Farmer Tales: Filomena Andrade
From West Africa to Bankhead, the proprietor of Mena's Farm has succeeded against all odds
When Filomena Andrade moved to Bankhead from Cape Verde, West Africa, she saw her new home with vision that no one else possessed. When we saw the yard was overgrown and covered with trash, I only saw backache. It was a forest of tires, papers, trees and bottles; we even found a toilet back there, recalls Andradeb's youngest daughter, Junia De Pina. But she saw opportunity. She saw her farm.
A single mother of three, a grandmother, and a lifetime farmer, Andrade arrived in Atlanta in 2007. The 55-year-old's Portuguese-Creole accent is strong; her English, satisfactory. If her smile is contagious, her laugh is likely to start a pandemic. You'll find her in her element at Menab's Farm, the thriving paradise of plants she built by hand on a run-down street in the heart of Atlanta's Bankhead neighborhood.
But let's take this back a bit.
Cape Verde, a Portuguese colony until 1975, is a tiny archipelago about 300 miles off the coast of Senegal. The beaches are beautiful and the Portuguese-Creole culture is rich, but due to the lack of arable land and isolation from natural resources, the country has always been a hard place to make a living. This was the case for Andrade's agri-centric family, and in the 1960s they took advantage of the Portuguese government's offer to move them to their sister colony of Angola on the African mainland. It was a good offer: better land, income, and even a house.
Unfortunately, Angola was about to burn.
In 1975, the Portuguese pulled out of the country, creating a power vacuum that plunged the leaderless nation into violent uproar. To escape the bloodshed, then 12-year-old Andrade was forced to flee in the night with her family into the Angolan bush. "They lived in the forest for three days before any help came," her daughter De Pina recounts. Fortunately, the Andrade family escaped Angola and was able to return to Cape Verde, where things were difficult but safe.
Andradeb's father taught her to farm from the early age of five, and it quickly became her way of life. "She learned traditional growing methods that had been passed down through many generations," De Pina says of her mother. "She had no education, she was just born into it and learned how to farm."
In the early 2000s, seeking a better life and educational opportunities for her three daughters, Andrade immigrated to the United States, but quickly ran into more problems. After being struck by a car in her front yard while recovering from another work-related leg injury, Andrade developed severe arthritis, leaving her unable to work her factory job. On top of this, she lost her father, who had been "strong, like a bull" his entire life.
"When my father got sick and passed away, that is when I realized the food is bad here," Andrade says. "I learned all about pesticides and fertilizer. Back home we never used [them]."
For most, these setbacks would have been debilitating, but for Andrade, they became a catalyst for rediscovering her organic farming roots. She took the opportunity to set a hard course for long-term health, beginning with a bold vision for building a pesticide and chemical free garden for herself and her family. There were only two problems: Their Bankhead backyard was atrocious, and there was not enough money to buy even a bag of dirt.
"When I was 14 years old, my mama said, 'The biggest enemy we have is our eyes. So don't follow your eyes, follow your heart and your hand and foot and be strong to do everything you want to do,'" says Andrade. "I never forgot this." And so, though still recovering from her injuries, she single-handedly macheted her way through the jungly, trash-covered patch, sculpting the eyesore into a haven for her future farm.
Thanks to the kindness of an employee at urban agriculture center Truly Living Well and a driver from a tree removal company, Andrade received two free truckloads of wood chips and five bags of compost. After three years of decomposition and patiently turning the dirt, those chips and compost became the original source of her farm's exceptionally fertile soil. She hasn't paid for soil since.
The rest of the story is told best by taste buds and a Sunday visit to Andrade's booth at the Grant Park Farmers Market. "She has the sweetest, yet ugliest carrots you've ever seen," says De Pina. "Our regular customers ask [by name] for her "ugly carrots." Along with her many other pesticide-free fruits and vegetables, Mena's Farm is known for their sweet potato greens, spicy salad mix and squash blossoms, all of which Andrade hopes to start selling to restaurants in the Atlanta area.
"What really stands out about Mena is her warm energy," says Katie Hayes, executive director of Atlanta's Community Farmers Markets. "Her presence exudes kindness, brightened by her infectious smile."
Andrade attributes it all to her faith in God. "As a single mom, I came to this country with three kids and no help. My faith was just to pray; and I am very happy," she says. "When you have a God, you become a different person. Your life is different. And this is the only thing you have to do - give and receive. The more you give, the more you receive. That is when your blessings come."
You can find Filomena Andrade and her produce from 9 a.m. - 1 p.m. every Sunday, April through December, at the Grant Park Farmers Market, 600 Cherokee Ave.
Mena's daily green smoothie recipe:
"If I drink one of these in the morning, I can work all day without getting tired. It has everything you need - minerals, vitamins - you don't need nothing else. I drink it like it;s water! - Filomena Andrade
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup swiss chard (tightly packed, substitute spinach or collards)
- 1 apple (cored)
- 2 tbsp pumpkin seeds (raw and shelled, sub sesame seeds)
- 1 tbsp cacao powder (sub peanut powder)
Instructions: Blend greens and water until smooth, add all other ingredients, blend until smooth and enjoy.