By: Billy Mitchell; edited by Hayley Wood
Justin “MasterPeace” Nickelson is an Atlanta based farmer, educator, and drummer who currently works as the AgLanta Grown Local Foods Promotion Program Coordinator for the city of Atlanta’s Department of City Planning Office of Housing and Community Development. The AgLanta Grown program works to meet the City of Atlanta’s goal to ensure that 85% of Atlanta residents are within a half-mile to healthy food. Justin’s day-to-day work, or some of it, as he described it is “coordinating the grant activities and that includes programming, budgeting, staffing, timeline and grant reporting for a USDA funded local foods promotion program geared to uplift new market and distribution access for local farmers.” On top of that, the program is also “focused on technical assistance as well as creating a brand or creating a brand for hyper-local urban ag produced in metro Atlanta . . . with the ultimate goal of strengthening the economic base within our urban ag community.” If that sounds like a lot— and it is—it’s not surprising to find out that he used to also have a full-time role in another job that involves juggling a lot of different responsibilities: farming.
His farming started with the HABESHA works program, a green jobs training initiative that teaches basic skills in urban organic agriculture and agro-business development. From there, he moved to working on and helping manage an urban farm and eventually returned to HABESHA to manage their community garden and green infrastructure training program. Training is an impotant component of the Food Safety Modernization Act’s (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule and can extend to training and teaching visitors, volunteers, and family members.
After years of learning and teaching, Justin has a preference for how he wants to be taught agricultural concepts and how he teaches others. Justin said that when being trained and learning as a farmer, he loves “a mixture of well-documented processes . . . and understanding the experience of a farmer from a farmer.” It can be a lot of effort as a grower to develop documentation, like standard operating procedures (SOPs) or policies to build out the employee training process, but that paperwork can have a major impact on how your training – including your food safety trainig – will go. In the mix of the documented processes, Justin also enjoys the practice of a “hands-on learning experience; really being in the field and doing the work and understanding the inputs and outputs.”
Knowing how you like to learn or be trained can be simple, but once you start to train others it can be difficult to find the style that works best for you. Even with years of practice, Justin says “I think that I’m still figuring that out…I may be a bit harder on myself than others, but it seems like I might be learning as I go.” Like most other farmers and farm managers, he shared that he hasn’t “had any formal teaching as far as being an educator,” but what works most effectively for him is speaking from his perspective. He says he is “willing to learn with the students or with those who I’m leading,” which can be a powerful tool; it helps you see where you might need to adjust what you are training. Adjusting your SOPs, policies, and training styles, whether it’s for the four-step cleaning and sanitizing process or proper equipment and building maintenance, can strengthen your educator skills and the overall success of the farm.
One of the biggest lessons Justin learned in transitioning from a trainee to a trainer is the ability to communicate with the group where he is leading the process rather than commanding. “I’m more so leading in this process as opposed to telling you what to do” he says. “I’m learning as I’m teaching,” he recognizes, and the cohort he is leading appreciates that.
As a farmer, you will see the same thing happen at Produce Safety Alliance grower training. As the instructors are teaching you about the Produce Safety Rule, often the growers in the audience are teaching the instructors about how they meet produce safety challenges and sharing success stories from their farms.
If Justin could go back in time and give his younger self some advice, he’d say to “be open to as many different opportunities as possible. Continue to learn every day, question everything, and prioritize your health and your family.” Often, farmers share about the need to always be learning and to take care of their mental and physical health.
Justin took a little bit more time to share about the family aspect of being a farmer and an educator. When he started with HABESHA, he said he was able to go to “Ghana and assist them with developing their campus” in Africa. At that time, he was thinking he might live there long term. But, as happens to a lot of farmers, he found love in Atlanta and became rooted there. As he grew older, family became more of his overall long-term goal. Similar to a lot of new and beginning farmers who may be returning to a tradition their family had moved away from, he said he recieved “a mixed review” of becoming a farmer from his family. One one hand, he heard that “you know, this is not work that we do anymore.” On the other hand, his family was able to share that “your grandfather was a sharecropper and that’s how we obtained this land . . . and if you’re up for it, you can bring it back to what we used to do.” Justin sharing his history is a key reminder that when training or teaching, we don’t always know what brought people to the farm or what may be motivating or affecting them throughout the training. Just as important as knowing what to train, like the importance of health and hygiene practices, is knowing what motivates the people we are training. How can your training lesson help them become better growers and positively impact them and the farm?
One other thing to know about Justin is that he is a drummer and, as he told me, “a trumpet player and I do electronic production. But drumming feels most natural.” He sees historical connections between his farming and drumming. “I see the connection within my African ancestry . . . I’m very familiar with Congo Square in New Orleans. How that was an epicenter for a cultural expression. It was the only place that African captives at that time could express their culture. And, you know, it was through drumming.” In his reflection he realized “drumming is like a heartbeat and it’s honestly my release.” That drumming brings him peace and balance, the same type that he can find when tending to plants. It’s a time when he “can exercise my ability to think freely, when I can multitask…I’m able to water plants or harvest or cultivate as well as think of other things—that feels like freedom to me.” Thinking of the work bringing peace brings up an important point about the culture, including the food safety culture, on the farm. The training and the work will, at times, be stressful, but the environment itself should not be one of high stress. You should be able to irrigate, harvest, and cultivate in a way that you can be engaged and be thinking of many things including implementing food safety practices and focusing on the joy that feeding yourself and your community brings.
A lot of us have had trainers or bosses who may motivate by yelling, which rarely creates an environment of good culture or good work. For Justin, positive engagement is key. Whether keeping the rhythm going on the farm or on the drums, he encourages everyone to focus on “sharing the wealth and wealth, not even just in the money” but also with knowledge and “to just be engaged . . . building systems now that support sustainable growth.”
For more producer focused stores and information, please visit the Local Food Safety Collaborative website along with the Food Safety Resource Clearinghouse for a curated source of food safety guides, factsheets, templates, and more. Don’t forget to follow LFSC on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates on the latest food safety news.
This project website is supported by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award TBD totaling $1,000,000 with 100 percent funded by FDA/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by FDA/HHS, or the U.S. Government.