Ensuring the Future of Farming and Fresh Food in Atlanta
Featured Image: Farmers Joe Reynolds and Demetrius Milling, next-generation, entrepreneurial farmers who are actively working to own farmland in Georgia and supply the growing demand for sustainably produced, locally sourced foods. Photo by Robin McKinney.
By The Conservation Fund
To learn more about Working Farms Fund, watch the video below and read Nicolas Donck’s story to get a first-hand account of his success as a Georgia farmer.
Farmers—the folks who spend their days in the dirt and bring fresh food to our tables—have always been some of the most resilient and critical members of American society. This was true long before the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of access to fresh food.
Nicolas Donck is one of those people. He’s a farmer, and one of the many unsung American heroes helping to provide heathy produce to residents in the Atlanta area during these uncertain times. Nicolas owns and operates Crystal Organic Farm, one of the very first USDA certified organic farms in the state of Georgia, conveniently located an hour east of downtown Atlanta. He has always been forward-thinking about the evolving needs for farms and farmers—setting a precedent for how other small and mid-size farms can run profitable businesses, create new markets, and grow the local food needed to sustain communities.
Q: What inspired you to farm?
Nicolas: I moved to America from Antwerp, Belgium when I was 16 years old to join my mother, Helen Dumba. She had already moved here, bought the piece of property and started a small garden which eventually became what is now Crystal Organic Farm. I fell in love with the land itself—the vast open space and the creek that runs through it.
My brother and I worked at a local Christmas tree farm, and I always remembered that nice feeling at the end of a hard day’s work, sitting on the fence with the sun fading. That feeling was stored in my subconscious somewhere, and I certainly didn’t feel it when I was trying to use my international business degree and working in an export/import business. I was 24 years old at the time, also waiting tables, and trying to figure out what to do with my life. It was like something woke up in my consciousness and clicked—I want to farm and I already have a piece of land that my mom owns. Farming has been my passion ever since.
Q: How has your business evolved over time and why?
Nicolas: Very early on we were selling to local health food stores and a co-op, so it was just really small sales of about $200 or $300 a week. I was still waiting tables at night and putting seeds in the ground during the day. That slowly evolved as I broke more land and learned what I was doing, and within a year or so I realized that I could do this fulltime.
In 1995 we started the Morningside Farmer’s Market, which was one of the very first neighborhood markets in Atlanta and still the only certified organic market in the city. I got up at 4:30 a.m. every Saturday for all those years and we always sold out of what we brought. The community has supported Crystal Organic Farm so well that our farm has been able to grow and be self-financed. We expanded to grow enough to sell at the market and to local restaurants. In the last two or three years we started working with a home delivery company called Fresh Harvest, and they’re buying everything I could possibly grow for them.
And now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, our business has evolved again. We’ve made the decision not to go back to sell at Morningside Market, which we’ve been going to year-round for over 20 years. Along with my partner Jeni Jarrard we’ve developed an online store and have seen a huge jump in our local business. We can also help other small farms around us by creating a kind of a food hub for sales at the farm. Having the chance to stay at home on a Saturday morning and actually go do the farming work and also connect with people in our community coming to pick up their orders is a nice change for me, and we’re busier than ever.
Q: Your online store is one change that came about due to recent circumstances. Are there other changes you’ve noticed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Nicolas: So even though it is a terrible time right now for many people, I feel like it has been a wake up call. I feel like this pandemic has really woken people up about how they live and to understand where their food comes from. It is vitally important to create a web of small farms, like ours, around major cities, where a farmer can make money. If people have farms like ours close by, where they can actually go feel and taste and see it for themselves, they may be more willing to take the extra steps to buy local and organic and spend money for the value they are getting. This kind of farming is quality farming. It’s the best you can get and it’s worth the money for the products and I think that’s what people are slowly waking up to.
Q: Most food in the U.S. travels about 1,500 miles before it reaches the table, and transportation accounts for 70-80% of total food costs to the consumer. What can people do right now that could help change the system or how they think about fresh food?
Nicolas: Support farmers, get to know them and help them financially with buying their food. Continue to go to farmer’s markets and always support the restaurants and the companies that truly support local farms.
People should also try to grow their own vegetables at home and create some kind of connection with the food they eat, even if it’s just basil or parsley on your kitchen windowsill. You don’t know how many times we hear, “We tried a little garden and it’s just so hard,” or, “What’s wrong with my squash? They won’t grow.” I welcome those kinds of questions because those people are realizing what it actually takes to grow their food and not just take it for granted. Our challenge has never been selling the produce, it has always been growing it!
Q: On a larger scale, what else do you see changing in farming in general, and what still needs to change further?
Nicolas: We need to see that small farms like this can also provide good jobs. If you work hard you can make money farming—I think that’s already been proven by a lot of the other small farms—but the biggest drawback is the cost of the land. The goal for me and my partners is to eventually buy a smaller, more manageable property, and sell this 175-acre farm to a new farmer who wants to take over and even expand on its potential.
The Conservation Fund’s Working Farms Fund can help farmers like Nicolas by conserving critical farmland and supporting next-generation, entrepreneurial farmers that want to supply the growing demand for sustainably produced, locally sourced foods. The Conservation Fund is helping develop the Working Farms Fund in Atlanta, Georgia, and aims to grow this effort nationwide. Local farms are essential to keeping fresh food on our tables now and in the future.
The Conservation Fund is excited to announce the hire of Krisztian Varsa as the first Associate for The Conservation Fund’s Working Farms Fund program in Georgia. The former Director of Conservation for Athens Land Trust, Krisztian will be working closely with farm owners and farmers entering the program to expand farmland protection and grow the local food system for the metro Atlanta region.