Growing Wild in the City
Cecilia Gatungo lives in Atlanta, Georgia, the center of a metropolitan area that more than 5 million people call home. Her little slice of that urban jungle adds up to about 800 square feet of space outside her home. But small as it may be, she is determined to farm it.
Gatungo spent her childhood in a Kenyan farming community where she had ready access to fruits and vegetables. “I never went inside to snack on chips,” she says. “I want the same for the kids in the neighborhood.” What started out as a dream to provide healthful food for her neighbors is even more intense now that those kids include her own 11-month-old son, Hodari.
Unwilling to start small, Gatungo promptly filled her yard with everything from fruit to towering corn stalks. Among the things growing in that miniscule space are berries, potatoes, tomatoes, greens, carrots and two small fig trees. She had chickens at one time, too, but they fell victim to predators roaming the city streets.
The fruits of her labor were satisfying, but she realized she wanted more than just a garden.
In 2010, Gatungo and two other partners launched Patchwork City Farms with the goal of becoming a large-scale farming operation, all within the confines of the dense city they call home. The farm now grows food on land donated by neighbors, schools and a local church, in addition to Gatungo’s thriving garden at home.
Last year, Patchwork took over an empty 1-acre lot and has been slowly clearing out debris. So far, about half of it is planted — the other is still covered with a thick layer of gravel. Altogether, Gatungo estimates the size of the farm to be about 2,000 square feet.
Launching an urban farm is not for the shy or easily deterred. Gatungo says she couldn’t have done it without a lot of help from experts, something she came by readily.
Scientists at the nearby University of Georgia tested her soil and accepted photos of bug-munched plants to tell her which pests were picnicking on her produce. She has made full use of the university’s agricultural extension system — which provides classes and support to growers throughout the state. She even turned to YouTube for tips.
While most people in her community have been supportive of her project, Gatungo has had to do some neighborhood outreach from time to time. Her current business partner has a job, and Gatungo cares for her son during the day, so they end up doing a lot of their farming early in the morning or late at night. People living near the garden expressed a little concern, but she smoothed it over. “People are like, ‘What are you doing?’” she recalls of some of the late-night gardening sessions. “And we’re like, ‘We’re farming — in a city.’”
Gatungo also pairs up with other urban growers — neighbors who raise goats and chickens. So come Thursdays, there’s a sizable portion of food to take to the farmers market.
“You’ll find that the farming community is very supportive,” she says. “I think that’s what I love about farming as a local business. This isn’t cutthroat like other businesses where people are protective and aggressive.”
Gatungo’s goal is to make Patchwork more than just a food source — she wants it to become a sustainable business. Money raised at farmers markets is fed back into the farms. The operation needs cold storage to keep produce fresh until market day. And of course there’s that unused half-acre to get into production.
The goal of turning the farm into a sustainable business aside, Gatungo’s project is becoming an integral part of her Atlanta neighborhood. This year, Patchwork partnered with the NEXT Steps Youth Entrepreneur Program, an Atlanta nonprofit that teaches kids business basics. Volunteers also help with the planting and harvesting — some are there to learn more about growing in an urban environment, while others may be doing community service as part of a sentence. Regardless of their reason for coming, all are welcome at Patchwork.
“Most of the time they have no idea what to expect when they arrive,” Gatungo says — they aren’t always ready for the dirt, the bugs, and the gentle touch needed to care for tender plants. “It goes to show just how completely disconnected people are from their food sources and how eager they are to reconnect. With that I feel happy, I feel like I’m doing the right thing.”