Urban farmer: 'If I do not farm, I’ll get sick.'
April 2nd, 2014
01:00 AM ET
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Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. In honor of the SFA's featured oral history project, Women Who Farm: Georgia, we’re sharing “She Spoke and I Listened” by Sara Wood, the group's oral historian.

The evening I met Haylene Green, an urban farmer in Atlanta, Georgia, rain mercilessly poured on midtown Atlanta—and on me. I squeaked across the lobby of Ms. Green’s apartment building and followed her to a small room in the basement. There, she opened a thick photo album with pages of fruits and vegetables from her West End community garden. And she started talking. I put the recording equipment together as fast as I’ve ever assembled it. My job was simple: She spoke, and I listened. All of her answers were stories.

Speaking of his book "The Storied South" on a radio program, folklorist Bill Ferris recently said something that stopped me in my kitchen: “When you ask a Southerner to answer a question, they will tell a story. And embedded in that story is the information that they feel is the answer to the question.”

Oral history, like the most satisfying literature, relies on listening and observation. The way people speak, how they tell stories, where they choose to pause and scratch their nose, to me, is the greatest part of listening. Being an oral historian or a writer requires you to listen as though your life depends on it. What seems like a simple acts is actually the heart of the work. To that end, I share an excerpt from my interview with a farmer who also happens to be a storyteller.

Haylene Green’s Story

Garden Queen. I was given that name by people who found out about my garden. I have a tropical garden in the West End of Atlanta. It’s not acres. I would say a good half-acre, maybe a little more.

I was born in Port Antonio, on the island of Jamaica. My mom is Cuban and my father is Jamaican, a Maroon. The Maroons were a group of people brought over from Africa like all the other slaves who were brought over, but they never became slaves because they would not have it. They did not listen to slave masters and so they were thrown off the boat and left to die or survive. And survive they did.

They went up in the hills and on the water coasts and they fished, and they farmed, and they hunted. They’re entrepreneurs. They don’t care if it’s just bananas or mangoes or some other fruit, they just believe in growing and reaping their crops and selling them and eating from the land and being independent. They like to be free to do what they want to do, when they want to do it, at whatever time they want to do it. And I sure do have the DNA very strong, because that’s what I am.

My father and grandfather, they would get up way before the family got up and bring back provisions that my mom would prepare for our breakfast before we went to school. Don’t know how they did it, because it’s dark. I think they just farmed by the moon and the sun and the stars. We didn’t know we were rich, but we ended up being richer than we thought, healthy-wise.

Haylene Green's hands

There are so many mango trees in Jamaica. They just grow. It’s just a thing. You walk along the side of the road and you’re going to and from school, and you just pick a mango—or just go in someone’s yard and ask them, could you pick a mango? Because they’re all over the ground. Oh, we got mangoes. We got mangoes. We have avocados. We have coconuts. We have bananas.

I am what you would call a fifth-generation farmer. If I do not farm, I’ll get sick. If I have to rent, borrow, beg a piece of property somewhere, I have got to put something on the land because I can’t live otherwise.

As a child, I came to New York. I used to plant in pots. Whatever could grow in pots, I would plant it. I came to Atlanta for a family reunion, for a first visit to the South. We were fortunate to see a lot of trees. So I said, “Oh my goodness, we need to move here, because look at all these fruit trees.” We all packed up and moved down to Atlanta in 1975. I watched these trees grow green, then brown, and then all different kind of colors—and I’m waiting for the fruits. Unfortunately, they were not fruit trees. They were just trees.

So I said, “My goodness. I did not know you could have so many trees without them bearing a fruit or nut or something,” because in Jamaica just about every tree that we grow is edible in some way or the other, whether it’s the leaf, the fruit, the nut, whatever—they’re edible.

I said to myself, “Well I’m going to change that.” And so I set out to try and plant trees that are edible. And I’m in the process. I am growing bananas just like I would in Jamaica. I’m growing apples. I’m growing peach. I’m growing plum. I’m growing every berry that you could think of. I’m growing herbs and spices and eucalyptus and flowers and tropical pumpkin vines. I’m just growing.

Everything is grown in natural soil. I do have problems with worms sometimes, but when all else fails, if I have to have some worm holes in some of my vegetables, let it be. All they did was eat some before I got to it, so, you know, I have to eat the rest.

I grow a lot of supplies that other farmers don’t grow. One big one is the tropical pumpkin. They have so many different names for my big tropical pumpkin. You see, I wear it over my shoulder. I call it my baby. It weighs fifty, sixty pounds. “What on earth is this she has? Is that a big gourd? Is that a watermelon?” I am known for my famous tropical pumpkin soup, and I sell it at the farmers’ market and I am always sold out. People love it. It is made up with the pumpkin and potatoes and carrots and not tiny little pieces—it’s filling. When you have a bowl of tropical pumpkin soup with all the goodies that I put in there, it’s a meal.

There are not many black farmers in Atlanta at the moment, especially where we’re farming in the West End, because there’s not a lot of farmland. It’s not huge. We would more or less call it a garden. There are more black farmers, and female, out in the rural areas. But I found out that one of the reasons that you don’t find as many black females farming is because they grew up thinking farming is not a pleasant thing. But it’s coming back around again.

I have five children, and I spent more money on bread than on doctor bills for the past forty-seven years. My mom is eighty-six and she runs rings around me. My aim right now is to teach others for the future to eat nutritious, healthy food, and sustain themselves. That’s what I’m doing here in Atlanta, so that’s my plan: to teach the neighborhood how to survive.

This piece appeared in the SFA's #50 issue of Gravy. Read more at the Southern Foodways Alliance's blog

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soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. amanandhishoe

    The best meals are made from vegetables just picked out of the garden. You can't have a better salad thane one made from greens picked minutes ago like this (http://wp.me/p44c6k-xnb). And everyone could enjoy such fresh produce. It doesn't take a lot of land to grow greens. Someday there will be small "farms" throughout cities and suburbs. Everyone will be able to drop by on their way home from work to pick up just-picked produce they need for supper. No one will eat salads from greens more than a few hours old. The mini-farmers tending these micro-farms will be loved by their customers, and will be the most revered members of society. People like Haylene Green will be our heroes.

    April 27, 2014 at 12:54 pm |
  2. Kev

    I live in a house in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood here in Atlanta and I always have a small garden in the backyard with herbs and flowers every where else. Of course I grow tomatoes and string beans, and hot peppers, and greens in the fall.

    Miss Haylene, I would love to see a pic of the tropical pumpkin. Do they have it at the Sweet Auburn Curb market?

    April 11, 2014 at 1:39 pm |
  3. rzashida

    Black farming women do exist. We love nature, plants, and fresh organic home grown food. Gardening brings peace. If i don't garden I get sick too.

    April 9, 2014 at 1:23 am |
  4. Thinking things through

    Excellent reportage, I am glad to read this post!

    April 3, 2014 at 10:09 pm |
  5. Katie

    What an inspiring article! Think how much better off everyone would be if we grew our own or bought from the local farms that grow. I live in an urban area and have a very small container garden, but I am there every Saturday to by my fill of produce from a local farmer. I don't care if it's cheaper at the grocery store. This food I buy is tastier and grown without chemicals at a farm I can go visit anytime I want to. We just changed the local laws too so people can keep their own chickens. So wonderful, learning how to sustain one's self.

    April 3, 2014 at 6:21 pm |
  6. palintwit

    Sarah Palin's ability to communicate with dung beetles has made her the darling of not only the tea party, but dung lovers everywhere.

    April 3, 2014 at 11:21 am |
    • Dandy

      Well, do you know that she is related to them?

      April 4, 2014 at 12:39 am |
      • palintwit

        The resemblance is certainly there.

        April 4, 2014 at 9:10 am |
  7. Terry

    What a great story about a great lady. I'm a country boy from California believe it or not. I now live in the Florida Keys. I feel the same way about farming as you do. I'll die without it. I try to plant something every day. Our climate isn't that different than Jamaica, but our soil sucks. We do what we have to do to make it better. Hang in there. The world has no idea how important what we do is. God Bless.

    April 3, 2014 at 10:33 am |
    • kwdragon

      When I lived in Key West, our family did a lot of container gardening. It was that or a pick axe to break the coral about three inches below the soil. If you set up a catch-basin system, you can use a lot of rain water for your containers. I do miss growing pineapples, mangoes and all the habaneros we could eat...

      April 4, 2014 at 9:46 am |
  8. plschirach

    Thank you so much for raising awareness of urban farming. I see a huge future in this, especially when technology makes it possible for farm space to expand vertically. Imagine the economic and environmental gains if we were to grow more of our food inside our citites. And, as Ms. Green would point out, the health benefits would be tremendous. http://schirachreport.com/2014/03/31/next-technological-revolution-urban-vertical-farming/

    April 2, 2014 at 6:19 pm |
  9. -betsy

    Ms.Green, I applaud you. And I envy you.
    For five years, I lived in a small apartment in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA. I planted (mostly herbs) on my small balcony, and in the small spaces between my back steps and the railing. My neighbors (of all ages) loved it.
    One day, after having hip surgery, I fell down the stairs, as the lights in the stairwell were out. EMS came to my rescue. I waited for three weeks for the management to fix things. They did not, and I reported them to the local chamber.
    The management retaliated by ripping out all of my herbs. I found them in the dumpster.
    I no longer live in the US. I am in Europe, and work with many gardeners, and growers.
    Again, I applaud you. When one is dedicated, one goes the extra mile (or a few kilometers).

    April 2, 2014 at 4:10 pm |
    • Nate

      Sorry, sounds like the manager did not have the best social skills. The plants were probably ripped out because of a hazard and they did not want to get sued if you fell again They could get sued if they let the plants stay. Bet you could have had a wonderful community garden. Good luck with the laws and regulations in another country.

      April 3, 2014 at 11:03 am |
  10. Female Farmer Project

    Thank you for this story and raising the profile of female farmers everywhere. Women are rising in agriculture and these stories are so critical to share with the next generation of would-be farmers.

    I too have a documentary project – The Female Farmer Project at http://audramulkern.com/the-female-farmer-project/ where I share their stories of balancing farm, family and often an outside job.

    April 2, 2014 at 1:19 pm |
  11. Truth™

    The Garden Queen sounds like a strong, dedicated and hardworking lady. Would love to take her to lunch and just hear about her life experiences. She must have seen some fascinating things in her years.

    April 2, 2014 at 9:00 am |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Doesn't she seem just delightful? And I'd love to try that tropical pumpkin.

      April 2, 2014 at 3:44 pm |
    • TNT

      I couldn't agree more, Truth. I thought the same thing.
      How about that soup, Kat? I'd love to try that!

      April 3, 2014 at 9:25 am |
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