported agriculture program, or both.

Andrea Ness and Andy Friedberg are farming about 1¼ acres along the Westside Trail of the Beltline. They’re Aluma Farm, and they have a lease with Atlanta Beltline Inc. to garden on a 5-acre former industrial lot at the intersection of the Adair Park, Oakland City and Capitol View neighborhoods.

The Beltline and the Environmental Protection Agency did extensive cleanup of the site, and now the two young farmers are building up the soil and growing a wide variety of vegetables.

Nuri Icgoren created Urban Sprout Farms on 5 acres in Atlanta’s Polar Rock neighborhood, within a stone’s throw of I-75. “I wanted to be sure we gave access to the people of Polar Rock. We have the neighborhood youth working with us, and there are elders with their own plots.”

Indeed, one of the advantages of being in an urban setting is close proximity to neighbors, including neighboring school children.

Lovey and Prentiss Gilliam of Gilliam’s Community Garden in the southwest Atlanta neighborhood of Oakland City farm about 1½ acres of a 3-acre property. They grow vegetables and herbs, there’s a chicken coop and a turkey coop, and they’re building a duck pond so they can raise ducks as well.

Neighborhood children ride their bikes past the garden and stop in for impromptu lessons in agriculture and nutrition, and the garden formally partners with nearby Finch Elementary School for lessons in science and math.

But farms don’t even need an acre to be productive. Filomena De Pina of Mena’s Farm gardens in the front and backyard of her two-story yellow house in the Grove Park neighborhood of northwest Atlanta. The front is filled with flowers and the backyard is a ¾-acre garden, where she grows okra, potatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, beans, onions, herbs and “a little bit of everything.”

On a residential lot adjacent to Atlanta’s Brown’s Mill Golf Course, farmers Chris Clinton and Isia Cooper of Crack in the Sidewalk Farmlet have been growing vegetables for almost nine years.

The name is a reflection of the farm’s urban nature — now expanded from the one residential lot to six other properties nearby, including a lot behind a church.

“We named it Crack in the Sidewalk sort of on a whim. It’s been like a crack in the sidewalk, it just keeps getting bigger,” Cooper said. The name is also a reflection of the tenacity of plants that survive and even thrive in sidewalk cracks, and of the farmers themselves.

A lot on a hill at the border of Grant Park and Summerhill is now part of one of three urban plots being farmed by Brent Hall of Freewheel Farm.

Hall has been farming the 1/3-acre site since 2013, first clearing it of kudzu and trees and then dealing with the remnants of a time when it was a neighborhood dumping ground and spot for drug deals.

Since then, he’s acquired two more spaces for gardening, one in Druid Hills and another in Grant Park.

There is one urban farm that doesn’t fit the mold of plots located on tiny pockets of land. It’s Gaia Gardens, a 5-acre certified organic farm between East Atlanta and Decatur, hidden behind East Lake Commons, a cohousing community. Joe Reynolds and Judith Winfrey of Love is Love Farm are the farmers-in-residence.

Reynolds noted that credit for the success of the farm at Gaia Gardens belongs to East Lake Commons, owners of the property who have steadfastly supported its infrastructure and equipment needs for its 18 years of existence.

He and other farmers also credit such urban agriculture pioneers as Rashid Nuri and Eugene Cooke for helping farmers connect with their neighborhood communities and provide important access to food in areas that are often food deserts.

Another advantage of being an urban farmer, according to Ness of Aluma Farm: “We enjoy meeting our neighbors. It’s really building up a community.”

Listening to their stories and visiting their farms has taught me that what makes up a farm is in the eye — and the imagination — of the beholder.

ExploreWhere to find farmers markets around metro Atlanta