I went off the tourist track on this trip to the Big Easy, sussing out the locals to satisfy my curiosity about the city’s renaissance in the five years since Hurricane Katrina. Using food as my lens, I caught a glimpse of the engines driving the city’s rebirth and it is a story that I’m excited to tell, in a series of three posts about New Orleans. We start, as always, at the beginning, going to the source of our food: the farm.
Before New Orleans gained a reputation for its Hurricanes and the excesses of Bourbon Street, it was a city of urban farmers. The humble backyard garden built communities, as did the abundant fruit trees lining the streets. After all, it’s a lot easier to forge relationships over a sweet potato pie than quibbling about the position of one’s picket fence.
Like the rest of the US, this relationship to food and the land waned with the onset of industrial agriculture, cheap food and TV dinners. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the indignation from the disaster is fueling the city’s regeneration, from housing to education, and of course, an intense love of good food.
“Eating local, organically and sustainably used to be a way of life,” according to Alicia Vance, Farm Manager at the Hollygrove Market and Farm, the city’s first community-run enterprise of this nature. “With Katrina, everyone experienced what it was like not to have access to fresh food. That memory explains why we’re seeing urban farms popping up all over the place now, and a strong demand for farmers’ markets and community gardens”.
The one-acre lot on quiet Olive Street has a reach far beyond its wire fences. Run by the Carrollton-Hollygrove Community Development Corporation and supported by non-profits like the New Orleans Food and Farm Network (NOFFN), the project launched in late 2008 to improve residents’ access to fresh, local produce while also reviving the practice of urban farming. In just under two years, Hollygrove has bloomed from a crumbling, water-logged family nursery into a lush gardening space for 15 community gardeners. On weekends, residents collect their pre-ordered box of organically-grown farm vegetables ($25) and stay around to chat with Hollygrove’s community gardeners and mentor farmers. NOFFN and members of the Louisiana Master Gardener Program have demo plots, which are used in their monthly gardening classes for the public. A few plots have also been set aside for the Grow Dat youth leadership program, to launch in January 2011, employing gardening as a medium to equip high school students with business, organizational and gardening skills.
The joint farm-market operation means that Hollygrove Market is able to offer community gardeners from around the city the option to sell the fruits of their labor for extra income.
“We currently source produce from over 40 farmers around Louisiana and Southern Mississippi that are sold both to the public and to restaurants. We’re also very interested in buying from urban growers, and although only a small number supply us at the moment, this is an area that we’re looking to expand with time”, said Alicia. “People grow food because they love it, and now that there’s this opportunity to earn some money from doing what they love, it’s an added bonus. This is why we have mentor farmers on board to help those community gardeners who are interested move onto the next stage of growing for income.”
To the left of the entrance are two large tracts, manned by Hollygrove’s mentor farmers: Ronald Terry and Macon Fry. With at least 20 years’ experience under each of their gardening belts, they cultivate vegetables (Macon) and fruits (Ronald) for the market, while also guiding resident gardeners on the intricate business of pruning, tilling and caring for their plots. I caught up with Ronald Terry, who, at 64, has seen his home city through the best and the worst of times. Sporting a rimmed canvas hat in army fatigues, perhaps a throwback to his previous life with the US military, his gentle, easy-going manner balanced Macon’s intensity as they discussed inventory, equipment and plantings.
“Depending on whether you’re talking about when I started actually growing vegetables or trying to grow them, I’d say it all started when I was about 12,” Ronald related, with a mischievous glint in his eye.
“I grew pumpkins first, and I chose them because they were cute. They turned out well, and I continued with other vegetables and fruits, trying my hand with beans, watermelons… I grew them in my backyard, right against the house, there was a small spot of land. I kept growing and growing year after year, until one day they stopped growing. The soil was dead. I didn’t think about it, that you needed to fertilize the soil and all that stuff.”
“I stopped for a while, a couple of years, then I picked up a book on organic gardening and it got me interested again. I was hooked on growing my own stuff, because you can taste the difference between an organic vegetable and a non-organic one. That was what got me hooked. Later on, I chose to grow fruits ‘coz I like them better. They’re perennials, and less labor-intensive….at least I can work on them standing up!”, he said, laughing.
At Hollygrove, Ronald tends to a 100 by 45 feet plot where he’s planted Muscadine vines, berry bushes and citrus trees (an assortment of Kumquats, Satsumas and Meyer Lemons). Having lived all over the US, he started growing fruit trees when he lived in South Carolina for eight years, an adequate window to see his trees mature. The Muscadines (“Don’t call them grapes!!” interjects Macon) are his pride and joy, with some of the vines starting to bear fruit, well on-track for the 2011 market season, Ronald’s first. Native to the South and bearing thicker skins, these, well, grapes, have a variety of uses in desserts, from jam, to cobbler, to pie.
Recounting his travels, he said, “I remember going to Germany with the US military, and seeing the vineyards in the German countryside, all lined up against the side of a hill. It was beautiful, just beautiful. Can never forget that sight. That’s also what got me hooked on growing fruits.”
“Many people don’t want to grow fruit in community gardens ‘coz they think it’s too difficult. It’s actually really easy!”
“New Orleans had a lot of food deserts before Katrina, but now, it’s almost as if that disaster has galvanized the city and people are finding more meaning about growing their own food and paying attention to issues of food access,” observed Alicia. “There is still a long way to go in educating and changing the values that people shop with: that it’s not always such a good idea to only buy the cheapest produce you can find; that it’s important to connect with the farmers that grow your food.”
Looking ahead, Alicia sees Hollygrove evolving into a resource center on gardening and sustainable living. Works are underway to convert part of what used to be the Guillot family home into a public library offering information on water and flood management, gardening and sustainable living.
“Big business has always ruled Louisiana – oil, sugarcane, citrus, cotton and seafood industries. But after Katrina, there’s more reform and thought going on in the city. Residents, having lived outside the state after being evacuated, are now saying, ‘Wait a minute, don’t tell me that a good school system isn’t possible, because they are doing it (in another state)‘,” Alicia shared. “People really know the good things in life in New Orleans. It’s about the food, music and family, and celebrating it. They party not for the sake of partying, but to celebrate life.”
Judging by the plots of budding greens and trees at Hollygrove, New Orleanians have yet another success to celebrate – the return of the urban farming tradition.
Hollygrove Market and Farm
8301 Olive St
New Orleans, LA 70118
Store Hours: Saturday from 10am to 2pm, Tuesday from 12pm to 6pm
Farm Hours: Monday-Friday, 9am to 5pm, Saturday 10am to 2pm