October 29, 2021 Atlanta, GA
Convenient to the Metro Atlanta Airport is a five-acre farm across from the Atlanta Metro Airport in College Park. A large, historic white mansion sits on the front of the property. It serves as the front of the farm which consists of three high tunnels, a greenhouse, chickens, cool storage trailers, a storehouse, and a market bus and truck. Bobby Wilson, Farm Manager at Metro Atlanta Urban Farm, asked me to jump in his orange utility vehicle to take a tour of the premises. He pointed out “This is greens season; it’s just starting.” I saw mustard, lettuce, turnips, kale, and collards growing nicely in an iron-rich reddish-brown soil. He showed me the okra, the banana grove, the turmeric containers, and several fruit trees, all of which serve as growing lessons for young and old alike. The community garden plot sits in its own fenced area adjacent to the farm so that the gardeners can access the farm’s tools, compost, seeds, and plants. “It’s a great way to support and train our new gardeners,” Bobby said.
Bobby Wilson’s Leadership
Bobby Wilson is a community builder. He loves people. He always makes time for people, even for me coming from out-of-town. He arranged my visit so I could meet the people who have been touched by their experiences on the farm. In the historic house, with candles burning and a sign on the table with the quote “Fall is evidence that Change is Good.” Bobby and his assistant, Cathy Walker, make change happen on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. I got to listen in on their Friday end-of-the-month meeting. The count of the organizations and schools they are actively working with now (on the agenda) totals 18!
Bobby and Cathy are about working with young people, volunteers, and interns to help them learn how to farm, even in a small urban lot. Just as they finished their business meeting, Bobby’s wife, Margaret, arrived. She welcomed me with such a warm smile. Margaret actually was raised on a farm in Mississippi where they had to live on what they grew. Now she’s retired and enjoys helping out where she can on the farm. She is good at making wine, a value-added product from the farm. Their wines are made from a variety of farm fruits including grapes, peaches, plums, cherries, Muscatine, and blueberries. It’s part of the farm’s “Zero-Waste” policy. “We just freeze the fruit juice until we can make wine out of it off-season.” She said.
Alexis and her eight-year-old son Zadon arrived as volunteers for their Monday, Wednesday, or Friday shift. Alexis loves working at this farm. Even having moved away, she drives 90 minutes to work here as part of her son’s homeschooling experience. When asked what the draw is, she said, “We really connect with this farm. I’m not sure what it is. I’m also into it for the healing aspects of it. Just putting my hands in the soil is mentally and emotionally healing. I find I can leave behind labels like “anxiety” or “depression”, and by working here at the farm for a week, it can all be gone. I just unplug what society is saying and get back to the basics here.”
Alexis continued, “I am working with Mother Earth. Everything is already here - everything we need. It feels like family every time we come. One time we learned how to make flower bombs so we could plant them all over the city.” When Zadon was asked what he liked most about the farm, he smiled, “I like riding on Mr. Bobby’s construction tractor!” Alexis is pleased to have Mr. Wilson as a role model for her son.
Deas Roseman walked in to join us at the table. He’s been volunteering at this farm for ten years. He taught ROTC at high schools, and then he drove a bus. When asked why he drives 45 minutes to get to the farm, he replied, “When I am working in the dirt, it makes me happy. Plus, I get to take fresh food home to my wife.”
Of the half dozen people I met that and the following day, each has a growing relationship with Bobby and the urban farm. Each has been touched by the work he is doing. Bobby has devoted his life to building a community designed to support one another and eat well. He knows how to listen and collaborate. “Active partners make this farm possible,” Bobby affirmed. He continues to get a steady flow of volunteers because they feel fulfilled doing meaningful work. They, too, share in the abundance of the farm.
Agriculture Education Programs
One of his most successful programs is holding a monthly online STEM / STEAM class for high school science students over Facebook live. He is able to follow the chat with the student’s feedback. He also is a guest instructor at Habesha’s Green Ambassadors, a group of farm interns on a six-month program, to learn the basic skills of farming. Most recently, he is organizing a tour for high school students considering a career in agriculture. He wants to be sure they understand the wide variety of agriculture sector jobs available. He said, “The work I’m doing now is not about me; it’s about those who will follow me.”
Gathering Community at the Farm
Each year Bobby uses the farm as the setting for many community gatherings. He hosts “Taste of Georgia” with live bands and dancing. Nearly 300 people come to enjoy the entertainment including a petting show and feeding the chickens. The farm acts as a food distribution center. Food giveaways are held each season. When it gets cold, those in need get scarves, mittens, and hats. He has hosted brainstorming sessions with representatives from NRCS, Farm Service, the college of agriculture, and a member of the city council. He continues to challenge this committee on how we can better use STEM as a tool to steer minority students into agriculture with smart technology. Meanwhile, he is back open post-COVID with school and senior field trips to the farm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Bobby knows that delicious, abundant produce is all about the soil. He uses imported compost and worm casting which ensure healthy plants. He can offer those worm castings and the compost to other farmers in the area as a discount. His farm is also certified naturally grown. They follow organic practices here. He’s learned to waste not and to make do with what he has. He lives so as to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion. Nature is generous, and so is Bobby. He even sends seeds to Africa to help the farmers there.
Many people in need have approached him for help. He tells them, “We can’t fix your problem, but we can co-create something together.” He explained, “Even for the disadvantaged, you have got to let people do it for themselves. Once you give them an opportunity, they have the chance to tap into that power. It’s all about building that relationship. When you have a strong, positive relationship, then people will give.”
What Keeps Bobby Going
Metro Atlanta Urban Farm is more than retirement for Bobby. It’s his life. He has given it all, and the growing seasons keep coming. When asked what keeps him going, Bobby replied, “Where I really get energy is going to a conference or presenting at a conference. When I am empowering people, then I feel energy. I get energy from people. I feel burnout only when I exert myself to try to get people who struggle to understand the value the farming experience brings. But when I can play a role in helping teach people, then I feel satisfied. It’s not about us; it’s about them. My job is to be consistently present in the community. Friends are a great part of the richness of my life.”
Bobby has built a culture of trust in this community over many years, one person at a time. He makes sure everyone feels welcome and wanted. The seeds of his goodwill will continue to grow the community at Metro Atlanta Urban Farm.
For more information, please visit: themetroatlantaurbanfarm.com
Author: Farmer Karl