It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
A version of this story was produced by Canopy Atlanta, a community-led journalism project. More than 50 West End community members helped choose this story's topic this past summer. Read the full story, along with their full West End issue here.
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.
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.
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
But Patchwork's efforts halted when APS chose not to renew its contract a few years in. 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.
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.
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. But 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.
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.
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 to $100,000, not including land. Norman relies on grants to finance labor and equipment.
Norman envisions AgLanta going a step further and deeding 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.
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 the 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.
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.
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."
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.
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. 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."