20 People to Watch - Nuri Icgoren: The arts’ favorite farmer

Man behind Urban Sprout Farms promotes creativity and biodiversity

When Nuri Icgoren and his older brother Tarik purchased some land overlooking I-75/85 in Atlanta’s Lakewood community at a 2011 foreclosure auction, their focus was on the good food movement. The desolate three-and-a-half-acre property, the site of an old motel, was a terrain littered with broken glass, towering vegetation, and in need of some serious TLC.

According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, 30 percent of Fulton County residents live in a food desert. The Icgoren brothers launched Urban Sprout Farms with a goal to turn the five-acre plot of land into a source of food for the local community. It was a natural transition for Nuri, a farmer and family man who had already been doing some “guerilla gardening” in his Ormewood neighborhood.

In the years since its inception, USF turned almost half of the land into a fully functioning urban farm and nursery while operating under the radar. But that relative obscurity fell to the wayside in November when Icgoren partnered with Deer Bear Wolf’s Davy Minor, visual artist sQuish, and John Carroll of Make Blackout Poetry to launch the first-ever Phoenix Festival. In an effort to bring awareness to Nuri’s work on the farm and the land’s potential use for local artisans, the event functioned as an outdoor creative variety show and art exhibition. The property’s abandoned motel rooms were filled with installations, their walls covered in murals. Local musicians performed on a stage fashioned out of mulch, and authors recited some of their latest works in front of a pool-turned-aquatic habitat. Nuri and the team expected a few hundred people. More than 1,100 showed up.

“I’m not trying to be like the Goat Farm or nothing. They’re two totally different types of properties,” Nuri says in response to inquiries about turning the property into a community that follows the example of the Goat Farm’s all-welcoming artistic confines.

An Atlanta resident by way of Maryland, Nuri plans to turn the remaining three and a half acres into live-work spaces for artists and we what he calls “value-added producers.” The artists could make use of the space, and the producers (beer makers, woodworkers, arborists) could redistribute their waste materials back into USF as compost, which would be used for planting and harvesting crops to be divvied out to nearby communities.

“Community forms around creativity and good missions and good causes,” he says. “The cause, movement, and general impetus is the good food movement. The good food movement is growing in Atlanta because people want to know where their food is coming from.”

Nuri and USF have hit the right chord going into the new year. They’ll kick things off with an open house in the first quarter. A second creative arts festival is slated for the spring. In between, USF will host seed swaps this Easter and early summer. There are plans to break ground on new greenhouses, and Nuri has already been in talks with local artists about renting out the live-work spaces. No matter where USF’s reach extends into the arts world, Nuri says he’ll follow his farmer’s intuition.

“I see it all beginning with food,” he says. “Every day we have to eat and it’s what sustains life. With that as the basis, everything just kind of evolves from there, and when it evolves from there certain things come from it. So art, music, literature comes from being in a state of growth.”