FOCN Holds Regional Mini-Conference in Atlanta, GA

Chris Lemons (Right) leading a group of Georgia farmers and USDA agents to Gratitude Botanicals, an urban garden he and Desmond Baskersville founded in Atlanta in 2018. (Humon Heidarian/RAFI)

In past years, RAFI has held “paperwork rodeo” events, where farmers can complete various disaster recovery program paperwork with RAFI staff’s assistance, expediting the process and improving their chances of receiving the resources they sought.  More recently, RAFI Resources for Resilient Farms staff provide this assistance one-on-one, remotely or during on-farm consultations. . When Georgia quail farmer and Farmers of Color Network (FOCN) member Lorenzo Hill reached out to RAFI Agricultural Conservation and Market Access Manager Jaimie McGirt in late spring of this year, McGirt quickly gathered that he wasn’t calling for assistance for himself but for farmer friends in and around Gwinette County, GA.  During this conversation, Hill proposed that he and RAFI host a farmer resource event for farmers in his community.  This was reminiscent of the old RAFI paperwork rodeos, and six weeks later, in Mid-July, RAFI held our first ever regional mini-conference for FOCN in the Atlanta metro area. The two-day event included urban farm tours, locally catered dining, and a full-day resource rodeo with local partners and farmer-serving organizations. RAFI staff were also able to schedule a few farm visits along the way.

Jaimie, Humon and Mary drove from NC on Sunday, visiting a new FOCN member at her farm, and had an overnight stay at Jubilee Partners. Jubilee hosts refugees from all over the world.  With about 40 permanent residents, they have been running a gorgeous 200-acre subsistence farm in Comer, GA since 1979.  They cultivate 2 acres of blueberries, used as a community u-pick thank you for neighbors.  They also propagate a long list of perennial fruit and nut trees that they make available to the community.

On Monday, after more farm visits to provide 1-on1 on-site consultation, the RAFI team converged at Metro Atlanta Urban Farm (MAUF) for the farm tour and social gathering. Nearly fifty farmers arrived on a hot afternoon to climb into the air-conditioned charter bus and visit Patchwork City Farms, Gratitude Botanical, and Outdoor Fresh before returning to MAUF for dinner. Eugene Cooke of Grow Where You Are, instrumental as our local coordinator, gave a rousing intro and led the tour from the front seat of the bus with his booming “Good people,” and insightful commentary.

At Patchwork, the farm was just as beautiful as Jamila Norman’s instagram posts make it out to be. Norman owns two acres and supports a CSA on her tidily-managed farm in the middle of an Atlanta neighborhood. The farmers viewed Norman’s productive hoop houses filled with cucumbers and tomatoes, and walked past succession-planted raised beds of greens, while learning of some of the natural and human-caused challenges Norman has faced.  

Our next stop was Gratitude Botanical, where farmer Chris Lemons is making lemonade with a challenging site. He demonstrated keyhole gardening, a resilient composting and production technique developed in the mountainous southern African nation of Lesotho. Tour participants were delighted to bring home rooted elderberry cuttings and passion flowers. Chris also served up some delicious chaga tea and basil lemonade.

The last stop on the tour was Lelo Jones’ Outdoor Fresh. We passed through an arbor, abundant with long beans and cherry tomatoes, and were greeted by music beats, an adorable goat, and our gracious host, tall as a tree and colorfully dressed.  Jones is optimizing a small space hemmed in by tall buildings, using verticality and companion planting.  The simple, inexpensive and elegant design of steel hog panels and t-posts had many in our group thinking about how to increase the verticality at their own operations.

Back at Metro Atlanta Urban Farm, we heard an inspiring talk from farmer Bobby Wilson, rested from the hot day, and enjoyed a delicious catered dinner. As the evening cooled off, groups of people walked the farm fields and eventually made their way home.

Tuesday’s Resource Rodeo was held at The Common House at Eastlake Commons, hosted by the farmer in residence Stephanie Simmons. The event opened with a welcome and introductions of RAFI staff and local partner organizations who serve farmers in Georgia, from the non-profit and government sector: Atlanta USDA FSA, North Georgia NRCS, City of Atlanta: AgLanta Grown, Foodwell Alliance, Georgia Organics,  Southern SARE, Southwest Georgia Project, Working Farms Fund, and Lorenzo Hill of Cooling Water Community Farms with a great presentation on poultry biosecurity. Each of the partners spoke about the services their organization offers, so farmers could decide which workshop sessions they wanted to attend and to “put a face to a name”.

The workshop sessions kicked off mid-morning, including the topics of:

  • NRCS Programs, Eligibility, and Applications
  • FSA Loan Programs, Eligibility, and Applications
  • Market Access
  • Land Access
  • Climate Smart Farming
  • Beginning Farmers Resources
  • Direct Support Opportunities with Foodwell Alliance

Farmers attended two workshop sessions before lunch, and a third after a delicious vegan lunch catered by Chef Zu of Kings Apron. In mid-afternoon, the “paperwork rodeo” began. Farmers who needed 1-on-1 support filling out forms and applications stayed for office hours with RAFI program staff and other service providers. 

Throughout the day, people trickled in and out, talking and learning from each other, making connections with other farmers and local resource providers.  I overheard people sharing their social media, phone numbers and business cards, talking shop, and describing their farming operations and aspirations to one another.  

By the end of Tuesday, after we had swept the classrooms and restacked the chairs, RAFI staff enjoyed a night out at Ponce St Market, for most of us a chance to enjoy the diversity of food and commerce the city has to offer. The following morning we worked in a couple farm visits and made the trek back home.

The Georgia mini-conference was a collaboration between RAFI programs: Resources for Resilient Farms, FOCN, and our NRCS cooperative agreement, to build community and connect farmers with resources. In addition to RAFI, the farmer hosts and partner organizations made it an invaluable learning and networking experience for the attendees.  We’d especially like to thank Eugene Cooke, Stephanie Simmons, Bobby Wilson, Ms Noreen Whitehead, Brennan Washington and Lorenzo Hill for their help in organizing and promoting the event. Stay tuned – we’re hoping to put together another regional conference soon! 

FOCN Membership Manager, Humon Heidarian, also contributed to this blog post.

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