ATLANTA— Brother Rashid Nuri sat at a white garden table surrounded by four inviting chairs. A white tarp gave shelter from the August sun. He engaged people. “Will you come over here and talk to me?” he would ask, and then, “What book are you reading?”
It was Farmers Market Friday at the Wheat Street Garden, so there were lots of chances to welcome people. A line held steady at the checkout table, where two women worked with a 21st century and old school mix of technology: a hanging scale, a card reader, and a laptop. Bundled herbs, yellow heirloom and red Roma tomatoes, flowers, cucumbers, okra, pole beans, edamame, yellow, orange, dark green squashes, and greens, greens, and more greens seemed popular with the clientele.
Nuri built the Wheat Street Garden on what had previously been a dull space near the Wheat Street Baptist Church and Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King was pastor. Both famous churches are visible from the garden.
The neighborhood, Old Fourth Ward, is rich in culture and history but not as rich in income. But it’s not about bringing gardens to poor neighborhoods, said Nuri.
“The work I’ve engaged in is transformative pedagogy,” he said. He is teaching people and changing society.
“When you say ‘food desert,’ the next phrase is going to be ‘low-income’ and then ‘people of color,’” he said. But that misses the point. “It’s about food justice. I don’t want it to be about color,” he said.
“All Buckhead Bettys live in food deserts. They don’t know it. Buckhead Betty goes in her Lexus to get to food. Sally Ann has to take two buses to get good fresh food,” said Nuri. Both are deprived of their connection to nature.
In his opinion, “We should grow food wherever we are.”
A few people approached him about growing food as he watched over the market. A pair of brothers from Ghana, wearing traditional clothing, introduced themselves. They wanted to learn from him, because they have an eight-acre farm in Fulton County.
“Are you Yoruba people?” asked Nuri, and the men smiled. They talked a bit in Yoruba, before the farmers explored the garden.
Nuri spent years overseas, managing agricultural businesses for Cargill Corporation, and was Deputy Administrator of the Farm Service Agency and Foreign Agricultural Service in the Department of Agriculture during the Clinton administration. He graduated from Harvard College in Political Science and earned a Masters’ in Plant and Soil Science from the University of Massachusetts. Atlanta magazine called him “one of the country’s foremost minds on urban farming.”
Nuri founded the non-profit Truly Living Well in 2006, and its multiple farms produce 30,000 tons of food a year. Metal script on a gate outside the garden’s parking lot reads: “We Are Truly Living Well.”
“That gate is to keep us in, not to keep people out,” said Nuri, whose organization has many links to the larger community.
The Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture website lists multiple sponsors. “The support of philanthropic organizations, corporate and government partners, other nonprofits and numerous individuals in our community have helped to fuel the growth of Truly Living Well,” it reads.
Nuri shifted in his chair, and said what he needs is sustaining support, not one-time gifts. If it were just a farm, it would not employ so many people. “I’ve got 30 people on the payroll,” he said.
Summer camps, community-supported agriculture, lunch and learn sessions, speakers, urban farmer training, and garden installations are among the services TLW offers. Urban farmer training is about how to grow both a business and crops.
The summer of 2013 had unusually heavy rain, which has been bad for crops, good for fungal diseases, according to State Climatologist Bill Murphey, WABE radio reported. Yet the Wheat Street Garden appeared vibrantly healthy.
It’s all about the soil, according to Nuri. Because they compost and avoid chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides, the tilth of the soil is very good and plants resist pests and pathogens. He gestured to clay residue on his shoes, and said that came from a new garden. The clay will transform into crumbly loam after farmers add organic material.
While he spoke, multiple goldfinches passed overhead, wearing breeding plumage like flying lemons. Butterflies and bees visited blossoms, and people chose fruit, vegetables, herbs, and flowers to buy. The garden was rich with human, plant, and animal life.
“There is no culture without agriculture,” said Nuri.