Demetrius Milling always knew he wanted to work with his hands. At 19, he found his calling working the land as a part-time volunteer at a small farm in East Atlanta. The experience led to an associate degree in horticulture from Gwinnett Technical College and his current position as assistant farm manager at Love Is Love Farm at Gaia Gardens, an organic farm on the edge of Decatur, Georgia known for its annual spring plant sale and popular Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. Now, at 26, Milling is also set to become a partial owner in a newly formed cooperative farm in Mansfield, Georgia, that encourages community, equity, and life balance for its farmers.
Driven by an ardent desire to learn and a continuous need to be pushed hard in his pursuits, Milling has become involved in organizations like the Georgia Farm Bureau and Food Well Alliance. But it was the challenge of managing a farm during the pandemic — including transitioning Love Is Love’s large annual plant sale into a completely online event and streamlining the CSA packing process — that brought Milling’s work into sharp focus, including his views on the future of farming and local food.
Eater: How are you making change in Atlanta’s food scene?
Demetrius Milling: We’ve definitely increased the availability of local and organic, fresh food in the area. We learned a lot since the pandemic began. We’re doing a good job, but the opportunity to step up and serve our community became so much more important over the past year. After the grocery store shelves went empty, people started to think more about the role the local food system plays. There’s a real demand out there for nutritious and fresh food, and it should be available to more people. Our goal going forward is to continue to increase our supplies so more people can have access to [our produce], whether that’s a farmers market role, CSA, or even wholesale so it’s integrated into people’s everyday lives.
How does providing underserved communities access to fresh produce factor into your work?
I do want to serve those communities and have food available to them. With our partnership with Wholesome Wave Georgia, we offer double SNAP benefits through our CSA, just like you would find at the farmers market. We try to make sure we are pretty inclusive with that. We constantly think about new ways to service those communities and provide access, which is why offering double SNAP is really important. Even for people caught in between who can’t get SNAP but may need help because they lost their job and are part of our CSA, we try to work with people.
When did you know you wanted to farm?
I was 19 when I started working for Erin Cescutti at Brightside Farm in East Atlanta. I was in college at the time, and I wasn’t happy. I come from a real blue-collar family, so when people came home, they didn’t do homework or office work. I was not doing terribly in school; I had like a 3.5 GPA, but it was not my thing. I really wanted to work with my hands. I would bounce ideas off my mom. One day when we were at the farmers market, I was like, maybe I’ll be a farmer. She just asked Erin at the market if she could use volunteers.
Working at Erin’s farm, there was something new everyday. I was always learning. I was always asking questions. It was fulfilling mentally, and at the end of the day, I saw the work I did, I saw the results. How could I not be satisfied? After a week, I knew this is what I wanted to do. Erin brought me over to Gaia Gardens and introduced me to Joe Reynolds, and we worked together for a day. At the time, Joe didn’t have a position available, but I just expressed interest, and one [eventually] came up.
What does a typical day look like for you?
We usually get here by 9 a.m. and are here until 6:30 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. I manage about two to three people each day; some are volunteers. During the coronavirus, we haven’t welcomed out too many people just for safety. But there are some volunteers who volunteer with us weekly, and they’ve been here for a few years now.
We typically meet each morning to discuss the day and what we’re trying to accomplish, like preparing for crops to come in or if it’s a packing day for the CSA. If it’s a harvest day, we’ll get right into harvesting. It’s really important to harvest early in the morning to keep things cool and fresh. We’ll also be washing the crops in the wash station. That’s a big thing in terms of food safety.
A day could see you getting on the tractor, working soil, maybe planting or seeding in the greenhouse, and myriad other tasks. There’s also a million fires to put out, so sometimes you plan to do this one thing but then you walk past something and realize that’s not right.
What do you hope to accomplish in this next year?
On top of running a farm in the middle of a pandemic, with Joe, Judith Winfrey, Monica Ponce, and Russell Honderd we’re going to hopefully sign a lease in the next couple of weeks on a new farm in Mansfield, Georgia, out in Newton County, about 45 minutes east of Atlanta. We’re trying to find a sweet spot so farmers don’t feel overworked and they get paid — and we also increase the food supply. So we’re going to start a worker-owned cooperative.
There’s more demand for local food, and hopefully with a bunch of smart people, we can figure out how to fill that demand and also have very fulfilling lifestyles.
Everyone who works there as a founding member will have some investment, and we will all make decisions cooperatively by a consensus-based model. The cooperative is going to still keep the name Love Is Love Farm, but it’s going to be Love Is Love Farm Cooperative Farm. We will be operating out of Mansfield, very similarly to the way we do now, with a larger CSA from a wholesale component and still offering a plant sale. Joe and Judith are currently the owners of the LLC, and now they’re allowing us to come in and work together. We’re all going to own Love Is Love together. I really do believe it’s the future. I think that it allows people to come and go as they want, hopefully in a very stable way.
We romanticize this idea of a single farmer forging their way, kind of like a yeoman lifestyle, when it really does take a community. Instead of starting three separate farms that really do a great job in Atlanta, why not make one farm that is fulfilling for Atlanta but also fulfilling for the farmer? The cooperative provides a great opportunity to have some equity and ownership in the farm.
What are your roles with the Georgia Farm Bureau and Food Well Alliance?
The Rockdale-DeKalb County Farm Bureau is a county board I’ve been asked to be a part of as a young farmer representative. We work with the FFA at Arabia Mountain High School. I’m also on the statewide vegetable commodity board. I got into that because they reached out, but also I’ve just met some really great people: Alex Little, who’s another farmer on the west side, and Chy Kellogg, who’s been amazing and done a lot with the Farm Bureau. They’ve really encouraged me to keep going and be a voice and show that there’s a different way, and that it’s really important, over time, to change people’s minds on certain farming practices.
Food Well Alliance services the metro Atlanta counties, and it has a BCS [two-wheel tractor] borrowing program. I’m working with Khari Diop, another awesome farmer. We’re teaching classes. In order to rent the BCS from the Atlanta tool bank, you have to take a class and make sure you know what you’re doing. They’re pretty expensive for a small space to take on, so what Food Well has done is they own the BCS and allow people to take turns renting it.
How do you engage with and guide young people who might be considering pursuing work in agriculture after high school?
That connection with the Arabia Mountain FFA allows me to be available in some capacity to people. People volunteer at the farm all the time. I just make sure that whenever somebody young says they’re interested, I take the time and tell them what I’ve done. I really think that my education at Gwinnett Tech and taking advantage of the technical college aspect is pretty important because it’s a job. You’re taking on this business and this role. It’s not super profitable. So you want to make the right decisions and make sure you’re not going into too much debt.
A lot of people don’t understand that the technical college or an associate degree route exists. I think my work paired with my education allowed me to ask deeper-level questions in a classroom setting, which is really valuable.
How can readers support your work?
People can support our work by shopping our plant sales and supporting themselves by growing food at home. They can also join our CSA, which is our biggest interface with customers right now. We do sell to a few restaurants. We’re working with Miller Union, Farm Burger, and the Deer and the Dove. They’ve been steady partners for us. We’re really thankful they’ve been able to be successful through all the challenges and continue those partnerships. We value that.
Lynsey Weatherspoon is an Atlanta- and Birmingham-based editorial, commercial, and portrait photographer who not only loves taking pictures but also all things food, especially hot dogs.