Farmer Tales: Concrete Jungle
Science tells us that we homo sapiens have been walking on this spinning dust ball for about 200,000 years, yet the first farms didn't pop up until only 10 or 15,000 years ago. So what's with the gap? How did our species survive for all those millennia without farmers to grow our food?
The answer, of course, is foraging: the ancient process of gleaning naturally growing fruit and nuts from the land. And here in our little "city in a forest," which boasts the densest tree coverage of all major US cities, the practice remains alive and well.
At the heart of this pre-agricultural revamp is Concrete Jungle, an Atlanta nonprofit that pairs foraging with farming to benefit some of the most at-risk members of our community. Between its Southwest Atlanta farm and its many community foraging events, the organization grew and gathered close to 20,000 pounds of food last year, distributing all of it to shelters and other organizations benefitting the city's homeless population.
But Concrete Jungle didn't start with philanthropy. It started with a party.
Back in the mid-2000s, Georgia Tech students Craig Durkin and Aubrey Daniels were gifted a cider press. Already adept dumpster divers, the two pals began scouring the city for free apples and using whatever they found to fuel a booze-driven extravaganza they called Ciderfest (which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like but even more fun). Eventually, when the gratis apple harvests became too much for even their raging parties to consume, they decided to start giving the excess fruit to homeless shelters.
"It just seemed like the right thing to do," says Durkin. "Atlanta has a lot of homeless people, and they eat a lot of crap. Seemed like a ???two birds with one stone' kind of thing. We didn't want it to go to waste and there were people close by that really don't get very much good food to eat." The more they went out to harvest, the more they realized how many other fruit and nut trees were hidden throughout the cityscape. The potential seemed limitless, and Concrete Jungle was born.
TEACH ME HOW TO FORAGE: Concrete Jungle's Jason Johns leads a fruit ramble in Virginia-Highland.Kelly TruittAs the operation grew, however, Durkin and Daniels wanted to do more. They needed someone to supplement their year-round fruit and nut harvest with fresh vegetables, and for that they needed a farmer.
Katherine Kennedy, now the lifeblood and executive director of Concrete Jungle, turned out to be just the person they were looking for. At the time, she was living in New York, fresh out of college. "I think I had a path that a lot of young people have who come to work with food," she recalls. "You start off in a job in an office and realize maybe this isn't everything you thought it was cracked up to be. You want to connect more with your body and the outdoors."
For Kennedy, following that desire meant transitioning to a Brooklyn rooftop farm, then back down to Georgia. Once here, she heard about Concrete Jungle's acquisition of a plot of land in Southwest Atlanta and the group's need for a farmer to work it. For five years, she built and managed Concrete Jungle's Doghead Farm as a volunteer, becoming a paid employee only within the last year.
URBAN HARVEST: Prickly pears grow wild in a residential area of Poncey-Highland.Kelly TruittAt Concrete Jungle, managing the farm also means managing a horde of over 900 volunteers each year. But for Kennedy, this is no problem she likes to get creative. "For me, farming is really about community organizing," she says.
One of her favorite volunteer events, Weed Dating, entails groups of singles rotating from one dirt mound to the next, meeting other singles while weeding the beds kind of the ultimate first date. "I think there was one couple that actually came out of it," she recalls. But that's not the only love connection Concrete Jungle has forged. Kennedy and Daniels were recently married, making this thing a family affair.
On top of her farming duties, Kennedy spends much of her time organizing the foraging side of Concrete Jungle, which also includes a slew of events, such as the annual Ciderfest (still going strong), neighborhood fruit tree tours dubbed "rambles" and community harvests. The organization relies heavily on its growing volunteer base to get fruit picked, veggies planted and food donated.
TREE WHISPERER: Atlanta's Johnny Appleseed aka Robbie AstroveKelly TruittLongtime forager Robby Astrove has been serving Concrete Jungle as its advisory board chair since nearly the beginning. He's affectionately known as the "Johnny Appleseed of Atlanta" for planting over 50 orchards in the city. "I was a shade-maker, planting these big oaks, and the garden plants are sun-seekers they want to have open space. So it was kind of a clash for me," says the former Trees Atlanta employee turned Arabia Mountain park ranger. "Then, I actually met a homeless person on the street that thanked me for planting trees, but asked me, ???Next time can you plant fruit trees? Because we're hungry, we need it.'?
An important part of Concrete Jungle's mission is educating its volunteers and the community at large on the importance of socially conscious planting and foraging. But Kennedy says, "At the heart of Concrete Jungle, everything must be fun. Just by nature, fruit picking is fun and whimsical. You're climbing in a tree. Maybe you haven't climbed a tree since you were 10, and now here you are in a tree, and you're shaking it and apples are raining down. It's a unique experience that you kind of can't get any other way.?
The organization is also pushing the bounds of technology. Through an official partnership with Georgia Tech, they've explored the use of drones, virtual tree mapping and various sensors to indicate when a tree is ready for picking. "Collaborating with Concrete Jungle is some of the most exciting and inspiring design work we get to do," says Tech professor Carl DiSalvo, Ph.D., who heads up the partnership. "Concrete Jungle is all about new ways that we can care for each other.?
DiSalvo believes this kind of compassionate research and design is exactly the kind that public institutions like his should be taking on. "It's important to do because it's never going to be done by corporate design studios, not even those focused on innovation," he says. "Because it's not about making technology for commercialization, it's about designing so that we can better care for our communities.?