Atlanta Harvest, Bringing Farms Back

Corbin Klett, 26, has been farming the six greenhouses that make up Atlanta Harvest since its inception. An urban agriculture lettuce farm, Atlanta Harvest was founded in 2014 with the purpose of providing fresh, locally-grown produce to the city, as well as improving the neighborhood in which it resides. 

To passersby, Atlanta Harvest may go unnoticed amidst the mechanical infrastructures of South Atlanta’s industrial park, but for Klett, it’s a thriving estate that promotes urban agriculture, community and purpose.

After graduating from Georgia Tech with a dual degree in aerospace engineering and business, Klett founded Atlanta Harvest just two years ago. He has often been asked why he chose farming over engineering.

“I never would have started with the thought of farming and thought it would have ended up here, but it just sort of did,” Klett said.

Atlanta Harvest is situated in the parking lot of the old General Motors plant. Located just blocks from the U.S. Penitentiary on McDonough Blvd., and nestled between a metal recycling plant and a towing service, the farm is an oasis amidst a desert of concrete. But even with the constant sound of truck horns and grinding metal, the neighbors can do nothing to intimidate the team of farmers distributing their produce week after week to local markets, restaurants and home-delivery grocers, such as Fresh Harvest and Nature’s Garden.

The team is small, but growing. Klett fronts the sales and business development, but you won’t find him tending to the crops in a business suit. His daily wear at the farm simply includes a t-shirt, dirty jeans and a pair of well-worn, mud-covered tennis shoes. A full-time farm manager, a few full-time farmers and several part-time farmhands round out the current team.

Although they began with growing kale, collared and mustard greens, arugula and a plethora of other assorted veggies, Atlanta Harvest settled on lettuce as their primary crop. Because of the specifically designed greenhouses that the produce is grown in, and the fact that planting times for each greenhouse are staggered from each other, the farm is able to churn out lettuce deliveries every week. From the planting of the seed to the time that the crops are ready for harvesting, the entire process only takes 2-3 months.

“We have another location by the airport where we grow seedlings,” Klett said. “It’s a greenhouse that we rent from somebody, and we transplant the seedlings into our greenhouses on the farm.”

Apart from the seedling greenhouse, the team worked closely with a retired greenhouse designer to create a unique, innovative design for their six 200-foot-long greenhouse tunnels.

“These designs more closely resemble how they build the tunnels in Europe,” Klett said. “They don’t really build them in the United States like this. There’s just some things that really make them cost effective and productive when it comes to growing crops.”

In a society teeming with buzzwords such as “non-GMO” and “organic,” one would think that urban farms would maintain a high focus on certifying their products as such.

But Klett simply said, “No, we’ve found that organic certification isn’t important at all.”

He went on to describe the government certification as “sketchy” and “misleading.”

Atlanta Harvest is simply focused on providing locally grown veggies to their community, although they are very clear about not using any pesticides or hormones in their growing process. Klett highlighted that organic certification has a lot to do with the type of land that the products are grown in, as well as what types of fertilizers are used.

“We grow above ground,” he said. “I mean, we’re on a parking lot, so the organic certification doesn’t really fit well with our technique.”

With urban agriculture on the rise nationwide, and multiple farms in the metro Atlanta area, it has been a concern for farmers to gain city support to keep these farms alive.

In a press release on Sept. 2, 2015 from the Mayor’s Office of Communication, Mayor Kasim Reed said, “The city will hire its first Urban Agriculture Director, a full-time technical resource and advocate dedicated to expanding Atlanta residents’ access to local, healthy food options.” 

One month later, the city announced that Mario Cambardella would fill the position. A University of Georgia graduate with two masters degrees in landscape architecture and environmental planning and design, Cambardella plans to establish and sustain community gardens, farmers markets, and food hubs in the city of Atlanta. Although there has been no direct communication with Atlanta Harvest, Klett is just glad to have the city on their side.

For a small farm, Atlanta Harvest aims to have a big impact on its community, not only through local distribution, but also with employing those in need.

In a 2014 interview with Atlanta Magazine, the team said that one of their aspirations for Atlanta Harvest was to “partner with local organizations that are working with individuals transitioning out of homelessness, substance abuse, and the sex industry.” Two years later, Klett still maintains that idea.

 “A lot of what’s needed in low-income neighborhoods like this is employment,” he said. “In our system, we’re able to plug people in with minimal training, yet the work is rewarding because you’re growing food and you’re working with a great team.”

With the farm’s increasing level of productivity, alongside the Atlanta government’s focus on urban agriculture, it is safe to say that Atlanta Harvest is growing just as well as their lettuce. But Klett was quick to highlight that starting a business isn’t as simple as planting a few seeds.

“The one thing they don’t really teach you about starting a business is the emotional toll that it takes on your sense of self-worth,” he said.

In the first year of founding Atlanta Harvest, after struggling to determine why the farm wasn’t producing as it should have been, the team found out that one of their suppliers had sold them truckloads of inferior compost. The setback not only hit them financially when they were forced to switch products on a farm-wide scale, but also wasted the entire harvesting time of the produce contaminated by the compost, nearly causing them to close their doors within the first year.

In this audio interview, Klett discusses in-depth the challenges of starting a business, as well as overcoming setbacks along the way. 

Still, after every setback encountered so far, Klett remains undaunted, fearless and determined.

“You kind of have to realize that the only sure thing in this process is that there’s always going to be reasons why you should quit, and quit soon,” he said. “I think once you come to terms with the fact that you’re never going to quit, then you just keep going.”

As soon as the current farm begins exceeding productivity and profitability expectations -- which is rapidly approaching -- the next step for Atlanta Harvest is to determine when and where a second farm will be built. As daunting as a second farm might seem, Klett believes that it could happen within a year. Their other plans for the future include a robust increase in grower training that would employ more people and better serve the community.

Atlanta Harvest truly can’t compete with the massive, government subsidized farms found in the Midwest, but they aren’t trying to. In a society that seems to emphasize convenience and cost-efficiency, there are still folks who go about things with a different mentality. For Atlanta Harvest, that means growing naturally and paying living wages to their employees. They understand the desire for convenience and an inexpensive product, but for the people who want an honest product, Atlanta Harvest is there.