APS gives West End urban farm one more year to operate on school property (Update)

We were about to have a heart attack when they told us, ‘We're potentially not renewing the lease,''


  • Patchwork City Farms
  • Patchwork City Farms, shown above at Brown Middle School, was prepared to find a new home if APS didn't renew lease

A well-regarded urban farm will continue operating at Brown Middle School after Atlanta Public Schools last week backed off a surprise decision not to renew its lease.

Patchwork City Farms - which supplies some top restaurants and also offers community gardening space - says unfounded complaints from West End Neighborhood Development were behind a nonrenewal announcement two weeks ago. Patchwork City’s founders say they were unaware of WEND’s complaints to the Board of Education.

“We were about to have a heart attack when they told us, ‘We’re potentially not renewing the lease,’” says Jamila Norman, who runs Patchwork City with partner Cecilia Gatungo. “Pick up and move a farm - are you crazy?”

APS considered the nonrenewal announcement merely a formality as part of "evaluating" the farm-school relationship, says APS spokesman James Malone.

"I think the process proved itself out," Malone told CL. "We're in a good place."

But the newly approved lease is only a one-year extension, and Malone he can't speculate on APS's long-term interest in keeping the farm. The farm aims to build more community support to stay long-term.

WEND members were unavailable for comment.

For four years, Patchwork City has farmed a one-acre plot at the Peeples Street school. A small, for-profit LLC, Patchwork City took over the spot from a now-defunct nonprofit farm. It pays $200 a month in rent and installed its own water and power, using no school resources.

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The farm isn’t making a profit, Norman says, but it’s found a key role in southwest Atlanta’s burgeoning urban agriculture scene. Today, the farm is a familiar vendor at such events as the Grant Park Farmers Market, and it supplies fresh ingredients to chefs at Empire State South and the Wrecking Bar. Just this month, Patchwork was selected by Slow Food USA as a U.S. delegate to Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto, the world’s largest food fair and conference, to be held this fall in Italy.

In addition, half of Patchwork City's plot is given over to public community gardens, and it teaches gardening at the Woolfolk Boys & Girls Club.

With those successes, Norman and Gatungo say they were stunned to receive an APS letter last week informing them that an optional lease extension wouldn’t happen. Instead, the farm would have to shutter by the end of September.

Patchwork City quickly mounted a save-the-farm petition campaign. Meanwhile, they say, APS officials told them WEND had been criticizing the farm in person and by letters for months. The criticisms - including claims of unpaid student farm labor and Patchwork secretly shifting from nonprofit to for-profit - were incorrect, Norman says.

One criticism was true - that the farm no longer partners with the school on a garden club. But that was the school’s decision, not the farm’s, says Norman. At APS’ urging, that program may revive.

The criticisms apparently influenced a school board already sensitive to its image after the test cheating scandal and other public relations disasters.

“They’re saying, ‘We can’t afford any more bad publicity.’ They didn’t want to deal with it,” Norman says.

Though unaware of the latest criticisms, Patchwork City did have an open battle with WEND last year over a chicken coop. WEND expressed health and safety concerns. Norman says the coop was legal under city guidelines, but the farm shut it down to avoid a protracted dispute.

Patchwork City says it has longtime support from other community groups and the local NPU. WEND, on the other hand, may view it as one of many “social programs” the association fears will bring down an up-and-coming neighborhood, Norman and Gatungo say.

Patchwork City already planned to expand to a larger site elsewhere in southwest Atlanta. But it’s not resting easy on that Plan B or on the one-year lease extension. A major reason APS backpedaled, Norman says, was because shutting the farm also would breach the contract on a new federal grant the farm received to build a well and a greenhouse. That may not be an obstacle in the future.

Meanwhile, APS wants to expand the school - with a plan that involves turning the community garden half of the farm into a parking lot. A new green space elsewhere in the plan could double as gardens, and Patchwork is willing to manage it, but that remains to be seen. Any of that work would take place after the end of the farm's current lease, Malone said.

So Patchwork City plans to thank APS for keeping it there and will meet with various community organizations - including WEND - to bolster support.

“Jamila and I still have to work with the community and sit down at the table and talk,” says Gatungo.

UPDATE, 9:43 p.m. WEND President Kimberly Parmer tells CL that the association did not make all of the criticisms that Patchwork City believes it did.

"While it's true that West End Neighborhood Development, Inc. was in communications with APS, a number of the comments attributed to WEND by Ms. Norman and Ms. Gatungo are false and not comments from the official governing body of our neighborhood association," said Parmer, declining to be specific. "We await further information from APS before making any official statements."

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