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A farmer at the helm

By Aja Arnold

Joe Reynolds didn’t mean to become a farmer.

At least not in the beginning.

“I’ve been obsessed with farmers for a really long time,” said Reynolds, farmer at Love is Love Farm at Gaia Gardens and current Chair of the Georgia Organics Board of Directors. “But I didn’t necessarily think I was going to be a farmer. I thought it’d be a cool pit stop.”

What began as a minor obsession evolved into a full-blown mission.

Today, Reynolds’ work at Gaia Gardens, with wife Judith Winfrey, aims to give back to the community that’s fed him since the beginning.

Although Reynolds spent his adolescence in Valdosta, Ga., a farming town in its own right, his story with farming begins when he was 23 with a trip to El Salvador.

Reynolds moved to Atlanta after graduating college in 2001 and worked jobs at Brickstore Pub and Java Monkey in Decatur. Once Reynolds settled in to life in the Decatur Square footprint, he began rustling in ideas of what his future footprint in the world was to be.

He decided to travel to Central America and volunteer at the Las Lajas coffee farm in El Salvador.

“I called these folks on the phone, so I had no social cues [for speaking Spanish],” he remembered. “They could only hear my humility and timidness, but I called and asked, ‘Can I come and volunteer?’ And we organized a date.”

Reynolds went, expecting no more than a cultural experience to reminisce about. Nonetheless, the wheels were already turning in his mind with bigger questions of the culture—“Why would you have a revolution? What about the economics?”—at a time when El Salvador was celebrating 10 years of its peace corps from the revolution that took place in the 90s.

What started out as a modest endeavor became the ignition for much more.

During the season in El Salvador, picking and picking coffee plants alongside native farmers, a seed was planted and the obsession began to grow.

“This is what made me fall in love with farming,” Reynolds explained. “[I realized] it takes so much knowledge, to know about the rhythms of the planet, the seasons, the weather cycle, the planet’s growth habit. Let’s not even talk about the knowledge of how to grow, just the knowledge of soil biology, chemistry, the physics of putting things in the ground. My experience at this coffee co-op was like, ‘Whoa, I’m totally unprepared for this.’”

Reynolds returned to work at Brickstore Pub, where he met Winfrey, who was cultivating her interests in food culture and activism at the time, particularly with the slow food movement.

On the side, he picked up a part-time job at a vegetable farm through a friend he met at Brickstore who was related to a farmer in Covington, Ga., named Nicholas Donck—owner of Crystal Organic Farm and one of the young farmers at the beginning of the Farmers’ Market Movement and the Slow Food Movement which began to explode in 2008. Reynolds worked there part-time with Donck, who is Belgian, Donck’s Austrian mother and another volunteer who was from Mexico.

What Reynolds found by way of chance and good fortune was that a renowned cultural experience and access to knowledge and experience in food, nature, and community was practically living in Atlanta’s backyard.

“This cultural experience I thought I needed to go to Central America for was happening there in Covington, Ga.,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds and Winfrey continued their work on farms and in local organizations supporting sustainable food in Georgia, such as Georgia Organics, Sevananda, Food Not Bombs, and others, until they were asked by Donck and his mother to take over the Glover Family Farm in Douglasville, Ga. The couple moved and worked there for three years—two of which they lived in a camper on the farm. It was there that Reynolds and Winfrey came face-to-face with the realities of farming and what it took; a sobering experience in terms of the real weight of certain challenges, how farmers are constantly pushed and pulled in the reigns of risk and uncertainty on the terms of Mother Earth.

“It was hard because it’s hard to imagine how much work it is,” Reynolds said. “I don’t think we did a great job preparing for how much responsibility it was and how tough it is to turn photosynthesis and human labor into cash dollars that pay your bills, pay the people that work for you, have enough money to buy all the supplies, and maybe pay you at the end of the day. We didn’t have a business plan. We really just had a drive and a desire to do it.”

Although Reynolds and Winfrey found their avocation in farming, the affinity and romanticism of the pursuit began to fade. The second year farming in Douglasville presented new provocations from a production perspective and the couple was tired from working the previous season. It was a callous summer—very hot and very dry; Georgia was still in its 10-year drought.

Then, in the fall of 2009, El Nino wept. The treacherous weather pattern oscillated through Georgia, flooding the farm in Douglasville, putting it six feet under water.

“It was transformative,” Reynolds remembered. “It was like a river… this was bottomland that had some very minor flooding, but nothing like this. They called it the 500-year flood. Whatever we had grown there was dead. The irrigation system was pretty messed up. We had a small area we could grow for the fall, but most of the farm was unusable for that part of the year. Trenches were carved everywhere, where water had just carved through the land.”

After the flood, Reynolds and Winfrey continued their course and pressed on in the wake of destruction and overall sense of powerlessness.

“It was the first time I was really aware of climate change,” says Reynolds. “It definitely made me aware how vulnerable this work is. It made me think, ‘How can I design my system?’ I can never stop six feet of water; if it’s coming, it’s coming. There are other impacts, too, and agriculture is a huge solution to climate change. It helps us reconnect with the land, helps us reconnect to the soil, which is all those things that I prized, that I thought those amazing El Salvador coffee farmers did while picking coffee… all those things they were aware of, just helps you get in touch with that. The original Internet: nature. It has all the information there, you just have to pay attention to it.”

The flood in Douglasville demonstrated to Reynolds and Winfrey the salvation that can come through a strong, giving community. The cataclysmic flood left the two stunned and humbled in vulnerability and dismay, but it was through people coming together that they were able to come back strong and have a successful third and final year farming in Douglasville. And it wasn’t just for them—the flood inspired change within the community on a systemic level. Some friends of the Peachtree Road Farmers’ Market and Farm Burger helped start a fund called the Farmer Fund to assist farmers when they have natural disaster at their farm. That fund now lives at Georgia Organics as a relief service offered to farmers across the state.

“Initially the folks that helped us out was the organization Slow Food Atlanta,” Reynolds said. “They helped start a flooded farmers’ fund and they created awareness around what was happening. When people heard about it, we really just got all these checks from people to help us recover and then there was a fundraiser that Slow Food Atlanta had and even Whole Foods had a big 10% day for their store and gave it to this flooded farmers’ fund. We got some money from the U.S. government for disaster relief for the destruction of the land.”

In 2011, Reynolds and Winfrey then moved to Gaia Gardens, knowing they could potentially operate and grow their products and their market in more secure conditions.

“We decided to move here because it was a great opportunity and we weren’t able to formalize a lease with the Glover family,” Reynolds explained. “We thought it was really important for us to have some stability, because we don’t own the land that we farm, but we had built this group of customers, this marketplace, and we really wanted to protect it and protect ourselves.”

The flood in Douglasville put Reynolds in a position to really consider what systems should be in place for small farms to keep their businesses resilient and alive in a time when the gap between small farms and their communities is becoming harder to bridge.

“We really want to sustain and support the success of other farmers through operating with them,” says Reynolds. “And we do it through three different ways. We employ young farmers, we try to mentor them and support them as much as we can. They support us with their labor, we try to support them through sharing knowledge and resource that we have. The second way we do it, is we partner with a handful of farmers for our CSA—community supported agriculture—and the membership marketplace. And the last way is through servant leadership, like the good food community or being on the board of an organization.”

Reynolds’ work with young farmers is monumental in that it keeps the chain growing and opportunities rising. With an immaculate sense of humility and openness, Reynolds continuously leaves the door open for others to come in and learn just as he was given the opportunity to in his early 20s.

“What Joe is doing is more than farming,” explained Chef Terry Koval, executive chef and partner of Wrecking Bar Brewpub. “He is teaching and mentoring next generation farmers to continue to grow more food in our community. Joe builds community and builds a network of chefs, producers, and nonprofits. This builds communities and friendships. Joe’s willingness to teach and mentor his staff and guide them to their next step, as well as his involvement in the community, bridge the gap from the farm to the community.”

Reynolds has maintained strong relationships through the CSA, keeping in touch with and helping to support other local organic farmers.

“Joe is an amazing steward of organic farming,” said Katie Varner, longtime friend and member of Reynolds’ CSA. “His ability to connect with both the community at large and the immediate farming community has helped to change people’s mindsets toward the organic local food movement.”

In his role as Georgia Organics’ Board Chair, Reynolds is responsible for running the quarterly board meetings, representing the organization, and helping raise money to support the organization. Reynolds’ work at Georgia Organics keeps him connected to what he considers the most important aspect of the industry—the community and relationships that sustain one another when times are hard.

“Joe brings a vibrant farmer, enterprise, and community lens to [our] organization,” says Alice Rolls, President and CEO of Georgia Organics. “He has been both a farmer mentee and mentor, is well-connected in the wider food community, active within numerous sister organizations, and has been a business innovator by working cooperative with other farmers.”

Michael Wall, Director of Farmer Services at Georgia Organics, adds that having a farmer as a Board Chair brings an important dynamic to the non-profit organization.

“I think the farmer’s perspective is the most important one for us to include in our body of work,” he said. “When the person running the show is a farmer, an efficiency of focus shines brightly on our direct work to the farming community, and that’s the way it should be.”

From now through the end of December, we’ll be writing about and spotlighting our farmers and the work of our farmer services team. We hope you keep reading, and to invest in our farmer services efforts please click here to contribute $100, $50, $25 or any amount that’s meaningful to you.

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