WHAT HAPPENED TO THE HOLLYGROVE MARKET?  AN INTERVIEW WITH NICOLA KREBILL


Hollygrove Market and Farm closed down this past February after falling on hard times and failing to pay rent to the property’s landowner, Bobby Guillot. Since its founding in 2008 by Paul Baricos, the organization and the space it occupied had been a bastion of the local food movement in New Orleans. Hollygrove supported local farmers on site and throughout the region, providing a nexus for the community to buy local food and an educational center for food justice and DIY skills.

Though its doors have been shut for months now, folks involved in the project are still on the ground maintaining their gardens and trying to give the space life anew, building off the foundation and mission of Hollygrove Market and Farm to form “Hollygrow.” More than an idea but still far from actualization, Hollygrow aims to learn from the missteps of Hollygrove to create a financially sustainable community hub.

Nicola Krebill, owner and founder of Schmelly’s Compost, has been intertwined with Hollygrove for over seven years in varying capacities. They are now at the forefront of this movement to give 8301 Olive Street new life. I sat down with Krebill to talk about where it all went wrong for Hollygrove and how to make it all be right for Hollygrow. (For the sake of context and disclosure, it’s important to note that I also have a long history with Hollygrove, having sold plants and produce to them for years through my former business, Southbound Gardens.)


Where did the idea for Hollygrow come from?
Hollygrow was a name that my coworker [Ashton Jefferson], a graduate from the Grow Dat youth program, came up with when I asked a bunch of people: “Hollygrove Market shut down, and we as growers are going to try to start an LLC, and we need a name. We don’t know what’s going to happen but let’s come up with something.” So we don’t have a lease but we filed Hollygrow, which is a cool name. That’s still where we stand, but we’ve garnered a lot of support and encouragement.

Can you tell me a bit about why you think Hollygrove died and how it all fell apart?
It happened all of a sudden to everybody. The farmers on site and the staff members knew that things were hard, and some people say they kind of saw this coming, starting around last December. I think for years there was a feeling that things were hard.

I know for me, I used to get paid a week after I’d sell plants to Hollygrove, which was normal, but then it was a three-weeks-later situation, and then it became a month and a half, then the last eight deliveries I did going back to May 2017, I never got paid for. It wasn’t a ton of money I lost, but it just really wasn’t looking good for them.
Everything I can say about the operations of [Hollygrove] Market, especially financially, is just what I’ve asked and learned about. I can’t give you like, this is definitely what happened, but for instance, the experience you had with getting the late payments was something that all the farmers were experiencing, and I think that was a classic scenario of a business struggling. They didn’t have cash on hand or reserves, and it was just this borrowing from Peter to pay Paul situation, which is ironic because the owner’s name is Paul Baricos, and he came back to try to save the business.

I guess I didn’t realize that he had stepped away from it so completely.
He worked with the Market for years. Hollygrove Carrollton Community Development Corporation, a non-profit, is on paper the sole member on the LLC Hollygrove Market and Farm, so the only owner of Hollygrove was a non-profit, and Paul was the director of the non-profit back then, and he was really the founder and visionary of Hollygrove from the beginning. New Orleans Food and Farm Network (NOFFN) was in charge of the Farm back then, and Macon Fry was the original farm mentor, and one of the first farm mentors in this city. Paul signed a lease with the landlord under the Hollygrove Farm and Market name. The monthly rent started at $2,200 and had three-year increments, and by the end of ten years it had ended at $3,700 monthly. The whole time, Paul was also responsible for paying the property taxes, liability insurance, and any repairs to the building, including if the roof started leaking. On the lease, Hollygrove was responsible for $100,000 in improvements in its first three years. And they made that by partnering with Tulane City Center, who brought in grant money. The gazebos, the grounds, the water catchment, fixing the infrastructure of the building—a lot of that was done with grant money and it took Tulane City Center and NOFFN to do that. Hollygrove Market started by selling a [local produce] box. That was their first and only thing, and it slowly picked up steam from there for years and years.

So there was no liability for the landlord?
The landlord had zero responsibility and the rent was going up at a rate that really wasn’t very sustainable and was kind of a bad deal for what was essentially a community oriented, mission driven project. It turned into something that actually became very profitable. I think it surprised a lot of people on the inside. By the middle of their existence they were grossing a really healthy amount on local food sales. They had good management, a bunch of different people involved, marketing, working social media. This was like 2014, 2015. Then staff members started turning over, no manager stayed there longer than two years. So there were just changing hands, marketing went downhill. A year and a half ago Paul came back to act as manager because they didn’t have enough money to pay a manager anymore. Financially, it just kept slipping and slipping, so there was kind of this definite peak four or five years ago and then it slumped.

Yeah, farmers weren’t getting paid.
At one point they were grossing like $1.1 million in a year, in 2014 I think it was, and they could have applied for a lot more support, like a line of credit from a bank. There was a point in which the Second Harvest Food Bank was looking into purchasing Hollygrove, same with the Crescent City Farmers Market, but these never went through. So Hollygrove never had a vision longer than right now, and when no other bigger non-profit took over, they just didn’t have a plan to grow into themselves. That’s where I see the biggest failings, like no business and strategic plan past a ten year period, a lease that just kept getting way more expensive, a landlord that was very demanding of the rent and didn’t want to put in any work. He’s a for-profit landscape designer, and the whole time he had an office upstairs and two garages where he kept things, and he didn’t pay a dime.

What was the space before Katrina?
It was a plant nursery called Guillot’s Nursery. It was there since the 1950s.

Did the landowner have anything to do with the nursery?
Yeah, his dad started it. [The owner’s] name is Bobby Guillot. His dad passed it on to him and [Bobby] ran the business until Katrina, which wiped out the land. They decided to close the nursery and he just continued his landscaping business. Coincidentally, Paul then came along and presented this idea. Bobby thought it was a cool idea, they worked out this bad lease that was definitely slanted towards the landlord, and he was very, very comfortable for ten years.

“That’s where I see the biggest failings, like no business and strategic plan past a ten year period, a lease that just kept getting way more expensive, a landlord that was very demanding of the rent and didn’t want to put in any work.”

Obviously the landlord gouging them for rent wasn’t everything that brought down Hollygrove, but Bobby didn’t see them going downhill?
I think he was surprised, but the year before the Market couldn’t pay the property taxes, which again, had also been their responsibility per this skewed lease. This was compounded with them being responsible for the structural integrity of the building, which belongs to the landowner, which shouldn’t have been their responsibility. So the lease stated that Hollygrove was responsible for the structure and all these costs. They couldn’t pay the property tax and the landlord put them on a month-by-month property tax payment, so instead of $6,000 in one lump sum they paid $500 a month, and they were paying $4,200 a month in rent total, so they weren’t able to pay the farmers on time. The landlord was very strict on getting rent, and he always got his money. There was one month last December he didn’t get the money though, and that was when they did that fundraiser for an air conditioner upstairs.

Really, an air conditioner? I guess it was never part of the pitch for the online fundraiser. Actually, it didn’t really explicitly state what any of the money was for at all. It was basically just, “We have a plan to stay in business, all we need is $10,000.”
Yeah. Paul was trying to figure out a diverse revenue stream model and he got the group Rebuilding Together to remodel the upstairs and create an event space. It was going to be for shared office space and events. They did a few things, but it [still] wasn’t wheelchair accessible, the bathroom needed a remodel, there were no sinks for food or meals, and no air conditioning. He refinished upstairs as best he could, and it was to the number value of about $40,000 in improvements to the building. Take that into consideration with the $100,000 improvements that were made per the contract under the lease onto the property as well. These are a monetary value the landlord gets to walk away with. The landlord has this attitude like, “I lost out, they owe me December rent, they just pulled out from this lease, and now I’m losing money,” but then at the same time he will openly state: “This property is worth so much more,” and he has it listed online as “Hollygrove Urban Farm” for $5,000 per month. So he’s just stepped up off of the reputation and the work for a business that failed because of economic reasons, because of managerial reasons, and because of that lease.

Have you been in touch with him at all?
We’ve had meetings with him to try to make a deal, and he’s kind of like, “Y’all are making money while I’m losing money.” You are this old white man who inherited a property, never paid a mortgage, just own it outright, never had to pay a dime in repairs on this property. Over ten years you made more than $300,000 in rent and the property improvements done by Hollygrove Market are to the tune of about $140,000. And you’re in hard times? He pulls up to our meetings in a Jaguar… It’s really insulting. We made him an offer of $2,500 a month to rent it, just as a starting space. We just need to get our feet wet and get started, and he turned it down.

So presently, the building is still empty, you guys have no access to that, but he doesn’t mind people maintaining the farmland?
Oh he loves them, because he would have to pay somebody else to do that otherwise. So when we made him an offer—first off, at the beginning of March we had a bunch of legal folks working pro bono with us, who drafted a letter of intent that we worked really hard on. “We want first right of refusal, the option to purchase it; we would like to stay here for three months while we organize ourselves.” He never signed it, he never even responded to it, and whenever we called him up to talk about it he just acted impatient about it, and was just like, “When can you sign the lease that Hollygrove had?” And we said, “We’re not going to sign this lease; we want to negotiate a new contract with you.” So at the end of April I made a presentation to him that included the history of the community aspect of Hollygrove because I wanted him to know about its impact, how many organizations had started there: Grow Dat, Recirculating Farms, me, Schmelly’s. Dozens of farmers started here. I watched over seven years that place grow. It was always sharing, not a competing place. I don’t think this guy gets that.

Have you talked to him since then? Has anything changed over the last month?
He doesn’t want to accept $2,500, and we want control over the whole property so that we can make sure if somebody starts a new market, it has the same scope and community focus it had before.

So you’re not looking to directly manage the new market, whatever happens there?
No. I see myself as one of the farmers there, and I’ve seen a potential for the structure to flip. Hollygrove Market was always partnered with other entities to manage other projects on the site, and Hollygrove itself focused on the interior, the market, the selling of local foods. When the [New Orleans] Food and Farm Network shrunk down, then Hollygrove Market had to be responsible for managing the farm.

There was never meant to be one managerial center for the space?
No. And I think that was a strain on the Market, to try to take care of the contracts between the growers, the mentor farmers, and the community gardeners. It’s always been full of drama—any community garden is going to be—and it just became really taxing on Hollygrove, and then Macon Fry left too. He felt pushed out by new farmers who wanted to have a chance to be the mentor farmers there, and he may have been holding on too tight.

Volunteers working at Hollygrove, June 2017 (photo Paris Achenbach).

He had a solid half of the whole gardening space there, right?
Yeah. So I think it was probably time for new folks to come in, but there was no longer any cohesiveness between everybody. At the worst times it was every person for themselves and there was a lot of infighting. I came in a couple times to try to mediate but it was always tough because there was no groundwork there. So when everything fell apart at the Market in February of this year, that was really hard. I wanted to get everyone together—and people did get together—but everyone was just used to doing whatever they wanted to do and there wasn’t a cohesiveness. So I’ve been trying to get people together again in a cohesive way, and getting people to feel an ownership over it, because the new model could be the farmers coming up with a vision, some sort of umbrella administrative organization, to have it be mission driven, and have it be focused on farm education. Then to have inside of that a market, an anchor tenant. They just deal with their business, make sure they pay rent on time and their business is healthy and running. Then upstairs there could be offices; there are a number of businesses who have said they’d be interested. The food sector of Propeller, which is focused on incubating local food businesses; Life City, a sustainable organization; Crescent City Farmers Market came to one of our meetings; a group called Steward, which finances local farms.

It looks like you already have all these relevant businesses. It really could be the nexus for every local food-oriented thing going on here.
Exactly. The challenge would be: how does it run and who’s running it. I’ve reached out to a handful of local businesses to help run this thing, but nothing has really worked out, and at this point, if we figure out a way to lease or purchase that land, we’re probably going to have to start a new nonprofit from the ground.

Who else is directly involved with this presently then? Is it just the growers who have been on the land?
It’s the growers, and it felt really empowering in the beginning for a group of people, because so many people I know in New Orleans who have tried to deal with land have been screwed over left and right. To have a group of people build power from the ground up and say, “We can control this and control its vision,” that continues to be our path. The problem I’ve been having as an organizer in this whole matter is I don’t know what the hell I’m doing so I’m just reaching out to anybody and everybody to get help and slowly building momentum from there. Everyone else on site (and I see this as totally valid) is just dealing with their own stuff there, keeping up their garden plots and doing whatever else they have to do.

How many people are still on the grounds there?
I’d say there’s like 15 community growers, and the two mentor farmers. No one’s had to leave, but I think a handful of people have. We’ve reached out to most [of the community growers], and we’ve reached out to people who used to be shoppers there, and they’ve come to meetings. I’ve been calling them an advisory board, to help us sort of look towards the future, and also to have them reach out to people who have networks of money. If we’re going to pull this off we’re going to need some sort of deposit to put on the land. We need donations and investment, where people can put in money and be a co-owner of the land, so it’s the future. We also are working with a land trust and an environmental lawyer to look at the potential of turning it into a land trust.

“You start small and you just let your successes propel you forward.”

Do we have any of those in New Orleans at all?
No. We’ve been talking to a group called Land Trust for Louisiana. This would be the first urban farm with an environmental land conservation easement in all of Louisiana, so we’d be pretty newsworthy. And we tried to spin it to the landlord. He would have to choose to put that easement on the land, sign the paperwork, and as soon as you do that the value plummets because you are not allowed to develop the land commercially or residentially in any way. We would purchase the land for the new price, which we could afford, and then what he loses in value he can write off in his taxes as a loss, and he has legacy, too. We could still do it [without him], we just need other investors. Like we could get this guy Dan Miller [of Steward] to put down $200,000, we could get someone else to put in a few hundred thousand. We can get a foundation to put in some money. We can put down a deposit and purchase the land as a group, and everyone can get a tax break. Or we could just keep it a property, but I think there’s a lot of benefits to a land trust just because there’s the idea that it gets a permanent designation as an urban farm.

Exactly, and that’s always been the problem, the impossibility of retaining land here, ever.
If you see it done, it becomes attainable.

Schmelly’s is actually on another piece of property isn’t it?
Well I’m looking in the East actually, to be able to do more. My biggest mission is to be able to create jobs, especially for young people coming in through Grow Dat, and it’s totally possible. If we can get another truck and get a piece of land, we would be able to really make more work, and do actual recycling in the city, creating a product out of a byproduct.

I think to have any kind of business or organization that has anything to do with food economies and justice stand on its own two feet while doing the good work is pretty incredible. That Hollygrove couldn’t even pull it off? It’s like, if they can’t, nobody can.
If they’d had better marketing and a long-term strategy, they would still be here. Paul had been [back] there for a year and a half. I had been nagging him: “Can I come into your meetings? I’m learning about investment; I have ideas.” He never took me seriously, and he had the founder’s complex where he thought only he was going to be able to pull it through. It’s so sad because he’s such a good person and he had good intentions, but I think a lot could be learned from what happened there as like, what not to do. There’s a potential for that place to have succeeded.

And it was the closest thing. On the outside, it looked to be doing OK—maybe not fantastic, but OK—for the better part of a decade. You see so many people growing local food or distributing it just disappear after a year or two. And what we really need is that economic center.
And a lot of other people saw Hollygrove close and have been trying to do that. Local Cooling Farms, which is Grant Estrade of Laughing Buddha, he’s been literally aggregating from local farmers in Mississippi, and they really are pushing it, because there’s a void now. The NOLA Food Co-op is really doing more local food as well and some small shops like Simone’s Market has been trying to do stuff like that. But, well you know, it’s just spread out.

And I think what happens over and over again is people who think they have the savvy come in thinking they’re going to pull something off, come to realize how hard it is to make any money doing this, and there’s a lot of chicken-or-egg going on where the growers need buyers and the buyers need growers.
I think maybe that was the reason why Hollygrove lasted ten years, and this is the way that Schmelly’s has been. You start small and you just let your successes propel you forward. You don’t try to bite off way more than you can chew. Be a small business, don’t try to be everything.

For more info on Hollygrow Farm, check out hollygrow.org.


top photo by DAN FOX, illustration by MELISSA GUION