Goodbye, city life! Layoffs inspire farm venture

In less than a year, Christina and Andrew Norman have taken a neglected property at the end of a gravel road in Covington and done wonders. They’ve reclaimed the home from overgrowth, built a 5,000-square-foot luxury suite/pen for their turkeys and egg-laying chickens, converted a few acres of former pasture into tidy rows of eclectic vegetables, and launched a line of specialty foods.

Before they were Noring Farms, the Normans were city dwellers, living in Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood, working city jobs—Andrew as a wine buyer, Christina as a mortgage broker. So, I had to ask: Why the big switch, just a few years into your marriage? Was this “Green Acres” move a romance-based decision?

Andrew Norman laughs, a little grimly, at the suggestion. “It was a recession-based decision,” he says.

He got laid off in early 2007, just months after their wedding; Christina’s job dried out with the real estate market. Looking for a safety net to make sure he could feed his new family—including Alex, now 10, and Savannah, now 11—Andrew planted a big garden in the backyard.

In Conyers, where he grew up, “Everyone farmed a little bit.” So it wasn’t entirely beginners luck when he netted a load of heirloom tomatoes that July.

Tapping into his sales background, Andrew called his old contact at Rathbun’s restaurant and asked if they had any use for some fancy tomatoes. “He said, ‘I’ll take 10 pounds,’ and I thought, ‘That’s a lot of tomatoes,’” Andrew recalls.

But he made it happen, and a new business was born.

For the next few years, they worked the Norman family land in Conyers as they refined and refocused their work skills on a new business strategy. They chose exotic items to differentiate themselves from the competition, selling purple carrots, blue potatoes and green eggs at farmers markets. They contacted more restaurants, including Parish and 4th & Swift, and developed ongoing relationships. They launched an interactive CSA, in which subscribers can choose produce and other products online each week and then pick them up at one of three farmers markets. And instead of laying low while they recovered from the trauma of two layoffs, the couple went whole-hog into farming. Using Christina’s old banking contacts, they found their current 108-acre spread, desperately in need of new owners.

This summer, they planted 1,200 tomato plants; that original Rathbun’s sale grew to a standing order of 150 pounds of tomatoes a week.

“That’s just our personalities,” Andrew says: go in big, or call it a hobby. “We needed to be aggressive,” adds Christina.

Last winter, Christina launched a line of prepared foods, Cuisine de Reve. Products include marinara and barbecue sauces, pickles and dips, and grownup jellies like red burgundy and peach mojito.

Visiting the couple at their scenic homestead on the eve of their fifth anniversary, I asked a follow-up: When the economy picks up, will these former corporate players return to the world of neckties and pantyhose?

No way.

“It’s just cutthroat and boring,” Andrew says of the 9-to-5 life. Now, “I eat better, I sleep better, our relationship is better …”

“… What would you fight about?” interjects Christina, sweeping her arms over her sunny fields and contentedly clucking hens. Their kids love it, and the family is returning to stronger financial ground, too, she says. “We’re getting to the point where we occasionally have an extra 10 dollars …”

This time, Andrew finishes the thought, and they both crack up.

“… So one of us can go see a movie.”