Growing pains

 

The future for Black farmers in West End and beyond looks just as unstable as the present

 

Words by Adjoa D. Danso
Photography by Eric Cash

  The West End Issue

More than 50 West End community members helped choose this story’s topic through listening conversations and meetings this past summer. Learn more about how we produced this issue.

 

JAMILA NORMAN FELL IN LOVE with West End when she was in high school. Her family moved to Atlanta from New York City in 1992, and the neighborhood reminded her of home. “I love the vibrancy. I love Black people. I like folks hustling and selling CDs and all the business,” she says. When she bought her first house in 2008, West End was a natural fit. While working as an engineer for the state Environmental Protection Division, Norman grew food for her family, a tradition passed down by matriarchs in Jamaica. Those seeds eventually led her to volunteer at community gardens just blocks from her house. 

 

Through volunteering, Norman bonded with Cecilia Gatungo, a West End resident and Kenyan immigrant, through their shared passion for growing food. They started working together on a community garden at Brown Middle School, through a farming initiative launched by Creating Vibrant Communities (CVC) in partnership with Atlanta Public Schools. When low attendance soon threatened to shutter Creating Vibrant Communities, the pair took the reins. In 2010, their new organization, Patchwork City Farms, signed a contract with APS for a lease on the land. The deal was for five years: three guaranteed with an option for two, one-year renewals. With a single acre of land, they created student and community gardens and a commercial operation selling their produce.

 

After multiple years without issue, Patchwork’s efforts halted when APS chose not to renew its contract. APS was designing an addition to the school property and needed the gardens to build a new bus lane and parking area, according to an APS spokesperson. But Norman says residents wrote letters to APS accusing the Patchwork founders of owning unpermitted chickens and allowing people to sleep in a trailer on the property. (The chickens were authorized, and the trailer had been gutted and was being converted into a mobile market, she says.) After a year of fighting the complaints, APS gave Patchwork 30 days to vacate, Norman says.

Jamila Norman at Patchwork City Farms

Patchwork found a new home at the Shrine of the Black Madonna in West End—a home that lasted six months before the partnership dissolved: Norman says the nonprofit managing the site prioritized community outreach but underestimated the amount of time and resources needed for farm maintenance, storage, and labor; Norman says she was expected to farm and give the produce away for free. “People want the glory of what comes out of the farming, but they don’t understand all of the work [that goes into it],” she says.

 

After a second failed partnership, Norman made a promise: She would only farm her own land. In the summer of 2016, she followed through: After being laid off from the EPD, she combined retirement savings with her share of leftover resources from the farm at the Shrine of the Black Madonna to purchase a 1.2-acre corner lot in Oakland City, five minutes from her house, for just $18,000. “There’s no way on God’s green earth I would be able to buy that [today],” she says. 

 

Four years later, Patchwork grows vegetables, fruits, and herbs that are distributed to restaurants and consumers throughout Atlanta. Yet ownership success stories like Norman’s are rare for West End’s Black-run farms, which are integral to the neighborhood’s food systems. Even when they’re lucky enough to find land, a lack of resources can threaten their longevity and the community’s legacy. West End has long been home to economically empowered Black farmers like Norman. But will West End farmers continue to thrive in the neighborhood, or will they be displaced elsewhere due to the rapid change—and rising costs—of farming in a gentrifying neighborhood?

WHEN IT COMES TO FARMING with the community in mind, Norman is walking a path set forth by Sister DeBorah Williams and Mother Clyde.Williams moved to West End in 1993, fresh out of theology school with the intention of starting a ministry. She started out ministering young people in her community: sex workers, drugs dealers—outcasts.

 

Williams recalls one day walking down Oak Street near her home when a West End resident with long, wavy hair, called out to her from a bungalow patio. It was Clyde, who had taken notice of her neighbor’s goodwill and had a request: The vacant lot at the corner of Oak and Hopkins streets had become a popular spot for drug dealers to hang out and play music, keeping the 97-year-old awake all night. In addition to the nuisance, Clyde was tired of seeing young men get killed there.

 

Williams responded by creating a full greenspace for the community. She hounded the city to provide professional guidance, which led her to Bobby Williams of the Atlanta Urban Gardening Program and longtime Atlanta farmer Rashid Nuri of Truly Living Well. They helped her learn the basics of urban agriculture.

Sister DeBorah Williams at the Mother Clyde Memorial West End Garden

In 1994, Williams and Clyde founded the West End Intergenerational Garden, what Williams says is the city’s first community garden. “I believe I was the answer to her prayer, and she was the manifestation of my ministry,” Williams says. Today, what’s now called the Mother Clyde Memorial West End Garden is growing not only peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, apples, pears but also a sustainable community across 3.5 acres: She pays unsheltered people in parks to help out. For each hour of cutting grass, pulling weeds, turning compost, or picking okra, they earn $10. (Her invitation to volunteer is open to everyone.)

 

Farms and farmers have worked to nourish the community in various ways. Growers are establishing partnerships with local restaurants, putting their produce on the menus of neighborhood favorites like Tassili’s Raw Reality Cafe, Healthful Essence, and Wadada Healthy Market and Juice Bar. For nearly three decades, Williams has produced the West End Farmers Market at Gordon White Park as well as hot sauces made in partnership with Gangstas to Growers, a West End–based agribusiness. West End’s farmers often turn their favorite eateries into clients, creating a Black farm-to-table ecosystem. 

 

Prolific farmer Eugene Cooke, a cofounder of both Truly Living Well and the Grow Where You Are farming collective, has been part of that ecosystem in West End and beyond. One model of success he remembers was a farm at Wheat Street Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue. Founded in 2010, the five-acre space was a hit with growers and families alike. But when the church eyed development deals in 2016, the farm closed, and today, only an overgrown lot remains. “There’s no way that you would know that it ever happened,” Cooke says.

Eugene Cooke, cofounder of Truly Living Well and Grow Where You Are

Atlanta’s Black-operated farms have yet to repeat the success of Wheat Street Gardens. A bid for the 3.8-acre BeltLine agriculture site at Adair Park in 2015, led by Norman, Cooke, Urban Sprout Farms’ Nuri Icgoren, and Mayflor Farms’ Christopher Edwards, wasn’t successful. Instead, it went to Aluma Farm, led by a pair of white farmers. (The BeltLine did not respond to requests for comment by press time.)

 

To make matters worse, farms are valued not only because they’re sources of food and income, but for their ability to beautify neglected communities. “We put it in, the neighborhood gets gentrified, and they close the farm down,” Cooke says. “When you can come into an area where there’s no food and there’s nothing happening, then the farms become like parks and property.” 

 

Historically, farming in West End has been on a smaller scale out of necessity. Farming is expensive, with startup costs for a single acre ranging anywhere from $75,000-$100,000, not including land. Both Norman and Williams rely on grants to finance labor and equipment. Norman was a full-time engineer for her first six years as a farmer.

 

Both farmers say race is also a factor when it comes to land access and funding, which is why they’ve been forced to build projects from the ground up multiple times. They say the experience is different for their white counterparts. 

 

“When you’re a person of color and you say, I’m a farmer, and this is my livelihood and this is what I do, it’s almost like they think you don’t have a right to actually operate a business,” Norman says. 

Lettuce seedlings at Truly Living Well

IN 2015, ATLANTA APPOINTED the first-ever director of urban agriculture in a major city, Mario Cambardella—a move that signaled urban agriculture as a priority for the city. Black farmers hoped that was true. Now running his own food production landscaping business, Cambardella recalls farmers in southwest Atlanta wanting better access to land above all else. With that in mind, he launched AgLanta in 2018, the city’s urban agriculture institution, and his team acquired roughly 15 acres of land not being used by other departments. They transferred the deeds to the mayor’s office, developing a system to increase the number of urban farms and gardens.

 

Norman envisions AgLanta going a step further and deeding that land directly to farmers. But doing so would be a much bigger and more complex undertaking, requiring resources she knows the department doesn’t have.

 

For his part, Cambardella proposed the idea of an urban agriculture bank conservation trust, where growers could license land for years at a time. Unlike AgLanta, the city wouldn’t own the land or hold the deed; the trust would. Developers could give land they didn’t want to the trust in exchange for a tax write-off. But Cambardella says the project stalled out when his presentation to Invest Atlanta in 2016 didn’t get a response.

 

Invest Atlanta spokesperson Matt Fogt says Cambardella’s proposal would have been best handled by a community land trust, which didn’t exist at the time. When the Atlanta Land Trust was formed two years later, affordable housing was Invest Atlanta’s top priority, Fogt says.

 

Similar programs have succeeded in New England and upstate New York, but he didn’t see a path forward without support from the city’s economic development authority. “Some of these ideas take decades to truly form,” he says. “Having the mayor’s office hold property, that was a big first.”

“Black farmers are gonna keep farming. I can’t see that there will ever be the time when there won’t be any Black farmers.” — Jamila Norman

Despite the instability of their profession, Black farmers remain hopeful. Cooke envisions more joint land purchases and farmer-in-residence programs. He can also see the community implementing a land trust model, with the caveat that farmers would hold the deeds. 

 

For the time being, Norman is turning her energy to growing Patchwork and connecting Black growers with their own land. Her framework would put farmers in charge, and those with capital would direct their money to exactly where it’s needed. Regardless of the uncertainty that lies ahead for West End, Norman knows that good okra won’t grow without Black hands to nurture it. 

 

“Black farmers are gonna keep farming,” she says. “I can’t see that there will ever be the time when there won’t be any Black farmers.”

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