Twenty-seven-year-old Atiba Ellerby is a part-time barista and full-time urban farmer. When he’s not making coffee at The Pharmacy, a coffee shop in Point Breeze, he is tending to gardens throughout the city.
Farming is a craft he learned 14 years ago through the Urban Nutrition Initiative.
How do you feel you impact your community?
Before the farming comes the community connections. Far too often, you have young farmers moving into spots and they aren’t talking to the community. I would say get to know the community first before some idea of farming even comes into the picture.
What does a typical day look like for you? You work as a barista but are you also going out and farming every day?
Community work takes precedence over the farming.
It’s sad but these small farms are seen as the first step to gentrification. I have to preface with that because the majority of my time is spent getting to know my neighbors, helping them take out the trash, getting to know their children, hanging out with the community and then figuring how can we better the environment, the health and the level of accessibility.
The neighborhood is tight and green spaces are important for children and families to be able to meet.
How did you get introduced to urban farming?
I got started through a program called the Urban Nutrition Initiative. It is a program that was put together by the University of Pennsylvania. I started at age 13 or 14 and I was a part of the program until 2008. I graduated but, the work stuck.
They basically had us building a curriculum on nutrition and food to teach to our peers, parents and elementary school kids. They taught us how to convey the information to a broad group of people. I just fell in love with it.
They taught us everything from the classroom to the kitchen to the farm, and how to tie it all together.
At the age of 13 or 14, there was no question that I wanted to do this with my life. I am part of a generation that believes their food comes from a box, a warehouse, or it just magically appears in Whole Foods. That people don’t sweat, bleed and risk their livelihood to produce this thing that you just get.
Do you have a specific site where you grow the crops?
I have an extensive community of Philadelphia farmers. They have spots where I can grow crops, as opposed to me saying, “This is mine. This is Atiba’s small farm.”
It is more important for small farmers to band together on spots that we have obtained.
Do you work with other farmers?
I work for the Life Do Grow farm that is managed by the Urban Creators. I work with the farmers at Bartram’s Garden, which is run by the program that initially got me started. And I work with the North Philly Peace Park.
I mostly supply the labor. The community work, like I said, takes precedence.
How has the Point Breeze community responded to the work you are doing?
Very positively. When there is an intention made to respect the culture of a community, you receive a warmer welcome. It’s about dropping seeds and being able to transition through communities.
You mentioned the importance of green spaces and while we walked through the neighborhood we saw Manton Square.
Yeah. That particular space is special because there is no fencing. Folks can go straight in there to smell and sit. Often times, green spaces are fenced off to keep them protected.
But protected from what and protected from who?
Manton is a very good example of a community green space.
Do people in your community know you as “Farmer Boy?”
Yeah, yeah. That is like maybe the greatest icebreaker.
-Text and images by Gabriela Bertot and Tracie Thompson,