5 Urban Farms Reshaping the Food World in New Orleans

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Tracie McMillan


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
number 66,000.

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."

NEXT: Eating within a 10-block radius

2. Little Sparrow Farm: Eating Within a 10-Block Radius

Founded: 2008
Size: 30 by 100 feet (typical city lot)
Managed by: Marilyn Yank
Location: Midcity, South Cortez Street and Cleveland Avenue

Marilyn Yank wasn't looking to start an urban farm, but when the Ruby Slipper restaurant opened up shop in her Midcity neighborhood, the opportunity was too good to resist. The restaurant brokered an arrangement for Yank to begin farming a vacant lot across the street, and soon Yank was supplying the kitchen with what's become a common urban crop: microgreens. But the more Yank grew greens, the more she felt tugged in the opposite direction. "It felt like my household suffered," says Yank, who found herself growing more for market than her own kitchen. "I wanted to go back to diversity."

So this fall—the beginning of NOLA's growing season, since summer is too hot for much to grow—Yank launched a city-based CSA, recruiting four families to buy shares of the bounty from her single city lot. As a founding member of the New Orleans Food and Farm Network, Yank—who'll be carefully measuring the amount of food she produces—is hoping the endeavor will help build the case for urban food production. Right now, she says, "there's no real data about how much food gets produced on a city lot in New Orleans." By the end of the growing season, she adds, "I can say, 'Look, four or five households can eat off this.'"

NEXT: Bringing Rust Belt genius to the South

3. Our School at Blair Grocery: Bringing Rust Belt Genius to the South

Founded: 2008
Size: 2/3 of an acre
Managed by: Nat Turner, Our School at Blair Grocery
Location: Lower Ninth Ward, Benton Street and North Roman Street

Some proponents of urban agriculture aim to capitalize on the newest tech solutions to the challenge of growing in limited space. And then there are growers like Nat Turner.

Turner first came to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina as a volunteer, bringing down busloads of students—he was a teacher—from New York City. Before long, he decided to relocate and, after being handed a scholarship to learn commercial urban agriculture from Will Allen, the Milwaukee-based Macarthur "genius," he started looking for land. Turner settled in the Lower Ninth Ward, leasing a ruined former grocery store, still surrounded by weeds that reached the roofline, to use as a schoolhouse. By 2008, Turner had founded a miniscule, five-student charter school, Our School at Blair Grocery, focused on the urban farm he'd launched. It features several of Allen's trademarks: It is low-cost, low-tech, and turns waste into bounty, à la worm composting. Students earn a stipend for their contributions to the farm's business of selling its sprouts and greens to the city's restaurants.

Today, the school's three greenhouses sit amid banana trees and compost piles—and generate sprouts and greens that average around $2,000 in sales each week, says Turner; he's aiming for $3,000. Staff are experimenting with another Allen favorite—aquaponics—and hope to eventually raise catfish on site. Students recently built a microgreen garden out of plastic hanging baskets. Indeed, Our School is set to get big, fast. This fall the USDA awarded the group a three-year, $300,000 grant under its Community Food Projects program, which will augment the stipends paid to students and help the school acquire additional land and open a community kitchen.

In the meantime, Turner and his staff are expanding their work while navigating their place in the neighborhood fabric, an endeavor that can sometimes be "a mess," Turner says. And with a grin that suggests he's used to such things, he adds, "It's all going to work out just fine."

NEXT: Making urban ag work

4. Covenant Farms: Making Urban Ag Work

Founded: 2009
Size: Five sites, varying from one to five lots in size
Managed by: Covenant House
Location: Treme and Midcity

There's one thing about farming that is indisputable: It's hard work. That alone made urban farming a good candidate to add to Covenant House's existing jobs and social enterprise programs for homeless youth. But there's a stealth objective too, says Michael Kantor, who oversees the group's urban agriculture program: Getting the young adults, most of whom are parents, to develop a taste for healthy food. "We want to get these kids to be able to go to the grocery store and pick out herbs and vegetables and know what to do with them," Kantor says.

That's not to say they don't focus on business when it comes to farming. Youth in the program learn the life cycles of different crops, how to deal with composting and soil fertility, how to plan a garden and how to manage it; some go on to earn horticulture licenses, freeing them up to work in the landscaping industry. Much of what they grow ends up on high-end restaurant tables, of course, but it also trickles down into students' meals. In September, when the season's first vegetables came in, everyone sat down to grilled pizza featuring herbs, fruits, and vegetables from the gardens.

It may well be working. "I ain't never had pizza with fresh herbs and fresh vegetables, not like that," said James Williams, 20, about the cookout. Though he's worked in restaurant kitchens, Harris said the meal taught him something new about creative ingredient pairings. "We even had a pear pizza, too, a sweet pizza with some goat cheese. It was good."

NEXT: Cleaning up Katrina's mess

5. Sun Harvest Kitchen Garden: Cleaning Up Katrina's Mess

Founded: 2010
Size: 65' by 86'
Managed by: Pam Broom
Location: Central City, 1237-1241 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard

Contaminated soil is always a concern for urban farmers—and in post-Katrina New Orleans, where floodwaters spread toxins far and wide, the worry has been particularly intense. But with work done at Sun Harvest Kitchen Garden, in the city's Central City neighborhood, growers are starting to relax thanks to one simple thing: sunflowers.

In 2008, segments of the plot now housing Sun Harvest Kitchen Garden posted a range of lead levels that topped out at 1200 parts per million—triple the level allowed by law. After successive plantings of sunflowers, the levels dropped as low as 136 ppm. (Dr. Lovell Agwaramgbo, the Dillard University chemist who tested the site, cautions that the reduced levels could in part reflect that the soil had been tilled, and thus distributing toxins more evenly; he's currently conducting further research.)

The garden is now overseen by Pam Broom, one of the city's top advocates for urban agriculture and an experienced urban farmer in her own right. She's gearing up to begin real food production—she needs a fence first, to keep out animals—with the goal of selling herbs and vegetables to a nearby nonprofit restaurant, Café Reconcile.

For now, though, she's not too concerned about the site's financial prospects. "Somebody came in and helped themselves to the leeks, and I thought, 'That's so sweet.' I figured somebody needed it," she says. For now, she added, "I'm using this as a demonstration of what's possible."

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Tracie McMillan is a freelance journalist whose work focuses on the issue of access to good food, particularly within middle- and lower-income communities. Her first book, The American Way of Eating, examines food and class in America.

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