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