Herb your enthusiasm: The local farms that will upgrade your diet

The Metro Atlanta Urban Farm grows seasonal vegetables for the neighborhood of College Park and educates community members on the importance of agriculture. Photo by Vanessa Johnson

It’s a truism, but if you want to be healthy, you’ve got to eat your vegetables. And if you’re eating vegetables, you might want to consider locally grown.

Eating locally grown food cuts out the costs and waste caused by producing and transporting food from factory farms. No shipping freighters or chemical preservatives are needed when the contents of your fridge practically came from your own backyard.

Local eating almost always means seasonal produce, and the choices available will vary month to month. But what these groceries lack in variety, they make up for in flavor, nutrients and friends.

With local produce, you’re buying something incredibly fresh from a neighbor or soon-to-be friend. Farmers markets and urban farms have character that grocery chains don’t. There’s a face and a name behind the counter who can answer all the questions you have. Do they spray? Use fertilizer? Those are questions large international growers can’t answer.

Buying Local

There’s already a local farmers market organized in almost every neighborhood in Atlanta. They vary in size and scope, indoor or out, and in many other ways, but they will all serve you Georgia produce.

The Candler Park Market is a full grocery store, complete with a deli, restaurant and the star of the show: the produce section.

Frankie Berry, a Deli Manager at the Candler Park Market, says a lot of people choose their local products for health reasons.

“They want food high in nutrients, leafy greens,” Berry said. “Kale, arugula, they want things nutritious and fibrous.”

Berry has found that, just like their produce selection, customers’ appetites vary by the season. They sell the most produce in the summer, when more gets harvested and their selection is wider, but their winter business is just as rich.

“In the winter, people want those heavy starches, comfort food,” Berry said. ‘“In the summer, we are eating those leafy greens, salads, fresh fruits.”

The promise of healthy living might get some people through the door, but what makes them stay? Bobby Wilson is the founder and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Urban Farm, which has been in business in College park for 10 years. He’s a grower and believes customers come back to the Urban Farm for the relationships.

“[They] want to know where the food comes from, know the grower, and get decent bang for your buck,” Wilson Said.

Building Community

Relationships are at the heart of the local foods movement. The Candler Park Market works with Aluma, Crack in the Sidewalk, and many other growers with roots in and around Atlanta. They frequently use their growers as inspiration for the menu.

“We like to see what our farmers are excited about,” Berry said. “That’s how we come up with recipes for the [prepared food].”

According to Berry, there is frequent collaboration and a dialogue there, each party doing their part to uplift and promote the other.

“Actually, [Aluma] was just here,” Berry said. “We see a lot of our farmers.”

“Our typical customer is non-typical,” Wilson said.

Wilson calls his growing a holistic method, a full circle. According to his mission, if all you do is grow food, there are parts missing.

“One part is growing and selling healthy food,” Wilson said. “The other is building healthier, stronger communities.”

It is no secret to anyone, there are economic obstacles to a healthy diet. That’s why the Urban Farm doubles EBT after partnering with Wholesome Wave, a program to increase access to food stamps and fresh vegetables alike.

“I want to be able to impact the less fortunate,” Wilson said.

This isn’t just quality of life. In Wilson’s experience, access to produce is a public health problem.

“I believe if we had better access to fresh produce, we could rid ourselves of diabetes, heart disease, all kinds of diseases,” Wilson said.

A Sustainable Model

One of the most uniting goals of the local foods movement has always been reducing the energy use of the advanced shipping infrastructure of the global agriculture market.

In keeping with that, the Metro Atlanta Urban Farm strives to be as sustainable as possible. Total self-sufficiency is the goal. On the property, they have a well dug 345 ft. deep and 32 solar panels. But that’s not far enough, Wilson said. He hopes to find a way to make biofuel for the diesel equipment.

“We’re missing a source of fuel, Wilson said. “If we had that, we’d have everything.”

Running an urban farm does not come without its barriers. Ecologically self-sufficient is one thing, financially self-sufficient is another.

“Being self-sufficient, you gotta create multiple revenue streams,” Wilson said.

But, the Urban Farm has already found a lot of opportunities. According to Wilson, they sell produce, host markets and offer education and training. On top of that, if you want to make it, Wilson said, hire a good grant writer.

Getting Involved

The Metro Atlanta Urban Farm brings people out from the community in all kinds of ways.

They host field trips from Coretta Scott King Middle school, and elementary to middle age children walk through the sun drenched rows. Neighbors are invited to plant gardens of their own in the community plot of the Urban Farm.

“The community garden is a big part of what we do,” Wilson said.

They charge a $10 monthly fee, but Wilson said it’s mostly to ensure they’re committed. The idea being you’re more likely to use a service you’re invested in.

But for the money, Wilson aims to offer an abundance of value. They provide the land, tools, water and even training anyone could need.

So, What’s in Season?

So what now? There’s tons of farms growing food around the Atlanta, ethical labor practices picking the food and friendly people selling it? But, what’s in season?

In the Spring, it’s the root and cabbage families that are ready for picking. Beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, they’re up for grabs. Or, down for grabs? Roots, get it. Either way, they’re all delicious when you brown them with onions in a pan. A squirt of honey and nutmeg to taste and your insta feed just got more flavor.

As for cabbage, that is a family which pretty much includes anything dark and leafy. Kale, broccoli and brussel sprouts return from your picky childhood nightmares, this time deliciously roasted with olive oil and herbs de provence (seriously, try it).

“Kale is always in, it’s so good in everything,” Berry said.

For the Georgia summer, nature lets her melons go wild. Berries too. And all kinds of wild greens.

Get a good hard, white cheese and some strawberries in the same bowl as a bag of spring mix. Drizzle some olive oil and lemon juice on it and maybe top it with some roasted almonds or sunflower seeds.

Your community, wallet, and stools will thank you.

Foods here for the picking this summer:

Arugula, Asparagus, Beans, Beets, Blueberries, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cantaloupes, Carrots, Cauliflower, Collard Greens, Corn, Cucumbers, Edamame, Eggplant, Figs, Grapes, Kale, Lettuce, Melons, Okra, Onions, Peaches, Peas/Pea Pods, Pecans, Peppers, Persimmons, Plums, Potatoes, Radishes, Spinach, Squash, Strawberries, Sweet Potatoes, Tomatoes, Turnips, Watermelons, Zucchini, More