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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Alice Rolls: Guiding Georgia Organics For 20 Years

Apr 01, 2024 06:00AM ● By Noah Chen

Alice Rolls (Photo: Kimberly Pickering)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average amount of time an individual works the same job is a little over four years. This would make Alice Rolls anything but average. For the past 20 years, she has served as president of Georgia Organics, a nonprofit organization with a mission to invest in, support and promote organic farmers and the organic farming movement. The root of the organization can be traced back to the 1950s, when they were supporting organic farmers on a much smaller scale than they do now. Rolls describes its beginnings as a Georgia “grower support organization.” 

“There were a lot of farmers—those with small acreage who were growing with sustainable methods,” explains Rolls. “And they were collaborating and working together to support and lift each other.” 

By the early 2000s, Rolls had already immersed herself in the environmental nonprofit community. When she heard that Georgia Organics was looking to hire its first-ever executive director, she decided to throw her name in the hat. “It just seemed like all the stars were aligned,” she says. As she recalls, the organization was “poised for great things, and it would be an exciting opportunity to help make some of that change happen.” 

A Crucial Moment

Rolls joined Georgia Organics in 2004, arguably the organization’s most crucial moment and a very interesting time for organics. Two years before, the USDA had established the National Organic Program (NOP) to create national guidelines to officially label produce as organic. While it took a decade to create the program, Rolls says it wasn’t immediately appreciated. “A lot of people within our own community were not happy with the National Organic Program because they felt [the push for organics] was being sort of ‘corporatized.’” 

According to Rolls, many people felt the NOP regulations didn’t reflect their intention to build a flourishing organics community; it was more beneficial to large farming operations. She credits that initial pushback as being a key factor that caused an explosion of growth in the local food movement. As farmers and growers were discontent with the national guidelines, they started looking to local organizations to help them navigate a new era of organic farming. 

“Georgia Organics was squarely in the middle of that, and we rode that wave of interest to continue to do good work on behalf of farmers while trying to get the public involved in community-based food system work,” says Rolls. One of the organization’s programs supporting local food initiatives, Farm to School, was focused on educating teachers and students about local farms and on getting schools around the state to serve local food. 

Farm to School

Erin Croom met Rolls in 2005, shortly after graduating from the University of Vermont, where she studied farm-to-school programs. When she moved to Georgia, she began asking people how to join the organic food movement. “When I started asking who I should talk to that’s working in this field, there was really just one person everyone said I needed to talk to. And that was Alice Rolls,” says Croom. 

When Croom met Rolls for the first time, she walked into Rolls’ office, her arms full of books and papers she’d written on the topic of farm-to-school programs. “I really want to start a farm-to-school program here in Georgia,” she told Rolls, “and I want you to hire me to work at Georgia Organics to start it.”

In 2006, after her efforts caught the attention of a donor who funded a follow-up program, Croom was hired full-time at Georgia Organics, where she continued to develop the Farm to School program. Croom describes Rolls as a “truly great leader” who would support her co-workers and help them achieve their goals in a practical and strategic manner. “She always kept the big goal and vision at the forefront,” says Croom, while still allowing her the freedom to take charge in building out the program. 

Rag and Frass 

(Photo: Jenna Shea Photojournalism)

Under Croom’s direction, the reach of Georgia Organic’s Farm to School program grew from two to more than 75 schools. Croom credits many others for helping to grow the program. “We’ve got so many strong champions within the Department of Education and Department of Agriculture as well as school districts,” she says. Croom left Georgia Organics in 2018 to start her own nonprofit, the Small Bites Adventure Club, which continues to work with teachers and students to ease and facilitate access to and learning about local organic foods. 

As Georgia Organics helped farmers navigate the world of organic farming, more and more farming organizations and farmers emerged. Rolls says that in her first 10 years at Georgia Organics, the number of Georgia farmers markets rose from seven to more than 150. To her, this explosive growth presented an opportunity to connect new organizations and farmers so they could all support each other. She built a network of key players over the years, including Concrete Jungle and Wholesome Wave Georgia, an organization that works with the food stamp program to increase the access and availability of fresh, local fruits and vegetables. 

Much of Rolls’ work is framed toward cultivating a community around local and organic farmers, and this philosophy is noticeable as she develops relationships with other organizations. However, she is also adept at welcoming outsiders and putting them to work in the movement. 

Opportunities Open Up

William Sellers IV met Rolls in 2013 when she was raising support to help pass the Urban Agriculture Ordinance. At the time, Sellers was working with a government affairs firm and had no knowledge of local organic farming. With Sellers’ help building support and communicating with the city of Atlanta, the ordinance passed in 2014.


(Photo: Erik Meadows Photography)

“So what ended up happening was just like most things in life—once you have success in one area and other people see that you can do something well, other opportunities open up for you,” says Sellers. He began volunteering with Food Well Alliance and eventually leveraged his experience into his current position as the Executive Director of Wholesome Wave Georgia. 

“None of that would have happened without Alice. There was nothing in my background that said I would be a good fit,” says Sellers. “But she saw something in me—and Alice has done this for many people, so I’m not unique here. She saw where I could be of service and that I wanted to be of service. I think she saw that I want to have a greater impact, and she took a chance on me. Not many leaders do that.”

Throughout her 20-year tenure, Rolls has witnessed a lot of change in organic farming. As more organizations sprang up, so too did public interest in local and organic foods. The number of organic farms in Georgia multiplied twentyfold, and local governments gained a new interest and appreciation for the work of organic farmers. The organization now interacts with farms throughout the state and is planning its first regional conference. If the pace continues, its community of organic farmers may soon cover the United States.

Georgia Organics has also accelerated its push to promote social justice in organic farming by welcoming farmers of color and supporting urban agriculture movements that often seek to eliminate food deserts and provide healthy, accessible food options. Their actions have, in turn, strengthened the community.

Time for a Change

While Rolls is immensely grateful for the time she has been president of Georgia Organics, she has decided to step down. “It’s not for lack of interest,” she says, citing both a desire to take a break from the workload of managing a nonprofit and the intention to give the organization a chance to welcome new leadership with fresh ideas. 

Seeing the community grow and gel stands as one of the things that makes Rolls most proud. The Georgia Organics Conference, too, holds much meaning for her. Describing farmers who are coming to the conference for the first time, she says, “When they see this beautiful community of farmers and advocates and teachers, and agricultural professionals supporting this type of agriculture, they’re blown away.” The conference serves as a focal point within the movement where farmers can link up, form partnerships and friendships, and learn from and support each other.

“When you see farmers feel loved and supported by a community of people who are willing to answer questions and share their experiences and best practices—that, to me, is success.” ❧

Noah Chen is an Atlanta writer and journalist who writes for a wide variety of large companies and publications.
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