During my week of local eating, many farmers kept me delighted. Steve Miller kept me fed.
Miller's certainly able to come up with the pretty heirlooms and fancy eggplants that are the summer currency at a farmers' market. But when you're surviving on local produce alone, the staples – onions, potatoes, greens and stewing tomatoes – become entirely more important.
On his Clarkston farm and on land in Decatur, Miller grows vegetables that many other local farmers pass over. When asked why this is, he replies, "Because I don't listen to anyone. I came from Dayton, Ohio, and when I arrived I just planted the things I used to grow there. And it worked!"
His independent spirit is part of why, in the midst of his field of English peas and cauliflower, a crazy tropical plant sticks up out of the earth. "It's papaya!" Miller exclaims. He hasn't harvested any fruit from his young papaya trees, but he pauses to admire their leaves and flowers.
Miller learned to garden from his grandmother, whom he describes as his "best friend." He planted his first garden when he was 7 and hasn't gone without one since. As he ambles around the Clarkston property, he seems as delighted as he must have been when he was that little boy learning from his grandmother. "There's nothing like a garden," he says, "Look at this – it has beauty, function, and you can eat it!"
But Miller's story proves that even the most innocent undertaking can attract trouble. In recent months, a woman from DeKalb County Code Enforcement has visited him to say that he can't have a vegetable farm. Research into DeKalb County codes, as well as calls to district Commissioner Burrell Ellis' office, reveal that the closest Miller comes to a code violation is in the use of land for commercial gain. The problem isn't the growing, it's that he sells his vegetables at an offsite farmer's market.
According to the DeKalb County Office of Planning and Development, the law is vague and in place to prevent large commercial operations in residential areas. Sanctioning Miller would be like punishing an eBay-based home business. Miller has hired a lawyer.
"You'd think they'd be excited to have someone here doing something in the green direction," Miller says. "This is something I'd like to pass on to my neighbors, to teach the community about. Instead they're trying to stop me." He pauses and adds, "People just don't know how much beauty you can get from vegetables."
You can find Steve Miller at the Decatur Organic Farmers Market on Wednesdays, 4-7 p.m.; the East Atlanta Village Farmers Market on Thursdays, 4 p.m.-dusk through Nov. 20; and at the Piedmont Park Green Market on Saturdays, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. through Dec. 13.
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