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Despite Loss of Land, Atlanta Urban Farm Incorporates Learnings and Fights to Grow Another Day

October 3, 2016 |

(left to right) Cecilia Gatungo and Jamila Norman, the founders and farmers behind Patchwork City Farms in Atlanta. Photo courtesy of Patchwork City Farms.

(left to right) Cecilia Gatungo and Jamila Norman, the founders and farmers behind Patchwork City Farms in Atlanta. Photo courtesy of Patchwork City Farms.

Urban farming plays a vital role in community development—it provides access to healthy, local food and creates a bond between the farmer and local residents.

Yet sometimes, that bond can be taken away.

That’s what happened to Patchwork City Farms in Atlanta when the farm, which was situated on land belonging to the Atlanta school district, lost its lease, says Jamila Norman, an environmental engineer turned farmer, who started the urban agriculture venture with her business partner Cecilia Gatungo.

Their interest in farming began in 2010, when they helped a local church that was growing food onsite to distribute produce to local markets. Norman and her partner Gatungo had no background in farming, except that they had grandparents and great grandparents who were farmers.

Plus, Norman always had the idea of farming in the back of her mind. She grew up as a vegetarian in New York City and was surprised by the typical diet when she moved to the South. Living in a predominantly African American community in Atlanta and witnessing the high rates of diabetes and high blood pressure, she wondered how to get to the root cause—pun intended—of the health problems. “Farming in the city is an answer,” she said. “All the engineering I was doing wasn’t getting to that root cause.”

Their involvement with their local church’s onsite farm pushed Norman and Gatungo to consider the relatively large amount of green space in Atlanta, at least compared to New York City. When a nonprofit that leased an acre from the Atlanta school system dissolved, they were able to lease the land and established Patchwork City Farms.

“We jumped into it like crazy people,” says Norman. She was still working full-time as an engineer, was married at the time, and raising three boys. Cecelia had recently started a family. The site didn’t have any water or electricity for the first two years, so they caught rain water, brought in hoses, and rented an irrigation set up. (They eventually got a well with funds from a USDA grant.)

After those first couple of years of getting established, the certified naturally-grown farm eventually sold its produce successfully to residents and restaurants; there was a chicken coop, fruit trees, and great soil, not to mention an “awesome” relationship with customers, Norman says. There were special events for students and local residents.

Then the news hit. In 2015, the Atlanta school system wanted the leased land back to build a parking lot. In response, Patchwork City Farms tried to relocate their operations and grow produce on another site that was only an eighth of an acre. Eventually they had to close and sell their various structures, including a 28-foot-shed and the chicken coop.

It’s, unfortunately, not an uncommon situation for urban farms.

“Most young farms don’t own the land. You put in your sweat, tears, and blood,” Norman says—and then the land may get taken away due to certain lease agreements. Or, landowners see that you’re successful, so they try and get more money, she says.

For this reason, Norman says her battle cry to other farms now is for them to own their land. It’s not only the emotional stress that comes from losing a farm on leased land, but also the possible business effect—for example, it’s hard to stop the business or make money if there are crops in the ground not yet ready to harvest, she says.

Yet there is a silver lining in Norman’s story. She has purchased 1.2 acres of land in Atlanta, not far from the previous location, and she will break ground there in the spring. “It’s full sun, we’ll be starting from scratch, and there’s a creek in the middle,” she says. Norman is looking at fundraising opportunities and grants to help regrow the business; she anticipates support based on Patchwork City Farms’s previous success. Norman also has been able to keep up her passion for farming; she hasn’t had to return to engineering, and she does contract work with a farmers’ cooperative that unites urban farmers in Atlanta.

Norman looks forward to rebuilding relationships with previous and new customers. “I think people are hungry for interaction and connection (through farming),” she says.

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