When You Work at a Museum

Anna Rose Gable is our Urban Agriculturalist here at the Atlanta History Center, we sat down with her recently to ask about what exactly an Urban Agriculturalist does and how she got into agriculture.

 Q: How did you get interested in what you do?

I grew up gardening with my dad, who got the farming bug from his dad’s friend Mr. Taylor. Mr. Taylor grew corn and soybeans and had a big center-pivot irrigation system on his farm in Eufaula, Alabama. He fed whole chickens to the alligator that lived in his irrigation pond. Maybe most importantly, he drove around the farm in an old pickup truck that was always stocked with Coca-Cola and peanut butter crackers, on which he apparently subsisted.

My dad studied agronomy (soil and crop science) at UGA and worked one summer as a cotton scout in Elberton, Georgia. But there was no land left in the family, so he wound up becoming a mechanic, instead of a farmer. Still, when my parents first visited the house in Decatur they have now lived in for over 20 years, my dad didn’t even go in. He just walked to the clearing up by the railroad tracks and declared it perfect.

Our first tracks garden was doomed from the start. Just as soon as our tomatoes, green beans, hot peppers, and jack-o-lantern pumpkins were beginning to thrive, a truck drove down the tracks spraying herbicides at all angles to kill the kudzu. After that we learned to spray paint milk jugs orange and set them on top of bamboo poles to alert the drivers to turn their sprayers off as they passed. I still remember picking green beans in that garden as fast as I could, as big summer raindrops started to fall on my floppy pink sunhat and big summer mosquitoes swarmed around my legs.

In high school I started volunteering at Oakhurst Community Garden in Decatur, now part of the Wylde Center. I began mentoring younger kids in an after school arts program there. Soon I was working as a counselor at their summer entrepreneurial program through the Decatur Recreation Center – the “All Girls Green Team.” I learned along with the participants how to work compost into the soil, how to pick calendula and distill its oils into a salve, and how to sauté garlic and onion.

Back at Decatur High School, I started a small vegetable garden as part of a school project. This grew into the Decatur High School Community Garden, which thrived from 2009-2015, when it was turned into a parking lot. I worked as a student farm manager in college, and volunteered with a local land trust for a couple years after I graduated, helping build and support community gardens all over town.

I got interested in Georgia Piedmont agricultural history while doing anthropological research with Georgia organic farmers for my senior thesis. That work was originally an excuse to get research funding to learn how to farm, but I became fascinated with the way contemporary soil management strategies mapped (or failed to map) onto historic Piedmont soil management.

When I saw the listing for my job at AHC, it was as if someone had invented the perfect job for my pretty weird academic background. I love the balance of hands-in-the-dirt gardening and off-season research that I get to do here.

Q: Explain your job badly

I grow vegetables like its 1864.

Q: What does that entail?

People often ask about the plants on the farm, and where we get our seeds from. While we don’t have a record of which exact varieties the Smiths grew, we consult historic agricultural journals, advertisements, and diaries from our area to figure out which varieties they most likely had access to. We buy a lot of our seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which specializes in Southern heirloom varieties. What that means is that since 1864 (or whenever the seed was introduced), someone has carefully saved seed from that variety each year so that the genetic makeup of the plant is maintained. Individual gardeners (“seed savers”), seed distributers, seed banks, and Universities have all had a hand in carrying on the seed legacies of our ancestors, and even returning historic varieties to us.

This year we are growing the Carolina African Runner Peanut for the first time. The variety is the “original American peanut,” brought over by enslaved West Africans in the 1600s and all but lost after the 1930s, when larger and more disease resistant selections became more popular. In 2013 Dr. David Shields found seed for the runner peanut in NC State University’s seed archives, and worked with Brian Ward of Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center to rebuild the population of smaller, denser, sweeter, and oilier peanuts. We acquired two of the first round of seed packets offered commercially by Southern Exposure Seed exchange, and are excited to grow them out this year and help grow the population of this special old variety ever larger!

Q: What do you do in the winter?

Believe it or not, we stay busy all year long at Goizueta Gardens! In addition to having a 12-month growing season to keep up with (I plant garlic, onions, greens, and root crops in the fall and they keep growing all winter long), I help with winter maintenance activities like building fences, mulching trails, and blowing leaves. I collect compostable waste from Souper Jenny year-round and process it along with our animal waste into a rich soil amendment for our gardens. 

In bad weather, I get to work on honing our research and recordkeeping for the farm. I take daily records of my observations and enter them into a phenological calendar, which helps us notice broader patterns in weather, plant and animal activities over time. I comb through my favorite seed catalogs to see if any “new” old varieties have been reintroduced (like African Runner Peanuts) and then try to find them in historic records for our area. Finally, I plan the crop rotation for the upcoming year, review my soil test results from the fall, order seeds and soil amendments, and get to work starting seeds indoors. If I play my cards right, as soon as the weather warms I am ready to turn over the soil and get back to planting!

Q: What is your least favorite thing about farming in the city?

I’m pretty sure we are the only vegetable garden in the area and so it seems like every pest that can be in a garden has been in ours. It can be difficult to balance our pursuit of historic accuracy with the reality of modern-day insect and disease pressure. We try to strike a balance between showing people the actual varieties of plants grown in the Smiths’ day and the means by which they grew them, and actually having something to show! Sometimes this means using modern practices that are invisible to visitors; sometimes it means growing the “wrong” variety for the sake of demonstrating that the Smiths did grow that type of plant. Of course, some older varieties hold up just fine! I will sing the praises of Seminole squash, Whippoorwill cowpea, Oakleaf lettuce, White Icicle radish and plenty more all day long – just don’t ask me to grow Large Red tomato in my home garden. 

Q: What is your Favorite thing about AHC?

I love that we offer visitors so many different ways to engage with history. You can visit the historic houses to get a first person experience of the past. You can see museum theater pieces that ask you to engage with the difficult decisions made by everyday people at critical historical moments. You can explore an impressive collection of artifacts from our region’s past, or delve into the paper records at the Kenan Research Center. Or, you can take a stroll through gardens representing key moments in the evolution of our Atlanta landscape. I love the way all of these components come together and feed off one another every day.

Q: What question do you hate being asked and why? 

I love talking to visitors, so when someone approaches me with a curious look on their face, I start getting geared up to answer their questions about Georgia agricultural history! About a third of the time, though, they just want to know where the bathroom is, and I have to break the news that they’re going to have to walk back to the museum to find it.

Q: What do you do for fun outside of work? 

I love looking at other people’s vegetable gardens – both around my neighborhood in Doraville, and in my travels. I particularly love train travel because you’re almost sure to pass some eclectic vegetable gardens – people around the world take advantage of sunny, flat areas around the tracks, just like my dad and I! We also participate in the Bike Ride Across Georgia nearly every summer, which is a great opportunity to do agricultural window shopping at the more relaxed pace of pedal power.

Outside of creeping on other people’s gardens, I spend a lot of my time volunteering with Southerners on New Ground, a regional organization working for liberation for all across the South. I love to sing, and I play accordion and a little banjo. I attend the East European Folklife Center’s annual Mendocino Balkan Camp, where I serve as Dish Queen and dance the nights away. I also volunteer as a keyboard teacher and band coach with Girls Rock Camp ATL. I try to take advantage of living in the same city as almost my entire extended family and a number of old friends. My partner and I live right of Buford Highway and we love eating and grocery shopping in our neighborhood.

Q: Where is your favorite place on campus? Around Atlanta?

The walk from Swan parking lot down to the farm is heaven on an early spring morning. I love looking out over the Quarry, the crunch of gravel under my feet. With luck one of our red-shouldered hawks might fly over, or our cat, Artful Dodger, might come trotting up, asking loudly for breakfast.

My favorite place in Atlanta is Stone Mountain Park – I love seeing everyone out hiking up and biking around. I think it’s cool how a site with such a painful history could become a place for all Atlantans to play.

Q: Why do you love your job?

I have always loved the stories of everyday people and the science of everyday things. This job offers the best of both worlds. I love helping people see how all of us have a claim to Southern agriculture – the history of farming in the South is not always pretty, but it contains stories of bravery, innovation, and care that often get buried beneath the very real weight of enslavement and abuse. I am grateful for the AHC staff, especially our interpreters, who are willing to go above and beyond to help people see where we’re coming from so that we can better understand where we’re heading.

I also love helping people rediscover things they learned long ago in a classroom in a brand new context – where do beet seeds come from, anyway?? Stop by Smith Family Farm any time to find out – just don’t ask me where the bathroom is!

 

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