Atlanta, to many, is a city of opportunity that has presented viable means towards different industries. Originally famed as the meeting points for railroads and a hub for trade, now our city has grown into a "Southern Hollywood" of sorts, attracting production companies, movers, shakers , etc.. What might not come to mind when one reflects on Atlanta's potential is the concept of urban farming, but in co-owner/manager of Fresh Roots Farm Mark DiNatale's mind it most certainly does. Fresh Roots Farm is "developing an urban farming model that is independent, diversified and scalable", as well as totally accessible. This week we talked with Mark about what it takes to run an urban farm, how Fresh Roots got started, and where he's looking to take it.
BANG! With Fall fast approaching, what does Fresh Roots Farm do in its off-season?
Mark DiNatale Fall is one of the best growing seasons in Georgia. The fall in Georgia is a long season with minimal cool season threats of blistering heat or heavy frost. The many cool nights and warm days are perfect for growing all the hearty greens and root vegetables everyone loves. We enjoy farming in the fall and hope our customers enjoy the long fall harvest.
After the fall season, Fresh Roots Farm has in the past taken a winter break. We found that people are less interested in the hearty, root-driven winter vegetables than the sweet fruit-driven summer veggies. However, this year we are experimenting with growing through the winter. You can see what is in season by visiting www.freshrootsfarm.com.
BANG! What are some of the obstacles an urban farm faces in Atlanta?
Mark DiNatale Atlanta is rich in arable urban land, farmers markets, and fair weather. Urban farmers in Atlanta are relatively fortunate to have all of these in one place, however; the land is not cheap, markets end in November and the fair weather leads to greater pest, weed, and disease problems. The main obstacle is earning enough from urban farming to do it as a full time job. That is one obsticle that few people can claim to have overcome.
BANG! One of the main reasons to get involved with an urban farm is to stimulate the local economy. Can you elaborate on the flow of funds?
Mark DiNatale We grow food and our neighbors give us money for it. We use the money to grow more food, hire a farm manager, and expand our farming operation. We reinvest the money our neighbors give us into the soil, people, and potential of Atlanta.
Similarly, if you want to enrich your life, enrich the lives of those around you.
BANG! Atlanta, revered by some as one of America’s dirtiest cities, might not seem to some as an ideal spot to grow produce. What is your response to that?
Mark DiNatale I’m not sure if Atlanta is one of America’s dirtiest cities but if it is then let’s clean it up. For this reason, “dirty” cities or cities that have heavy industrial pasts are among the best places to grow food. By growing healthy, rich, organic soil in our cities, we can reclaim our environment from our industrial past. Urban farmers are very aware of the soil they choose to grow food in, and will take precaution to remediate “dirty” soil prior to growing edible food. There are numerous ways to remediate, or bypass “dirty” soil including bringing in clean soil, growing in raised beds, building raised containers, or using bio/myco remediation techniques. The process of cleaning up our industrial past is not easy or fast, but we can and are doing it.
BANG! How large do the quantities of product get to be? Could you supply restaurants, food trucks, etc? Or is the Fresh Roots Farm more of a person-by-person service?
Mark DiNatale The quantity of food harvested from a 3 sub-acre plots of land in a year would surprise most people. I couldn’t tell you exact poundage because we don’t keep that level of detail in our records. We do grow intensively and produce enough to feed around 20-30 people each year. Of course, we can’t grow everything people need like the basic grains and fruits because that would require more land than Atlanta can support but we can grow a lot of greens, root vegetables, brassicas and vine fruits. We do supply food trucks and restaurants from time-to-time but we tend to focus on the individual.
BANG! What inspired the creation of the Fresh Roots Farm?
Mark DiNatale Fresh Roots Farm was born out of my desire to fulfil one of the goals of the Peace Corps, to bring what I learned in the Peace Corps back to my community. In 2008 I returned to Atlanta from my service in Peace Corps Panama. During my service in the Peace Corps, I worked to teach rural farmers organic practices, appropriate renewable technologies and basic environmental conservation techniques. I knew I wanted to continue working in agriculture and environmental education so I began to study urban agriculture. I knew very little about urban farming at the time and could only find a few urban farms in Atlanta. I quickly realized that very few people were growing healthy, affordable, local food in Atlanta but the time was ripe and the interest was growing. One day, I decided to stop studying and start growing Fresh Roots Farm.
BANG! What are the requirements for land usage for future prospects of urban farms? How much can Fresh Roots work with and what is simply inoperable?
Mark DiNatale Land usage is an interesting aspect of urban farming. There are many aspects we could go into from cutting edge technologies like vertical farming, aquaponics, and hydroponics to the best business structure for a sustainable urban farming industry. But, as for the land itself. We’ll consider any plot as long as it’s clean, gets enough sun, has access to clean water, is on a reasonable grade, is less than 1 acre and is free to use in exchange for vegetables. We aim to use land that someone wants to turn into a farm instead of forcing a farm onto land. We also want to keep the plot manageable for 1 person and a few volunteers without getting into heavy machinery. That way, if we ever leave the plot, it can be easily managed by someone who lives nearby without much investment.
BANG! Is there a certain model that Fresh Roots Farm followed in terms of planting, harvesting and watering the produce?
Mark DiNatale We don’t follow any one model but rather use a cornucopia of ideas from many farming philosophies and practices. We began with the SPIN growing model, but after a season, transitioned into a mixed French intensive/SPIN model and so one. Every season we change and grow just like our plants.
BANG! What are Fresh Roots Farm’s goals for the future? What kind of contributions do you see the urban farm making to Atlanta?
Mark DiNatale Fresh Roots Farm has always been interested in connecting people with healthy local food. We will continue to grow food and expand into new plots but we are also working on developing a greater distribution platform. We would like all the local chefs, markets, individuals and farmers to be able to connect wirelessly and seamlessly. We want to make access to local produce as easy as possible for everyone so that the local food scene can continue to expand into a permanent fixture. We hope to provide an online platform that is focused on marketing and distributing local food.