Urban Farmer Hero
Grower Eugene Cooke combines education, social change and produce in the name of healthy communities.
Activist and farmer Eugene Cooke tends a five-acre plot in an Atlanta neighborhood where homelessness, obesity, poor nutrition and a disconnect from the land can take a toll.
Once upon a time you could say the word "farmer" and an image from primary school flash cards might spring to mind: Mr. Green Jeans, John Deere tractors, denim overalls and acres and acres of Iowa corn fields.
Today's farmers are a head-swimmingly different breed, taking various paths on the road to growing: business school grads returning to resurrect family farms, neo-hippies anxious for meaningful work in a non-office setting, activists seeing the answer to social ills in food plucked from the land instead of a grocer's freezer.
Firmly in the new-school-farmer camp is California native Eugene Cooke, who has traveled from Jamaica to Kenya and to his current berth in Atlanta, all in the name of growing.
Even how Cooke describes what he does is out of the box: "Some people like to talk about being a farmer, but the way things are shifting, we have to do so much more to make people want to deal with the land."
How does Cooke describe what he does? "I create food abundance systems," he says, "which means grow food wherever you are, and in a way that's abundant."
And it's no longer enough to just grow it and they will come. According to Cooke, today's grower needs to do much more to connect people to local food. "You have to bring in the wellness aspect, the party aspect, the community aspect, the retail aspect," he says.
An urban farmer with a mission, Cooke sees his community garden projects as "giving people a solution that's very close at hand," by providing the key to health and well-being in the simple act of putting a seed in the ground. His current project is a five-and-a-half-acre plot he cultivates alongside grower Nicole Bluh behind the Atlanta Good Shepherd Community Church in Atlanta's West End neighborhood. It's an area more known for urban blight than plum trees, hibiscus and Cooke's particular strain of California cool.
But then nothing about this place fits expectations, from the earthy hipsters working the land to the resident pastor at Good Shepherd retired from the Environmental Protection Agency where he worked to keep pesticides out of the nation's water. This urban garden has the good luck of being directly within sight of one of Atlanta's perpetually teeming highways. Cars pulse on I-20 in a continuous flow past this large farm. And a number of them are curious enough about flourishing rows of sorghum, garlic, sorrel, mustard greens, kale and apples, to take a spontaneous detour. "There's no fences on anything. You can just come in and look around," Cooke offers in his typical welcoming, earnest style.
Though he's 42 with three children and a wife Jovonna (whose own business is preparing vegan food for families and new mothers), Cooke has the soft-spoken enthusiasm and youthful good looks of someone half his age.
Along a circuitous path that has crisscrossed the United States and the world, Cooke has taught farming workshops, created edible gardens at inner-city schools, and blended drumming and gardens, all in an effort to get young people interested in growing. Cooke's mission of using innovative methods to grow healthy food turns out to address a number of social ills in one fell swoop: homelessness, obesity, health issues and apathy.
"Coming from California, it's hip to grow your own food," says Cooke, of that social activist, social entrepreneurial West Coast vibe. But in the South, Cooke has contended with a different reality, like the associations with slavery some black people have when they think about agriculture. "They're trying to get as far away from that as possible," says Cooke. Part of Cooke's mission is therefore convincing the largely black community around Good Shepherd of the health, communal and emotional benefits of growing.
At Good Shepherd Cooke practices the hugelkultur method of growing. The growing technique originated in Germany, and involves creating raised berms of soil built upon fallen trees. The rotting trees buried beneath the mounds of dirt provide a constant source of compost for the fruits and veggies growing above. Hugelkultur is also perfect for the particular plot Cooke is working: it's in a flood plain where rainfall can quickly swamp the crops. The raised beds serve another purpose for Cooke. They are high enough that children playing in a neighboring park can see the garden: it's another way of preaching his ministry of good eating without saying a word.
Under Cooke's tutelage the land supports an orchard, rows of sorghum, basil, kale and enormous sweet potatoes that thrive in the rich hugelkultur soil. Cooke has plans to plant cold-hardy kiwi, muscadines, a Native American medicine wheel and develop a fruit orchard visible from I-20 to further entice drive-by interest. Cooke may no longer be designing gas stations—his original career—but he's still thinking about aesthetics. "I like to design agricultural spaces that also have something beautiful to move through," says Cooke of the sunflowers he plants mostly to offer a pleasing view to passersby.
Eugene Cook's Tips for Starting a Community-Minded Garden:
Plant Fruit Trees
"Start by planting fruit trees. They're less maintenance, and they're great for public officials to come out and do a photo op. They don't really have to do too much: dig a hole, put the tree in."
Cultivate the Soil
Not everyone is comfortable, has the time or the physical health to volunteer in the garden. But if you create a compost pile, you will find many more community members stopping by to donate their food scraps, and becoming involved in the garden that way. "It gets people coming," says Cooke.
Use Native Plants
Do your research and find out what is already growing in your area. Many of these plants—including yellow dock, goldenrod, cleavers (Galium aparine) and chickweed in the South—have medicinal value and will grow well in your area.