If you have a patch of land in Atlanta, you could be an urban agriculturalist or — in layman’s terms – an urban farmer. And the City would be one of your biggest cheerleaders.
In 2015, the City of Atlanta Office of Sustainability created a taskforce to research and investigate safety considerations and policies for future Controlled Environment Agriculture, a technology-based farming practice which takes place within enclosed structures. Also that year, Mario Cambardella became the first Urban Agriculture director within the Office of Sustainability.
The overall goal – to boost the production of more local fruits and vegetables, and to improve the quality of life of Atlanta’s citizens by enhancing the environment.
During his first year in office, Mayor Kasim Reed set the goal of Atlanta becoming one of the top 10 sustainable cities in the nation through the development and implementation of policies and activities that support environmental sustainability. To this end, the Office of Sustainability began working with all city departments to implement the “Power to Change” plan in 2010 which included initiatives such as improving regional air quality, developing land use policies and programs designed to protect greenspace, reduce energy use through conservation and more.
Atlanta hasn’t made the top tier for greenest cities yet, but it’s not for lack of a thriving coalition of city officials and community builders doing the work.
Cashawn Myers, founder and executive director of HABESHA Inc., is one who’s been immersed in environmental sustainability for 15 years. As a Clark Atlanta University graduate student, Myers was inspired by a professor’s remarks concerning the lack of positive opportunities for youth living in public housing units neighboring the university’s campus.
HABESHA Inc. is a Pan-African organization that cultivates leadership in youth and families through practical experiences in cultural education, sustainable agriculture, entrepreneurship, holistic health and technology. Programs like Black Roots and Golden Seeds allow Myers the platform to impart his ideology of a world that is focused on cooperation, balance and unity.
Through Golden Seeds, for instance, classroom lectures introduce seniors to the fundamental principles and practices of sustainable agriculture, while hands-on lab sessions provide them with experiences that reinforce classroom discussions. Seniors then teach that information to youth.
“I grew up in Woodbine, Ga., in a rural farming area and did not appreciate how I grew up until I left for college at FAMU and began to get more into my health as well as studying of my African roots,” he said. “This led me to want to eat better so as not to minimize the health challenges that I saw many of my older relatives have based on their diet. As I learned more about my African history, I saw growing food not only as a mechanism for better health, but also as a form of resistance and liberation for people of African descent. And to change the narrative that many people of African descent living in America associate with farming as something that is akin to slavery, but instead that it is an act of liberation.”
This is the kind of investment Reed hoped for in putting city resources behind this trend that is growing around the country.
“The City of Atlanta is uniquely positioned to be a leader in the urban agriculture movement,” said Mayor Reed in 2015. “The director of Urban Agriculture will work to improve the city’s health and wellness by eliminating food deserts and providing our residents with access to the healthy food options that they deserve.”
Cambardella, who’s responsible for a wide range of activities related to urban agriculture in the City of Atlanta, works with community organizations and various City departments to improve growers’ access to public and private land, facilitate the permitting process, support local initiatives and address other issues to advance urban agriculture in Atlanta.
“Thanks in large part to great non-profit community-based organizations like Food Well Alliance and ALFI, the local food economy of Atlanta is strong, coordinated, and poised for great growth,” Cambardella said. “Coming into this position a year-and-a-half ago, I had a pretty good understanding of what we could grow in terms of production. However, over the last 18 months, my perspective on other facets of the local food economy that will allow the production to aggregate in larger quantities thus providing better opportunities to manufacture creative and innovative value-added products to service more people especially those in areas where there is lack of access.”
Cambardella said the West End and the west side of Atlanta have some of the strongest, most vibrant growers in the city. “Growers like Eugene Cooke, Nicole Bluh, Haylee Green, HABESHA, and Historic Westside Gardens all are growing fresh nutritious foods in the neighborhood that they serve and are sharing that knowledge not just with the community of the West End and the west side but the rest of the city, the nation, and the world spreading the message of rooted citizenry and welcoming agents to the urban agriculture movement.”
Bare bones advice for someone who wants to try their hand at urban farming?
“Plant something, no matter if it is in the ground or in a 5-gallon bucket, if you are not successful the first time, try again, and learn from your mistakes,” Myers said.
As for the city’s advocacy to expand Atlanta residents’ access to local, healthy food options two years ago, Myers calls it a good start, but he also has a bit of advice: “What we would suggest is that the city allow people interested in urban farming to utilize the vacant lots that are in the metro area for land to farm as many people want to farm but don’t have the land needed.”
With a new grant from the Economic Development Administration, Clark Atlanta University will soon be joining the city’s food tech innovation pack. The University received $400,000 as part of a $15 million investment grant from the EDA’s Regional Innovation Strategies Program which will fund its STEM urban farming project: CREATE.
“Project CREATE will support entrepreneurs in using STEM technology and innovations to build healthy local food systems along with collateral entrepreneurial ventures in Southwest Atlanta,” said Clark Atlanta president Ronald Johnson. “My team and I understand the value of community collaboration on the Westside and I decided to approach the Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Truly Living Well and the United Negro College Fund.”
CREATE will utilize the expertise of these three non-profit organizations, from their research experience to the urban farmers’ network, and help transform local food systems in southwest Atlanta and beyond.
“Urban farming is booming in Atlanta and across the country from Boston to Detroit to Portland, Ore.,” said Johnson. “However, the development of tech-related agro businesses in this sector is somewhat lagging. Both the EDA and CAU recognize the need to develop and grow a sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem in Southwest Atlanta.”
Together, with the city’s urban agriculture leaders, Atlanta officials intend to continue to look for new ways to strengthen the local food system for a stronger, healthier Atlanta.
“The success of urban agriculture programs throughout the city is only not measured by how many pounds of food is produced. Yes, economic development is one of the four core values of urban agriculture. However, in many instances, the value that a farm brings is passed to the neighbors surrounding the farm. Academic studies have shown crime rates go down, property values go up, and food is more accessible in immediate proximity to an urban farm.”