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The Community Ecosystem - Twisting Corporate Ideas to Serve Local Farms and Neighborhoods

A multi-level network of customizable franchised farms provides food and climate security to Atlanta, Georgia, and beyond.

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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

The Community Ecosystem

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

The Atlanta Farmers Coalition, Farmer Co-op/Non-profit

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.ecosystemfarm.com www.communityecosystem.org

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Atlanta

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Atlanta, Georgia

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

I moved to Atlanta for grad school in 2010, expecting to stay two years and move on. During my last semester, I suffered a concussion and was knocked off my planned career developing mathematical models of disease transmission. To occupy myself during the months when vertigo and tinnitus kept me from work on my masters thesis, I started a garden in a clearing in the woods across the street from my apartment. Others took notice, and before I knew it I had a community garden on my hands. I've now lived in Atlanta for 10 years, and my community garden has grown into a farm. Atlanta has so many problems, but it's a place where you can jump in, ask questions, and actually make a difference. I've played a part in bringing our urban farmers together as a political force, in working with the city and GA Power to open power line easements to farmers, and in pushing for zoning changes that support local food production. Atlanta is where I've chosen to put down my roots, and while our visions for food system change have the potential to expand far beyond this city, Atlanta is where our ideas are being shaped, tested, and brought into successful reality.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Atlanta is shaped by systemic racism. Interstate 20 cuts the city in half and serves as a divider between black and white. Racism is seen in the lack of public transit in the northern half of the city; in the attempts to create new cities to "keep our communities safe"; in the food deserts that cover a third of the five county metro area. As trends shift and living in cities becomes popular again, historically black neighborhoods are grappling with gentrification. Atlanta evolved, rather than being planned. Roads tend to meander, and neighborhoods almost always have a park and at least one plot of vacant land. In rich neighborhoods, it can be a single lot purchased by the neighbors to keep control of the space. In less wealthy spaces, it can be dozens of acres that no one has bothered to develop. Trees are valued, to the point that a permit to cut down a large, healthy tree can cost upwards of $3000 inside city limits. Our former mayor made resiliency a priority, funding an office of resiliency and the nation's first urban agricultural director. The five county metro region around Atlanta includes some of the most diverse communities in the United States. Almost every cuisine known to mankind can be found somewhere along Buford Highway, and Clarkston is home to thousands of refugees from all over the world. These communities bring their agricultural traditions to our red clay. Because of the open space in our city, we have upwards of 80 small farmers in our five county metro region. Our farmers grow nutrient dense food for the community, but struggle financially to live comfortably on their labor. Collectively we provide $2 million in economic activity, yet the average for each farm is around $25,000. This can be tied to lack of start up capital, business mistakes, and failing to approach farms as businesses. Like most major cities, Atlanta is heavily dependent on food imported from outside of the city and state. While we have an abundance of local farm to table restaurants, we also have our share of chain fast food and independent spaces that never change their menus and source from industrial agriculture. I do not believe industrial agriculture will sustain itself indefinitely - climate change will force a reckoning with monocultures, CAFOs, oil dependent fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides coming out on the losing end. Nothing I see indicates that industrial agriculture will be able to manage the changes needed to survive that reckoning, so Atlanta, along with every other major city, will face a massive upheaval to food supply as systems begin to fail. My hope is that we can use the methods of capitalism twisted to support local farms and step into providing for Atlanta when industrial agriculture fails.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

21694

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

6000000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

It’s estimated that the food we eat today is ten to 100 times less nutrient dense compared to plants grown 25-50 years ago. One in three adults is considered obese, and 52% of children under 18 experience some sort of chromic disease or disorder - compared to 4% in the 1960s. Growth in auto-immune disease diagnosis is increasing logarithmically. Autism diagnoses have increased from 1 in 5000 children in 1975 to 1 in 32 children today. Without universal screening, one in ten children are diagnosed with ADD/ADHD. One in two adults will experience cancer. 


Since the 1960s and 70s, our food system has become almost completely dependent on herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Our food contains exactly what we put in it - as is evidenced by the decrease in nutrient density. Atlanta, like the larger nation and globe, is suffering from extreme undernourishment because we grow our food with a handful of added elements instead of the full palette provided by a healthy soil food web. Our current agriculture and pollution practices may even spell the end of our species - sperm counts have dropped 52% in western countries over the past 40 years, with 1 in 3 males suffering low sperm count. If current trends continue, 80% of males may be infertile within 30 years.


Large, monocropped fields kept on life support by chemicals have no resilience in the face of climate extremes. Though Atlanta isn’t projected to see major shifts before 2050, we are likely to see an increase in localized extremes. This past summer my farm went 9 weeks without rain and 90 days with a temperature over 90 degrees. The parts of my fields where I’d tilled to control weeds and thus destroyed my fungal biomass needed twice weekly irrigation. My high tunnel, where I’d layered decomposed wood chips and goat manure to build healthy soil, was irrigated twice in 9 weeks. 


We all know that simply making fresh food available doesn’t mean that people will eat it. It’s hard to cook without a functional stove, a roof over your head, or even a few hours a day to plan, chop, prep and saute. The Atlantan working two jobs to make ends meet can’t be expected to spend the time to cook when there’s a Checkers on the corner that can fill his stomach for a few dollars and 15 minutes of time. This diet, plus the stress and systemic racism experienced by so many of our citizens, leads to obesity, diabetes, to all the issues described above. My hope is that as health problems grow and as the industrial food system comes under more and more stress, people will realize the importance of a local food system. My idea aims to make sure that healthy local food is available when that realization occurs, and that the farmers growing it are paid commensurate with the value they’re providing to society.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

This vision can exist alongside industrial agriculture, but it's genius is in how it can proliferate under the radar and step in to provide when things fall apart. And things will fall apart - the average farmer made negative $1400 in 2018. Even absent the negative impacts of our current food production systems, farmers cannot continue losing money to provide something everyone needs on a daily basis.

Imagine a pyramid scheme harnessed for good. Exponential growth of local farms. Franchise fee structures that ensure the parent company is invested in the franchise success, and that support the expansion of the farm network. Right now, we are building our first successful farm and a library of income streams, processes, mistakes and best practices for small farmers. 

When a new farmer approaches the company, we'll sit down with them to discuss their skills, analyze markets, and build a business plan. Then we'll give them the documents to learn from, match the startup funds they need to hit the ground running, and pair them with a mentor for the first five years. Instead of paying a set fee for this custom franchise, we'll take 10% of annual net revenues. Every five years, each farm will serve to mentor and launch a new farmer. We'll grow exponentially to build a network of thriving farmers in tune with their communities yet connected to support each other, fill holes in the market and eventually take the place of industrial agriculture. 

These farmers will not be scraping by on off farm jobs, but will earn a respectable middle class wage and will pay their team members a living wage. They'll do this because we'll train them to approach their farms as businesses, and mentor them until they master the skills needed to not only produce healthy food, but to make money doing it. The average Atlantan spends $3000/year on groceries - farmers simply need to become the direct source for groceries rather than being a dozen steps removed. The Community Ecosystem, as the parent company, will be in a position to guide farmers to holes in local production and handle the logistics of getting crops into consumer hands without dozens of middlemen. 

The soil beneath our feet is our best hope long term for reversing climate change. As part of our training, all farms will learn composting best practices, foliar feeding methods and soil food web methodology. These methods have been shown to sequester carbon and improve plant health, thus eliminating the need for fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, by simply growing food locally, the Atlanta area will be eliminating a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions. With a farm in every neighborhood, access to healthy food will no longer be an issue. With each farm will come additional jobs at a living wage. With the proliferation of successful farms, small farmers will become a political force and local policies will shift to accommodate urban and suburban agriculture.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Imagine a pyramid scheme harnessed for good. Exponential growth of local farms. Franchise fee structures that ensure the parent company is invested in the franchise success, and that support the expansion of the farm network. Each neighborhood will have a farm and farmer devoted to providing for that space, but connected out to the larger network of The Community Ecosystem. The clout of the larger network will allow for favorable negotiations with local institutions and aggregators to ensure that surplus product is purchased, not wasted. The larger network will also be able to support and guide farmers towards successful market streams, fund expansions and ensure that the farmers have the resources and knowledge they need to succeed. Anyone who wants access to fresh, nutrient dense food will have it. Those who would prefer processed food will be able to purchase from restaurants, meal kit services, etc, but these will also be created with locally sourced items. Success is when McDonald's uses local beef, grain, cheese and lettuce for its burgers, not because it's ethical but because it makes economic sense. We're creating a system that encourages sustainable decisions.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

The Community Ecosystem in Atlanta is a franchise network of farms that trains farmers to grow healthy food on a neighborhood level. Each farmer will have the business training to make a sustainable living for themselves and their team, and will have the freedom to respond to the needs of their communities. The parent company will serve as a safety net, an information source, a mentor and a logistics coordinator. We will help farmers thrive, and use our combined power to ensure favorable zoning, fair prices and land tenure. If needed, we can use our understanding of the markets to direct farmers to holes in production, and handle logistics for getting their food to the consumer without the dozens of middlemen taking a cut. 


The average person spends approximately $3000 per year on groceries in the US. Even folks living near the poverty line spend around $100/month on food. For farmers, the issue isn't that people don't spend money on food; it's that there are so many steps from ground to plate. 


I once lived in a relatively small neighborhood with 180 homes, on lots of around a third of an acre. There are so many like it across the Atlanta metro area, and all of them could support a farmer. If only a quarter of those homes could have purchased their vegetables, proteins and dairy from my farm, I could charge the average price people pay for groceries and make more than enough to employ 2 people full time at $40,000/year - not enough to get rich, but more than many of our public servants are currently paid. And I could do it with a fraction front yards and vacant lots in the neighborhood. If there were a food shortage, I would have been able to scale to feed half the neighborhood within a year - and employ another two people in the process.


Atlanta has the open space to grow almost all its food within the five county metro region. The major exception would be large animal production - but that could easily be done within the 20 counties surrounding. Everyone in Atlanta could eat a locally grown, nutrient dense, regionally appropriate diet for about what we currently pay for mass produced and overly processed food shipped round the world before it gets to our plates. That’s not to say that everyone will eat locally - processed food is addicting, and people opt for convenience for many reasons that are out of my ability to address. But the need for a nutrient dense diet is only going to become more apparent, and the current industrial food system will have to fall apart at some point. I can ensure that truly healthy food is available for those who want it, and ensure that the network of small farms is able to scale to include exponentially more farmers as the need arises. 


Because the parent company is there for guidance, the farmer will have the leeway to respond to the needs of his or her neighborhood. Our second site is currently taking shape in Thomasville Heights, a neighborhood near the US Penitentiary that has long been neglected by the city. In consultation with the neighborhood civic league, we’re incorporating community garden plots and a pay what you can farm stand. We’re also creating a partnership with the local chapter of Extinction Rebellion, where activists would live on the farm and spend 15-20 hours per week working on the farm and distributing food in the community. A third site is in the dream stage, but could potentially involve several dozen farmers collaborating on a 280 acre property inside the perimeter and selling their produce as a co-op.  The farmers of these spaces will be members of their communities, and as such will be able to ensure that their businesses benefit everyone. 


By making sure that all farmers are trained in soil health techniques, we’ll turn our farms into carbon sinks. Our methods minimize off-farm inputs and favor locally produced composts only as needed to inoculate the soil food web. As industrial agriculture falters, local food will become more attractive and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with shipping food across the world to Atlanta will fall. 


The Community Ecosystem will support dozens, and eventually hundreds and thousands of farmers. With that kind of representation, we’ll have the ability to invest in projects that support small farmers and lobby for policy change at the local, state and federal level. 


We’ll be able to create apps for voice to database data collection in field, thus making it easy for farmers to collect data without losing time to data entry. We’ll be able to create intuitive inventory management options that track shelf life and automatically discount older products. We’ll be able to equip each farmer with tools to measure the nutrient density of the food they produce, so that they’ll have solid data to explain to consumers why their products are better than the ones shipped from overseas. We can build algorithms to calculate soil bacterial:fungal ratios, identify organisms and provide soil health advice. We can conduct research to quantify soil carbon sequestration. 


And with data coming in from all farms in the network, we’ll be able to see opportunities and guide new farmers into those spaces rather than leaving them to do their own market research and set up their farms on the hope that they’ve guessed right. These types of technologies are much more useful to small farmers than computers measuring greens grown hydroponically in shipping containers, or robots that pick green peppers grown specifically for automated harvest. We need technology that supports growing diverse, nutrient dense crops, and with The Community Ecosystem network, we’ll be able to lobby for what we need.


We’ll also be able to lobby our representatives on a city, state and federal level. The National Young Farmers Coalition has done an amazing job of lobbying to support new farmers, but unless our political system also undergoes significant change, money will always talk louder. By grouping small farmers under a parent company, we can grow to the point where we’ll have a seat at the bars where executives go to meet with government officials. Especially as industrial agriculture falters, our results will speak for themselves. 


Atlanta has already hired the country’s first urban agriculture director, whose office is working to put farmers on city owned land. They’ve worked to create zoning friendly to urban agriculture, and they’re building brands that urban farmers can use to add value to their crops. When the first major food shortage hits, the groundwork is partially in place here for local food to step in to fill the shortfall. All we need is more farmers running more resilient businesses - which is what The Community Ecosystem is working to bring to reality.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Team (2)

Ecosystem's profile
Atlanta 's profile
Atlanta Farmers

Role added on team:

"The Atlanta Farmers Coalition is a non-profit consisting of farmers in the metro Atlanta region. We will be providing feedback and shaping this idea as it evolves over the next several years."

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Thank you so much for the Food Extension Initiative.

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