When a city is as food-obsessed as New Orleans, it's natural that urban farming would go high-profile, too. And just as the city has more in its culinary repertoire than red beans and rice, its efforts to grow food boast a richer history than is apparent at first glance.
Community gardens first took root here in the 1980s, spurred by economic decline that saw oil companies moving operations to Houston. Those gardens numbered more than 150 at their peak—and nearly all of them were used to grow food, says Jean Fahr, executive director of Parkway Partners, the nonprofit that coordinated those efforts. As in most cities, development pressures in the 1990s gobbled up much of that land; but here, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina more than tripled the number of vacant lots, which now number 66,000.
The devastation of Hurricane Katrina more than tripled the number of vacant lots, which now
Enter the next generation of urban farmers, most of whom operate through the New Orleans Food and Farm Network (NOFFN). NOFFN had launched prior to Katrina, planting its first food gardens in NOLA's Hollygrove neighborhood days before the storm. Post-Katrina, the dire lack of food in the city compelled NOFFN to switch gears; the group made national headlines with its DIY food maps of the city in the weeks after the storm. More recently, the group has gotten its hands dirty in the Big Easy's soil: planting farms, launching markets, and even training new farmers in the business of urban gardening.
There are so many folks growing food in the city, in fact, that NOFFN is hard at work on a comprehensive guide to the city's food gardens, profiling more than 100 city growers. "The history of urban agriculture in New Orleans is very far-reaching," explains Ariel Wallick Dorfman, an urban agriculturalist at NOFFN. "But I would say the last five years is really when urban agriculture went beyond community gardens." Here are five examples of how New Orleans is taking city-grown food from farm stand to standing resource:
1. Hollygrove Market and Farm: Bringing the Next Generation of Urban Farmers to Market
Founded: 2008 Size: One acre
Managed by: Carrollton Hollygrove Community Development Corporation
Location: Carrollton / 8301 Olive Street
If there's one New Orleans farm that stands as a flagship for up-and-coming urban farmers, it would be Hollygrove Market and Farm. NOFFN first planted crops in the neighborhood in late August 2005—not long before Katrina made landfall. Two years ago, the local community development corporation laid claim to an acre of land off Carollton Avenue, a major thoroughfare. Half the land is dedicated to master gardener and community plots, with an outdoor oven and chicken coop along the periphery. In the center sits a shaded stage designed by local architecture students that does double duty as water catchment and presentation space, alongside a market structure where neighborhood residents can buy regionally and city-grown produce.
But the crown jewel may end up being what sits on the other half: two sprawling plots handed over to experienced urban farmers who will be teaching New Orleanians how to farm city soil as a business enterprise. Macon Fry, dubbed the "Greens Guy," already has a solid business in microgreens, while Ronald Terry, a retired social services worker, is cultivating muscadine grapes, blackberries, kumquats and satsumas to bring to market later this year.
Training classes have yet to start, though, so Fry keeps busy by working his land. A recent weekday morning had him on his hands and knees clearing out a row of arugula that had already been harvested. Business is so strong, he said, that he plows through three or four beds a week. "It's a really right rotation," he said, shaking the dirt from an arugula root. "I have to replant right away."
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