Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Brief History of how The Funny Farm Came into Being

When Robin and I first got married 36 years ago we had no real intentions for our life together. We loved each other and that was enough. Some how or other we stumbled onto Organic Gardening Magazine and Mother Earth News. We rented a house in Scottsville, Va and started our first organic garden in 1974. We read Frances Moore Lappe's book Diet for a Small Planet and became vegetarians. We joined a food coop. This was near the end of the hippie era when the mantra was turn on, tune in and drop out. That sounded pretty cool to us.
I got a job at a nursery. I liked the work and I quickly figured out that I could do a better job than the people I was working for so I went back to school to study ornamental horticulture at Va. Tech. I had always been interested in science so it was really fun for me to study all the different disciplines that are involved in growing plants. Entymology, soil science, organic chemistry; all were fascinating to me. One of my professors was a landscape architect. I had dealings with some landscape architects when I was working at the nursery. They spoke a language of design that was intriguing to me. I had dabbled in art all my life. I thought landscape architecture would be a good path to follow so I went to graduate school at the U. of Massachusetts. I was very shy back then and did not have a whole lot of self esteem. I was intimidated at first by being among a group of really smart people in what seemed almost like a foreign country to this naive southern boy. What if I couldn't measure up? I held my own and found my place. My professor Joe Volpe became my first mentor. He taught us a process of thinking through problems that can be applied to all of life's situation. Formulate goals and objectives. Analyze, synthesize, develop solutions. This process has become second nature and has served me well.

During my years in school we always had a garden and maintained our vegetarianism. After graduate school we had to figure out what to do next. We knew we did not want to move back to Virginia. We had some friends living in Atlanta so we decided to move there. We rented an apartment, got jobs and got caught up in city life. It was during that time that we lost our way for a while. We had no place for a garden. We were both working long hours. so fast food for lunch and bar food for dinner quickly became the norm for us. We had great fun going to see bands and drinking with friends at the bars. We bought a little fixer upper house in the city. We worked on fixing up the house. I designed and built a nice garden over a number of years. Once the garden was finished I wanted to move so I could build another garden so we bought a bigger house a mile away. That house had recently been remodeled so I concentrated all my efforts on the garden. After a while, we began to sense that something was amiss. I hated my job working for a landscape contracting company. I was the production manager. My job consisted of managing people, materials and frequently broken down equipment. I was becoming depressed. I finally quit. I felt the the best thing I had learned during that time was how not to run a landscape company. Again, I was sure I could do the same thing only better.

We had been talking about the idea of starting a business of some kind near where we lived. We were both tired of driving out to the suburbs every day to work. One day I drove by an empty lot a mile from our house when the proverbial light bulb came on in my head. That would be a good place to start a garden center, I thought. I spent 6 months working on a business plan. I visited all the local garden centers to get ideas for what not to do. We searched fo funding, found none. We scraped together what money we had and jumped in. That was the beginning of the Urban Gardener in 1998. Robin continued to work at her job selling advertising for a local newspaper while I built the business. After a couple of years we felt that the business could support us so Robin came on board to run the retail arm and I started the design build arm. When I was planning the business I wrote a mission statement as everyone did back then. Part of that statement was that we would be stewards of the planet. That was key to our decision-making. In the beginning organics was not really on people's radar yet. I searched for products like fertilizers, pest control and other things we could sell but there was not much available that would work for retail. We sold lots of a soil mix called Complete Landscape Mix which I had been using in landscape work for a while. It includes compost, worm castings, and granite sand. We carried Espoma fertilizers that were mostly organic. That was about it.

We were still spending a lot of time at the Earl, our favorite local watering hole. One night we were sitting at the bar when a loud, boisterous young woman yelled across the bar to us, "who the f**k are you people? ". So we went over to talk to her. During our drunken conversation we discovered that she had lived in the same small town in Virginia that we had lived in only 20 years later. She had a big organic garden there too. We immediately bonded. We said we were the same person. I guess that makes me the only person in the world who has been reincarnated while still living. Her name is Jennifer. This was in the fall of 2002. The following spring was when the second light bulb came on in my head as I was walking up the alley next the the vacant lot that was adjacent to the garden center. This time the thought was, "we should start a community garden on the vacant lot". I have no idea where that thought came from since I had never even seen a community garden. I called Jennifer ( who wasn't doing anything much at the time while she waited to start graduate school in the fall) and asked her if she wanted to help me start one. She said sure. So I started work on the physical plan while she did the research on how to manage it and reach out to the community to get the neighborhood involved. So she and I got to work starting a garden. We got lots of volunteer help through Fred Conrad at the Atlanta Community Food Bank. We recruited other gardeners, got a load of Complete Landscape Mix donated and the Urban Gardener Oasis Community Garden was born. It sure was great to be growing food again.

Interest in organics was picking up steam that year. Products were being produced in retail packaging. At our annual employee meeting at the beginning of the following year I proposed to everyone that we should go completely organic. No more pesticides, chemical fertilizers, only organic seeds. Everyone was totally enthusiastic about the idea so we became the first all natural garden center in the Atlanta area. We started carrying more vegetables, herbs, fruit plants and lots of native plants. Our customers totally embraced the idea as well and business was booming.

It was during this time that a young woman named Holly started working at the garden center. She had been a farmer at several organic farms in Georgia and Tennessee. She was really good at scouting for insect pests so pest management became her job in the nursery. She took a plot in the community garden too. She and I started traveling the country to increase our knowledge about organic production methods. We went to Oregon and took Elaine Ingham's soil food web and and compost tea workshop. We went to Milwaukee and took Will Allen's workshop at Growing Power. We went to Washington state to study mushroom production with Paul Stamets at Fungi Perfecti. We applied what we learned in the business and shared it with the community through classes at the community garden.

All these new and exciting goings on rekindled the dreams Robin and I had when we were first starting our life together. We starting thinking about getting some land outside the city on which to grow vegetables. Robin had mentioned this to our friend Charlie who lived in the suburbs east of the city. She would call us from time to time about some property she had seen, but nothing met our needs. One day in late June of 2007 she called Robin and said her angel had told her to turn right instead of left that morning and she passed by a property for sale that she thought we might be interested in. We made an appointment to visit the property the next day. We drove up to a rather plain looking ranch style house with an immaculate bermuda lawn in front. We were not particularly impressed. We rang the door bell, walked in side and we both gasped as we walked into this huge space with a 20' cathedral ceiling with giant south facing windows that looked out to a big barn and a 1/2 acre pond. A barn! and a Pond! We could barely contain our excitement as we dutifully went on the tour of the house with the agent. We wanted to go outside! We walked around the property by ourselves and talked about all the possibilities it offered. Gardens, fruit trees, mushrooms, aquaculture, animals! Woohoo! Just what we had been dreaming about. We put on our poker faces and told the agent we would get back with her soon. The next day we put an offer on the property. It was accepted. So all we had to do was sell our house in the city and we could move to our dream home. Well, the real estate market in the city had slowed down a lot recently so we were a little concerned. We called our real estate agent friend Brian and put our house in the market. Within a week we had a good offer on the house from a developer who was also buying the house next door to us. We were excited. However he was not able to get financing so the deal fell through. Oops! But Brian, being the super agent that he is found us another buyer within a week. So in less than a month we sold our house, packed up all our stuff and moved to Stone Mountain.


Georgia had been in a severe drought for a couple of years by this time. The powers that be decided they needed to do something to protect the drinking water supply. Their solution was to ban outside water use by the citizens. As you can imagine this decision was devastating to both our retail business and landscape business. We wanted to keep our crew intact, hoping for some improvement in the fall so we brought them out to our new place and started to reshape the property to meet our needs. We chopped and graded and tilled. We killed off the front lawn and planted a cover crop. We built a bunch of worm bins in the barn based on Will Allen's methods at Growing Power. We converted a former goat pen in the back of the barn into a chicken coop. We started our first small vegetable garden. It was the summer of 2007 when Holly and I took Paul Stamets' mushroom production workshop. That fall we held our first workshop one shittake mushroom production. It was a big success with about 25 people attending. The Funny Farm was starting to take shape.
The drought and water ban continued into the fall. We were forced to make the hard decision to close down our business. We stripped down the garden center, moving everything we thought we could use to our new place. Robin and I were at a loss as to what to do next. She had seen a vacant store front in East Atlanta village that she thought might be a good location for a small garden shop. We looked at it and decided to reopen the Urban Gardener on a much smaller scale there. Again we scraped together some money, built out the space and opened up early in the spring of 2008. We were fortunate to pick up a couple of good landscape jobs to help us limp through the continuing drought. Out in Stone Mountain I got to work that spring planting vegetables.
After we shut down our garden center the fate of the community garden was up in the air. We were living far away and had our own garden at our new place. The community garden no longer had access to water which had been supplied from the garden center. It ended up being abandoned. I dug up all of the fruiting perennials and insect attracting perennials and moved them to Stone Mountain. We had some fruit trees left when we closed down the garden center so we planted them in our new garden too.
Then in September the bottom dropped out of the economy. That, combined with the ongoing drought spelled the end of the Urban Gardener. We shut the business down, moved more stuff to the Funny Farm and pondered the future. Our friend Charlie, whose angel found our new place and who is a bonsai expert, was going to work with the monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit it reinvigorate their bonsai nursery. She recruited Robin to work with her at the monastery.
We had built a reputation as experts in sustainable and organic gardening techniques through our work at the garden center and the community garden. We were connected into an expanding network through our work with the local Bioneers group and with Georgia Organics. Once we decided to close the Urban Gardener for good I decided to capitalize on that and I offered a 6 week comprehensive workshop on organic gardening starting in February of 2009. It quickly sold out. We offered it again in the Spring and it sold out again! Some of our neighbors found out we were growing vegetables and asked if we could purchase the excess. Of course we said yes so a little market garden business sprouted. We were growing lots of vegetables so we started selling them at the Decatur Farmers Market. Robin was making jams, jellies and pickles that we sold there too. I was still getting some calls to do design and garden construction work from clients and friends of clients. We kept the Urban Gardener website going to help attract business. We were beginning to feel like we were going to be able to keep the Funny Farm going after all. Whew!
I was reminded of a couple of things during this ordeal. One is that tomorrow never comes and the other is that the future we imagine may never come. That is not to say that we should throw up our hands and do nothing, We need to plan for both, be adaptable and make contingency plans as well. When we moved to the Funny Farm we had 3 goals: Grow as much of our own food as possible; Earn all of the income we need from the farm; Develop a model of suburban permaculture that we can use to teach others how to grow their own food and to live their lives in a more sustainable manner. We have made good progress in reaching those goals. We produce all of our own vegetables now. We earn an ever-increasing portion of our income from the farm. We plan to have Robin working full time on the farm in the next couple of years. Our workshops are successful and our network is building. We will be hosting an introduction to permaculture workshop in March put own by our friends Isabel Crabtree and Bob Burns with the Central Georgia Permaculture Institute. I am doing a workshop composting at the Georgia Organics Conference in February. I am also a mentor in the Georgia Organics urban agriculture mentorship program.
We will continue to advance these goals as best we can. We will continue to focus our efforts on expanding our circle of influence and not concern ourselves about the things over which we have no control.
Life on the Funny Farm is good!

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have often wondered about the story behind the Urban Gardener and am only sorry that I didn't learn it/get involved with it before it's demise. While my partner and I shopped there frequently (both in Grant Park and again when we re-discovered it in our new neighborhood of EAV), we never took the extra step of getting to know the people behind it.
Thank you for sharing your story and continuing to share it via this blog. Your life path is much like one I can imagine following "someday". I look forward to that day and look forward to continuing to hear about your journey.

rebecca said...

Yay Duane and Robin! So glad to have you in my circle of awesome people!

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Kelly said...

Your story is so inspiring. We so miss the Urban Gardener and the Grant Park Community Garden is alas gone...the new garden center on the site, Gardenhood, has not made this small space available for a community garden. I hope to one day move to a house where my garden can be big enough to provide us with all our vegetables as well, and perhaps protein as well, as we are not vegetarians, but believe in raising animals in healthy, safe, and humane ways. For right now we must be content with our little raised beds in Grant Park...although I am eyeing a vacant lot down the street. Thanks for sharing...you guys are awesome!