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Natural Born Tiller: Decatur farmer turns love of backyard gardening into a business

Business COVID-19 Decatur Food Trending

Natural Born Tiller: Decatur farmer turns love of backyard gardening into a business

Cory Mosser (right) and Nuri Icgoren (left) are part of the team at Resurgence Gardens, a new company that builds and maintains organic gardens in Atlanta backyards. Image provided to Decaturish
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By Logan C. Ritchie, contributor

Decatur, GA — When cities across the country shut down this spring, Southerners took to their land. Sunny plots were tilled and earth was boxed until victory gardens popped up on every block. Cucumbers, squash, zucchini, berries, tomatoes – seeds and starters were flying off the shelves of local hardware stores.

First planted during World War I, these vegetable gardens were meant to supplement rations and boost morale during wartime. The revival of victory gardens gave Cory Mosser, who has farmed Georgia land from the piedmont to the coast, an idea he could implement in his own Decatur neighborhood.

“A lot of people will put a garden box in, and plant tomatoes,” Mosser said. “When it gets too hot outside, that’s it. They give up. As farmer, I know how much potential is being wasted.

Mosser said year-round, edible gardening is possible in Georgia.

That idea sprouted a new business: Resurgence Gardens.

Resurgence Gardens assesses a client’s yard for sustainability, designs an organic garden, installs everything needed, and maintains the garden for a full year while educating clients about biodiversity and gardening.

Resurgence Gardens is comprised of Todd Eittreim of Global Growers, Nuri Icgoren of Urban Sprouts Farms, community food educator Maurice Small, and Andrea Richard (and Mosser) of Natural Born Tillers.

Mosser isn’t new to reinvention. He has worked in kitchens, on farms, and at markets. He is a consultant, strategic planner, and business owner. Whether he is riding his bike to Jekyll Island or driving country roads, Mosser takes in every greenscape, every sweet scent, every edible plant.

“When you wander, you can find the coolest things,” he said.

And his passion was sparked by a hike.

“Moondog”

He was a newlywed, rested from his Costa Rican honeymoon, and packed to go. But on day two of Cory Mosser’s long trek from Maine to Georgia, his hiking partner, brother-in-law Seth Solomon, injured his knee and retired from the journey. Mosser found himself on the wildest stretch of the Appalachian Trail – the 100 Mile Wilderness – with too little shelter, too little insect repellent, and too little food. Buzzing black flies and mosquitoes the size of Cadillacs thrive in Maine’s woods. It was a painful way to begin a 2,000-mile hike. Alone.

Of course, Mosser wasn’t unaccompanied for long. His wide smile and quick wit make him affable. Soon he had a few travelling buddies and sideways adventures off the trail. He earned the nickname “Moondog” because he was just back from his honeymoon and was often in the dog house with his wife, Sara, whom he called from high ridges along the trail.

“What occurred to me on the trail is that you see all these defunct, sad downtowns – before the resurgence of downtowns happened – and you think about what makes those places special,” Mosser said.  “Economies can stay intact by localizing food production.”

A graduate of West Georgia University, Mosser returned to Carrollton to manage the kitchen at Rome Street Tavern. His appetite for local food and market-style, grower relationships – before the farm-to-table trend – led him to a job with a cooperative of growers called Farmer’s Fresh Food Network.

Learning more each day about organic farming practices, Mosser was consuming the work of food writers like Michael Pollen and farming activists Wendell Berry and Joel Salatin.

Agribusiness in Georgia is a multimillion-dollar industry. Because the state has long growing seasons and a favorable climate, 9.6 million acres of land are farmed in Georgia. There are 42,000 farms in Georgia but in 2019, only 200 were certified organic.

Locals may remember the old Farmer D stand at the corner of Briarcliff and LaVista Road, and Daron Joffe’s rise to popularity from Serenbe and other community-based farms.

It was Farmer D who Mosser narrowly missed collaborating with on his next gig: Farm manager at the coastal Georgia luxury development Hampton Island Preserve. The gorgeous, low country estate lies near Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge and Sapelo Island.

“No one was around to see all the mistakes I made,” Mosser laughed. “I took it as a cause to learn, and made it my own little laboratory. I learned some hard lessons. Growing that far south is pretty difficult.”

A community of growers

Hampton Island is marshy, gumbo muck, he said, noting how his foot would sink into the land after too much rain.

Mosser, his wife, and their two girls made a home in a 1950s fish camp and tootled around in a little creek boat. He attended meetings for the Coastal Organic Growers Association. There he met Heritage Organic Farm owner Shirley Daughtry, now in her 90s, the first certified organic farmer in Georgia.

“Shirley truly created a community of growers,” he said. “I went to meetings and learned from other growers who had been doing it for so long.”

Living on very little income and craving deeper community ties, the Mosser family packed yet again and headed back toward the city in 2010.

Mosser landed at Burge Farm, a 1,000-acre private hunt club in Newton County. For four years Mosser not only propagated heritage crops like elephant garlic found wild near an old sharecropper’s cabin, he also studied agricultural records from the turn of the century.

“You can feel the history of the land,” said Mosser. “You could see where cotton was grown and food was grown. Being there and working in that environment, made me realize how the South functioned for so long.”

The history of the land is rich but haunting, encompassing Native American artifacts dating back to 8000 B.C., unmarked slave graveyards, an owners’ graveyard, and old cabins.

 

When he left, Mosser was proud of the work he did at Burge’s organic farm. He built a medium-sized market farm on 16 acres from nothing, 11 high-tunnels (a type of greenhouse in which food is grown in the ground, without electricity), a 200-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), sales at three farmers markets, and relationships with a dozen restaurants all over Atlanta.

“I realized I’d been at a farmers market every Saturday for four years,” he said. “That part of the farming lifestyle was not balancing well with my family. Many successful growers don’t have kids. The farm is their baby.”

Mosser did what he does best: He shifted into a new role. While planting new roots in Decatur, now dad to three girls, he was planting gardens for clients like Adult Swim and Delta Airlines on tiny plots of land. His company name? Natural Born Tillers.

“Adult Swim called and said, ‘Hey, there’s a little piece of land on Williams Street. Can you make a garden?’ We took an 80-foot by six-foot slot and put in raised beds with muscadine vines trellised on brick, and herbs, and grew a bunch of weird stuff,” he said. “Adult Swim loves weird stuff. Employees started going outside and watching butterflies. Big dudes with tattoos. And here they were, taking care of the gardens.”

Creative Director of Adult Swim, Matt Harrigan said, “What used to be an empty space is now filled with food, ecology, and happy people. We get to enjoy regular harvests, without worrying about the upkeep. It’s a no-brainer.”

Mosser created a half-acre plot at Delta Airlines headquarters in Atlanta with seasonal, organic fruits and vegetables featuring signs that indicate what’s blooming, and when it can be harvested by employees.

He was in talks with well-known, local organizations when COVID-19 hit. Although the current climate has impacted his business, Mosser noted that “people are being squeezed financially and still see the importance of gardening.”

Along came the concept for Resurgence Gardens.

“It’s a similar idea of a victory garden, but ‘resurgence’ reflects the identity of Atlanta,” he said.
“Constantly prolific and bountiful, we are taking what was a static place and make it constantly change. It’s a resurgence from your original yard.”

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