Delve into the vibrant world of urban agriculture. In this episode, David Zelski shines a spotlight on Gratitude Botanical Farm, an unconventional oasis nestled in the heart of Atlanta. Founded by childhood friends, this two-acre micro-farm is defying expectations and nourishing the community in more ways than one.

Explore the challenges and triumphs of urban farming. Combating food deserts and preserving cultural heritage, Gratitude Botanical Farm is sowing the seeds of change in Atlanta's urban landscape.

Gratitude Botanical

Desmond Baskerville: Just and as far as for us being, from this community and of this community, it's important for our children to see people that look like them actually doing these type of things.  It's very interesting to see, a child or something come out here like, wow, I've never seen a farmer. And I definitely didn't think a farmer looked like you. 

David Zelski: Addressing the problem of urban food deserts is a big task that requires some creative thinking. It may even take rethinking what a farm looks like, and where it can operate. The answer could lie beneath those power lines you see on the side of the highway

Theme Song: I came from the mud, there's dirt on my hands. Strong like a tree, there's roots where I stand.

David Zelski: I'm David Zelski, and this is the Fork in the Road podcast, presented by Georgia Grown and the fine folks at Georgia Public Broadcasting. Each episode, we feature stories from Georgia's farmers, fishermen, merchants, artisans, chefs and others who help provide Georgia-grown products to folks in the Peach State and beyond.

Today we’re visiting the state capital, Atlanta, Ga., to spend some time at Gratitude Botanical Farm.

As far as farms go, this is unlike any other we’ve ever visited.

I want you to picture those large forest clearings you sometimes see while driving on long stretches of road, with what looks like miles and miles of large metal structures holding up power lines. Those strips of land are called “rights-of-way,” and they’re acquired by electrical companies like Georgia Power for the purpose of safely constructing, operating and maintaining their transmission lines.

It’s at one of these rights of way that you can find Gratitude Botanical Farm, a just-under-2-acre urban micro farm located off Collier Drive in Atlanta.

The farm was founded in 2018 by a couple of childhood friends with a mission to feed their community, but don’t let the unusual location fool you. This farm is doing truly great things.

Christopher Lemons: We are a true urban farm. If you kind of hear some of the noise in the background, that's actually I-285 that you guys are hearing.

David Zelski: That’s Christopher Lemons, who runs Gratitude Botanical Farm with his friend and business partner Desmond Baskerville. Desmond and Chris grew up with a shared passion for agriculture.

Desmond Baskerville: Well, both of us have been long enthusiasts of agriculture. We both kept home gardens and our family, we have a history of agriculture in our family. His parents — I mean, his grandparents and family actually have land here in Georgia that they still farm down in towards McDonough area. And my family comes from rural Virginia, and we also still have land there. So, maybe it skipped a generation or something — my parents, my aunts and uncles, they weren't really into it — but I've been into it my entire life, 

David Zelski: Starting an urban farm is no small task, and Desmond and Chris knew getting into it that it would take a lot of work. But their agricultural background gave them the tools they needed to make it happen. 

Christopher Lemons: When we stepped into this, it was definitely stepping into it with faith and understanding that this could work. You know, for me, just having the background with family history in farming and also just kind of gardening and being a grower myself? You know, I think that that was something that we, we, we knew we could handle

For the most part, we're a two-man operation and we have a lot of volunteers that come out, you know, monthly to help us as well. But, you know, for us to be three years in and kind of managing the space, you know, considering all those life considerations we have to take account for? I think we're doing pretty good. 

David Zelski: Gratitude Botanical Farm was created as part of a City of Atlanta initiative to address what are called “food deserts,” or areas that lack places to buy affordable and good-quality fresh food. To learn more about this, I spoke with J. Olu Baiyewu. He’s the urban agriculture director for the city of Atlanta.

J. Olu Baiyewu:  I work in the focus areas and policy areas of food access, urban agriculture, food recovery and waste diversion. So that's everything from production farming to compost to, food recovery and distribution, emergency feeding, etc.. That's my day to day. Also doing things in the areas of permits, plans, partnerships, policies and programs, throughout the city of Atlanta, working with the Atlanta metro area, community gardens, urban farms, food forests, etc., etc..  

David Zelski: J. Olu’s mission is to for all city residents to be within walking distance of fresh, affordable food.

J. Olu Baiyewu: For the city of Atlanta, we actually have a goal of 85% of residents being within half a mile of fresh, affordable food. You also look at the Census statistics and look at USDA information, and you'll see that communities such as this one here are considered low-income, low-access, meaning their residents are a mile or more from fresh, affordable food. So what we know and recognize is that the grocery stores are not going to be able to save everybody, because that's a whole capital dynamic. But we know it's fresh, affordable food can be grown in a hyper local environment, can be grown in your front yard, in your backyard, in establishments like this. So Gratitude Botanical Farm and others like it, you know, give that access to people who may not have a grocery store or a supercenter or things like that in the community, but can come here and get the freshest green beans, the freshest sweet potatoes, the freshest flowers, the freshest basil, things that you can't even get, you know, in a grocery store because they're not necessarily focusing on the hyperlocal element of it.  

David Zelski: Here’s Desmond. 

Desmond Baskerville: Some of the ways we provide food to the community are direct sales here, right here on the farm as well as things such as we partner with the MARTA Fresh Market and they actually come out here every week and they pick up an order and they sell it right there at the MARTA station once a week. And that's something that we're doing to — to get our food and product directly into the community at cost. We are for-profit business. But we do have nonprofit entities that we work with, and things of that nature — as far as volunteers and stuff like that. 

David Zelski: Small, but mighty. Micro farms like Gratitude Botanical are a big part of solving Atlanta’s problem of food access. And growing in an unusual space like theirs provides with a wider variety of native vegetation.

Desmond Baskerville: we like to grow things that are natural to the area as well, that is, that are important to us culturally, in, in our — in our history.  Things grow here naturally, such as elderberry, passionfruit. It's just a temperate climate for that. And then we — we cultivate things such as collard greens, sweet potatoes, kale and things of that nature that people of our ancestry would traditionally grow and eat. We also grow beans, watermelons, we grow cut flowers for bouquets and we keep a stock of, herbs such as sage. We have sage, we have holy basil, also known as tulsi. We grow different types of thyme.

Christopher Lemons:  We also propagate these trees, seasonally and we help sell them, too. So that's also something that we like to do is advance some of the native species that are available here in Atlanta.  

David Zelski: Because Gratitude Botanical a smaller space, Chris and Desmond use crop rotations, and even grow some plants in the same soil. This results in some fascinating flavor enhancements for some of the crops.

Desmond Baskerville: We, use many things such as crop rotations as well as inter-planting crops. So one — one that is traditionally used is maybe basil and jalapeños. When you plant basil with jalapeños it's — I don't know if it's a wives' tale or not, but they say that the, the jalapeños taste better. It also — doing things like that attracts the beneficial bugs. It deters the bugs that may be a problem or a pest to your — to your crop. And it also — you're able to plant more in a smaller area.  

David Zelski: At Gratitude Botanical Farms, they’re not just growing food and medicine. They’re growing a culture of community-focused sustainability. And the city of Atlanta is a partner in that mission.

J. Olu Baiyewu: Absolutely. I mean, these two gentlemen are knock out, lights out. They've been stewarding this land here, Northwest Atlanta, Collier Road, Gratitude Botanical Farm. And, they're actually also a part of the Atlanta Grows a Lot program, which is a City of Atlanta program that uses underutilized vacant properties and then affords them to community members, folks like these gentlemen right here and allows them to establish urban farms and community gardens. So, you know, what they've got, as you've seen, is a variety of biodiversity, herbs, fruit trees, vegetables, pollinators, compost operations, etc. And of course, it's also unique in that it's under these Georgia Power lines in this right of way. So it's a very unique space. These guys are getting lights out in, I would say one of the best farmers in the city of Atlanta right now.  

David Zelski: The City of Atlanta’s Grows a Lot program was the water that allowed Gratitude Botanical Farm to blossom. But the seed was the Chris and Desmond’s friendship. And that friendship began when they were toddlers.  

Christopher Lemons:  Desmond and I have known each other since we were 4 years old. So, you know, just having that background of friendship and also being high school classmates.

Desmond Baskerville: Atlanta Grows a Lot is a program with the city of Atlanta where they're trying to increase available, viable, healthy, nutrient-dense food to what, is traditionally known as a food desert. Now they call them "low-income, low-access" areas, LILA areas. And so, one of the solutions to that is being out here, and having a source of growing right here, in the neighborhood. One of my friends works in City Hall and said, "hey, I know you're interested in farming. Here's an opportunity." And I called my long-term friend Chris, who, we went to preschool together. We graduated high school together. So we've known each other majority of our lives. And, and I say, "hey, it might be time to go into business."

Christopher Lemons: The city had put out an advertisement or request for proposals, you know, for people that wanted to start a farm or garden. For me, I had been farming down with my granddad down in McDonough for a few years and also, helping maintain and manage our community garden over in Peoplestown, which is an Atlanta neighborhood.  

Desmond Baskerville: Chris and I, we had developed a business plan, marketing plan, things of that nature and presented to stakeholders. And then they made a selection. And we're part of the pilot program out here.  

David Zelski: Since the city of Atlanta gave them the boost they needed, Gratitude Botanical has been completely dedicated to its mission. Chris even pursued a special certification of “master gardener” to strengthen his gardening knowledge, and help develop the farm.

Desmond Baskerville: Chris took it upon himself to, to educate himself through the extension office to become a master gardener. And so, he's got a wealth of information passed along through that. 

Christopher Lemons: In the United States, we have — Each state has its own extension office, or its land grant institutions. And from there they manage and do what's called Master Gardener training programs. It's in conjunction with the cooperative extension of each state. But, you know, I was lucky enough to be one of the people that actually applied and got in for Fulton County, you know, where I live. And from there, you know, we had to take some classes. At the time I did it was when the metro area met a lot. So it was like Clayton County, DeKalb County, Fulton, Cobb and Gwinnett, all meeting over at DeKalb County, the DeKalb County tag office. And so from there, you know, had to take tests, take classes, and then from there, the most important piece is just maintaining and doing your volunteer hours. So that's one of the things that — that, you know, has kind of led and — and built up some of this training.  

David Zelski: Education is another important mission of Gratitude Botanical Farm. 

Christopher Lemons:  I'm actually the director for programs and outreach at a local nonprofit called Food Well Alliance. What Food Well Alliance does is they help support farms and gardens in the metro Atlanta area. And so, you know, putting together different programs around education, species identification, things around crop rotations, different things like that. And then we also do grant funding for different farms and gardens in the metro area, you know, so things where they can, you know, buy equipment or, you know, buy seeds or, you know, just advance their operation a lot more because people that are really in this business, you know what it takes and what you go through in order to put food on the table and to make ends meet. And so, you know, it's a really great — it's a really great opportunity to combine my life's passions. 

Desmond Baskerville: We do have a monthly work day where the community is welcome to come out. And in that time period, we try to pass on that information — education of what your food actually looks likeEveryone's accustomed to going to the grocery store and seeing things of that nature. So for us it's very important to educate the next generation in what food actually is, where it comes from, and what it takes to, to grow it to the point where you're able to eat it.  

David Zelski: I spent the day with Chris and got a look at what was growing on the farm. He walked me through a typical day in the life of an urban farmer.

Christopher Lemons:  So like a lot of farmers, you know, I personally work full time and, you know, manage this full time. So what a day looks like for me is kind of, you know, coming up kind of close to the first light, getting out here in the morning where, you know, it's beautiful. You can see the deer, you know, you kind of see the cranes flying over the creek, things like that. First things first, you know, walk through, make sure you know, everything's looking copacetic like it should. You know, not too much damage or, you know, making sure that your fence line is clean. And then from there, you know, you know, you want to water, depending on the cycle of the moon that we're in, you know, you may or may not harvest or you may be doing some planting. But, you know, we are here in Georgia. So we want to make sure that, you know, we get — we get work done before the sun gets too far above our heads. You know what I mean? 

David Zelski: They don’t call it Hotlanta for nothin'.

Producer Jeremy: Nobody calls it Hotlanta anymore.

David Zelski: When did—? What? Oh. I shouldn't put that in there. OK. Hot — Hot — do they call it, like — what?

Producer Jeremy: Just move on.

David Zelski: OK.

Christopher Lemons: And so from there, you know, we manage our farm organically. So, you know, we compost here, we use our own inputs, you know, and then we also just make sure we use natural — natural, fertilizers and pesticides if we use any at all. So, you know, through different types of integrated pest management practices, you know, we we have a pretty good run at it here over at Gratitude. This is it's a year round thing.  

David Zelski: As we walked through the farm, cars whizzed by us.  On this seemingly anonymous stretch of Collier Drive, most drivers probably don’t even glance over to the side of the road. They’ll remain unaware of the vibrant life sprouting just underneath these Georgia Power lines.

Christopher Lemons: what you all are seeing are the calyxes of the hibiscus plant. This is in the same family as your okra and as your cotton, but in, I guess, our particular farm, the way we do it, we use these calyxes to produce teas and also to produce a very good and tasty hibiscus jam. Culturally, though, you know Georgia's still in the tropics. But if you were in maybe Southeast Asia, you would see families and people actually harvesting these leaves to saute them and cook them down. Some people do use this in traditional African recipes as well, but I think that most people are, you know, more familiar with the calyxes of the — of the hibiscus that are dried and used to make what's called sorrel tea or, you know, just hibiscus tea. But you guys ever get a chance to taste that jam? You know, it's pretty — it's pretty on point.  

David Zelski: Being in a warm climate like Georgia means Gratitude Botanical can grow plants which thrive in tropical environments.

Christopher Lemons:  I always want to highlight about our farm and about farming in Atlanta in general is just some of the native things that we have that — that naturally just popped up. You know, so as an example, this is an elderberry tree that, that popped up here naturally. This is definitely one of the plants that people make a lot of things from. You know, it's traditionally been used in medicine throughout Europe and the Americas, when you really look at the history of it. People, they make, they decant it, they also make, you know, syrups and different jams and jellies from it.  

We farm in alignment with nature. So, you know, you may look at it and see it may look a little more weedy than you think, but a lot of those weeds are actually medicinal herbs that we use. 

The other thing I wanted to show was that, you know, in Georgia, we're still part of the tropics, like I said. So some of the fruit and things that people actually get to partake of in warmer climates, we actually have that ripen here in Georgia as well. So what you're looking at is traditionally known as a may pop, but this is actually a passion fruit: paciflorica incarnada. And so, you know, we harvest the flowers and we use those to sell people — um, sell to people as dried herbs. And then right here we sell these fruits, you know, kind of towards the end of September, around October when they're really ripened, you know, and people, they turn them into all sorts of things. 

David Zelski: At Gratitude Botanical Farm, they use a method of composting which has deep roots in Chris and Desmond’s cultural background.

Desmond Baskerville: We, used a few composting systems out here, but one of the ones that people really take a hold to is our African keyhole composter.  We — You can use anything from cinder blocks to wood pallets to, you can even mound the dirt with wood chips or something like that and create a circle. And then you have, any type of cylindrical area that is aerated so the air can flow through it, and you put your food scraps, your, your old plants and things of that nature right down into it. And it works really quickly to compost directly into the soil that is coming in and out of that area, and you're able to plant into that. So it's an endless system of composting, harvesting, composting, harvesting. And you can actually take, the compost that is developed in there and use it around your, your garden, in the field as well. So, that's the system we use. We like to, you know, get as close to zero waste as we can. We're working our way towards no till. We started here from scratch, so we had to break the ground and loosen it up in that nature. But this year has been a lot less tilling and a lot more just using the good dirt and soil that we've — we've created over the past few years.  

David Zelski: Chris and Desmond are dedicated to setting an example for the next generation of Black farmers.

Desmond Baskerville: We often have kid groups out here and things of that nature. Just and as far as for us being, from this community and of this community, it's important for our children to see people that look like them actually doing these type of things. Born and raised here in in Atlanta, Georgia. It means a lot to be able to literally grow organically in the area that I'm from. We're right here on the west side of Atlanta. I mentioned it before. It's it's very interesting to see a child or something come out here like, "Wow, I've never seen a farmer. And I definitely didn't think a farmer looked like you." So we're just trying to change that narrative. 

David Zelski: Kids especially are fascinated by the farm, and the many lifeforms that keep it working.

Desmond Baskerville: Pollinators are very important. That's another reason we keep the our area as natural as possible to keep a natural biodiversity and ecosystem that would traditionally be here. So — and we grow flowers and things to attract the pollinators such as the butterflies, the bees and things of that nature. At this time of the year, you can go around, you can find a bunch of caterpillars and stuff that are going to cocoon soon. And it's just it's — it's a child's dream if you think about it, to come out here. Bright, big flowers everywhere and all of these cool colored and designed butterflies flapping all around them and literally keeping this entire area alive and working. 

David Zelski: As the sun sets on another day at this powerful microfarm in the heart of the city, Chris reflected on the future of Gratitude Botanical.

David (on tape): What are your long term goals here with Gratitude Botanical? 

Christopher Lemons: Long-term goal is to get this into a little bit bigger space and expand our operation. So, you know, definitely want to keep this and keep it going. But getting to something that we own that has a little bit more acreage and is more open for us to advance our business. Because we're under an easement, certain things like a greenhouse and things or a barn or, you know, even chicken coops, things you may expect to see on a traditional farm, we can't necessarily have, I guess because of the liability or some of the things that may happen, you know, with us being under a Georgia Power easement. So, you know, those are some of the considerations. But long-term, we definitely want to make sure that we have created something that we can pass on to our family. And that's a benefit to the state of Georgia as well.

David Zelski:

For more stories like this one, you can watch A Fork in the Road on GPB-TV or any time on the is where you can listen to and subscribe to this podcast or download it on your favorite podcast platform.

I'm David Zelski. Thanks for listening to A Fork in the Road.


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