#CCIspotlight: Joe Reynolds, Love is Love Farm

For this week’s #CCIspotlight, we traveled to Love is Love Farm at Gaia Gardens to see the brainchild of #CCIsuperstar Joe Reynolds and to pick his brain. Joe is a 2016 Food Innovation Fellow, an urban farmer, and an organizer. He and the farm play an integral part of our community food systems.

Tell us a little more about yourself. What was the source of inspiration for the work you do? How did you get to where you are today?

I am from a military family, as my dad was enlisted in the Air Force. We moved around a lot, and I definitely did not live in many places for longer than four years until my dad retired! The last base we landed at before his retirement was in rural  South Georgia, in Valdosta. I went to high school there with a lot of kids that grew up on farm, in the presence of a strong Future Farmers of America program – but I knew nothing about farming. I went to college in Valdosta as well, and although I assumed that I would transfer somewhere else, it was an easy place to finish college. I got a degree in Anthropology and Sociology after starting as a Biology major with an Anthropology minor. Having lived in a lot of places and studying in some field schools abroad, I was interested in living in different places and understanding different cultures and different cultural foods. In college, I visited Belize, Palestine, and Israel; after finishing school, I did what a lot of rural Georgia folks do and moved to Atlanta.

I started working in a restaurant after college—all through high school I worked in restaurants– so I continued that after graduation. I worked in Decatur at the Brick Store Pub, and my friend (still the head chef there) connected me with the job. I liked Brick Store’s approach to business…. because the way they did things was rooted in a “this is family” style. We all intermingled and worked tables together, without assigned tables or territory, and that approach created a lot of chemistry among the staff. Subsequently, it created a lot of romantic relationships! My wife Judith and I met working at the Brick Store Pub. While working there, I had an interest in Central America and traveled there for three months. I studied Spanish in San Salvador, El Salvador and volunteered on a coffee farm. I was really interested in the political economy of coffee; I was treated nicely there, but one thing I did not understand is what it meant to work the land. I overthought and took for granted what it meant to grow things. I spent a lot of time reflecting on that travel experience and what it taught me. 

When I came back to Atlanta, I continued working at Brick Store, and heard about a farmers market that was starting in Decatur, where a friend’s husband sold. I was working with her one morning and asked her if she could connect the two of us because I was interested in volunteering, and he called me a few days later to offer me a part time job. That is how I got into farming! After this part-time experience, I worked in a few other farms (including a farm to school program) before being asked to help take over a family farm west of the city. My wife and I moved out to live and work that land.

Tell us about the venture you are working on. Where did the idea for your venture come from? How are you driving impact?

Working that family farm was an incredible learning experience. We dealt with so many challenges, including extreme flooding that really hurt a lot of farmers in the region, but I think my wife and I really grew from that experience. After being unable to renew our lease long-term, we moved Love is Love Farm from the Glover Family Farm to Gaia Gardens, where we are today.

How has CCI supported you in your work?

The Center for Civic Innovation and Food Well Alliance’s Food Innovation Fellowship was a great developmental learning experience for the farm and for me. The cohort itself was filled with so many passionate, like-minded people. Keeping that kind of company was an asset itself, because these Food Fellows are the people that are improving our local food systems. Farming can be a pretty lonely enterprise, but the fellowship brought us together and helped us connect with each other. There was a lot of creative synergy among the Fellows, and we tackled problems together. I remember discussing financial numbers and examining one year and five year projections as a fellowship class, and it was demonstrative of the common experience and challenges that we as growers face. The resources from the partnership with the Food Well Alliance was also super valuable. Funding from the Alliance made the experience possible.

Above all, the Center for Civic Innovation really helped us to think strategically. I am a farmer with goals that extend beyond this land, in terms of growing our CSA and the broader food systems, and that means dealing with stakeholders that operate in different contexts. As part of our final event, we each gave a five minute pitch to funders. All of the Fellows struggled to condense the presentations of our work down to five minutes, a common experience that we all grew from. As farmers, we are doers more than we are visionaries, and we are usually not thinking about the broader picture and the impact of our work. The fellowship taught us to think and engage in the ways of these stakeholders, and that has been so helpful in facilitating the advancement of our work.

Any unexpected challenges you’ve faced or advice for Atlanta’s newest social entrepreneurs?

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Because of my personal experiences, I always encourage people to walk through doors when they open. I never thought that I would be working as a farmer, but I walked through that door when it opened for me. I think that advice really manifests itself in partnerships. Take a look at our compost partnerships. We have always composted on the farm, and we love it, but it is incredibly labor intensive. It requires turning and mixing and a sizable labor quotient all around. Through our partner Compost Wheels, we have been able to aggregate enough material and utilize their compost savvy to get our compost production to where it is today. Maxwell, one of our young farmers, is also extremely passionate about composting. With his energy, we decided to apply for a Food Well Alliance grant to look at how composting could improve our process and yield. More doors opened after pursuing that work, and now we are conducting a study on fighting infections in plants through compost and a compost tea brewer, funded through a government grant. This pursuit was made possible by our being receptive to the open doors around us, and I encourage all social entrepreneurs to think this way.

A big shout out to Joe for welcoming us to Love is Love Farms, letting us get our hands dirty, and see urban agriculture in practice! Check out Love is Love here.

Atlanta is filled with incredible people and organizations doing meaningful work throughout this city. Their efforts change the way our city designs solutions for the challenges we face in education, art and culture preservation, criminal justice and reform, workforce development, and food security.

The Center for Civic Innovation aims to be a place that supports and showcases these community leaders to the world. This blog series will highlight one entrepreneur or organization from Atlanta every week from now until the end of the year. We hope their stories will inform and inspire.