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Room to grow

Urban farming has taken off in Atlanta. But it can be tough to find a place to grow roots.

In the Truly Living Well garden near Auburn Avenue, the peppers that ripened in the fall sun are giving way to frost-proof winter vegetables such as kale and cabbage. But before too much longer, all the vegetable beds will make way for something else.

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It's the last winter for the flagship farmstead, which has been wedged between the freeway and Ebenezer Baptist Church for five years. Truly Living Well lost its lease on the location; TLW Founder and CEO K. Rashid Nuri expects it to be a building site before long.

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Nuri's operation built on the footprint of a former affordable housing complex owned by Wheat Street Baptist Church is not Atlanta's first urban farm that has to now grow somewhere else. And it won't be the last unless more farmers gain control of their land or the city, developers, and communities provide more support.

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During the Great Recession, urban farming exploded in Atlanta and across the country because it was as an efficient use of underused land and helped provide local, organic food to areas in need. Growing intown neighborhoods rallied around the farms, picking up regular batches of fresh produce direct from growers or at farmers markets across town.

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But several farms have been forced to move along because the owner chooses not to renew the lease, neighbors complain, or the property owner loses the land. A few miles east from TLW in East Lake, a tiny space that was formerly the East Lake Urban Garden has been cleared of its woodchips and raised beds. The property market has picked up enough that developers are eyeing the spot. Construction has already started on an old building across the street.

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It's a conundrum: Residents are getting more and more interested in eating local, fresh vegetables. But farmers often lease the land where the crops are grown. And when people with bucks and bulldozers come along, the farms are faced with finding a new place to plant.

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Atlanta's investments in urban farming over the years help make creative solutions possible, says Georgia Organics' James Carr. "But with several iconic farms in Atlanta being forced to leave their soil despite all of their hard work and sweat equity, the time for solutions is now," he says.

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Mayor Kasim Reed says he wants to break up Atlanta's food deserts, which are mostly located in west and south Atlanta. Hyperlocal growing will play a significant role in that effort, says Mario Cambardella, the city's first urban agriculture director. But when the value and availability of land goes up, Cambardella says, farming will still be possible, though not necessarily look familiar.

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"What we've seen in other markets is they've been innovative, they've been entrepreneurial," Cambardella says. Those approaches include growing crops on rooftops or practicing hydroponics or aquaponics. Some Atlanta farmers are doing things alternative growing methods already.

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Cambardella says some farmers are pushing the boundaries of how much production can be achieved with tiny spaces, such as using walls of plants on louvered panels that follow the sun. In Atlanta, he said, there's enough farming talent and customer demand that there are going to be "some magnificent things for the city."

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Nuri, who describes his nonprofit as a plate on which education, inspiration, and fresh vegetables are served, says his and other farms provide other benefits: People want to live near and gather in the gardens and their plants cool and clean the air.

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Nuri is relaxed about the closure of the flagship — TLW has two other locations — and he says there's plenty of land in the city to grow all the fruit and vegetables that Atlanta needs.

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But the problem is getting new farmers onto that land with the tools they need. Besides the land itself — renting it or buying it — a farmer needs basics such as water, electricity, tools, irrigation works, a cooler, or a greenhouse. Some developments — East Lake Commons in DeKalb County and Serenbe in South Fulton, specifically — set aside a portion of the land for farming.

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And crucially, at such so-called "agrihood" developments, community support helps the farmer make a living. Arrangements vary, but can include housing for the farmer, electricity, a well, a barn, or guaranteed customers. The arrangement comes with a cost for landowners or the developer, but the trade-off is living alongside a garden that feeds hundreds or thousands of people.

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"It's not money down the drain when you support a new farmer," Nuri says.

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Conventional agriculture is already subsidized, he argues. Just look at federal cash farm subsidies, or public universities' ag research and development. So why shouldn't an urban farming model include support for the farmer, too, he asks.

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But most people, politicians, and developers aren't thinking enough about that model yet, and are not putting a high enough priority on local food and local farming. There's a paradigm shift under way, toward valuing local agriculture and what it brings to quality of life, he says. But it's "not part of the commonweal yet," he says.

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