Springtime in New Orleans. Vines crawl along fences. Weeds peek up through cracks in the sidewalks. Secret gardens, teeming with life, are tended by growers. I wonder about these eccentrics who cultivate land in the heart of the city. What sorcery allows them to summon sinfully sweet sugar snap peas and enchanting green mirlitons from this soil? I take a ride around town to solicit a closer look.
My farm tour of New Orleans starts in Central City. On Clio Street, I pass by the entrance to Southbound Gardens several times before noticing a narrow strip of land behind a chain-link fence. Ian Willson welcomes me down a passageway leading to a square property thick with winter greens, lettuces, and dormant vines. Guinea hens stretch their wings, liberated from the chicken tractor by last night’s storm.
Southbound Gardens was started in the fall of 2014 by Ian and his business partner Jordan Bantuelle. One of their goals is to build a self-sustaining business by growing food for restaurants and selling starter plants from their nursery on South Robertson Street. This is the practical foundation of their farming work. Much of their labor, however, is inspired by a passion for education. In their own words, “Education is what we’re really trying to do here.” Ian and Jordan hold workshops to empower their neighbors, helping them to build gardens and grow their own food. They work with local schools, providing on-site gardens where students can harvest an afternoon snack. Ian uses his blog to preach the power of “Thunder Magic” to the masses.
We speak about some of the obstacles of growing food in the city: the struggle for land security, the all day, every day labor; and the constant effort towards building a food-conscious community. A young man with the becalmed demeanor of someone much older, Ian tells me about a burgeoning grower’s alliance. He motions in several directions, pointing to myriad gardens hidden within the walls of the city, celebrating the rich knowledge of the gardeners therein.
The next day I travel to the eastern edge of Orleans Parish, in the Lower Ninth Ward, to meet with Jamal Elhayak, of Supporting Urban Agriculture. He rejects the term “food desert.” To the Lebanese, he explains, deserts are thriving ecosystems. He refers to what is happening in the area as “food apartheid.” Jamal planted his gardens to provide a much-needed resource to the local community. Wire fences surrounding his lots are erected to prevent rabbits and wild hogs from leveling the gardens, but the neighbors are welcome to harvest whatever they please.
Jamal’s employees work with him full-time, deciding what to plant in the raised beds and negotiating with ladybugs. There are endless obstacles to be surmounted, but the progress being made here is undeniable. Jamal describes his vision: a small playground for the neighborhood kids, fruit trees, and blackberries for everyone to enjoy.
Not far from here lives a city farmer with years of experience under his belt. The Beekeeper, David Young, runs Capstone, also in the Lower Ninth Ward. He welcomes me into his living room, where jars of honey wait to be labeled and delivered. He hopes one day to be able to support his organization entirely through the sale of this honey. Much of the food he grows is donated to families in the area.
The doorbell rings, and a cheerful group of boys tells Mr. Young that one of their troupe is celebrating a birthday. The birthday boy is given a small jar of honey and dances like a bee on the front porch.
We continue our discussion in the backyard, where I’m greeted by bleating goats, clucking chickens, and indifferent ducks. Young shows me his aquaponics system. Bees buzz around my head. In the space of two small lots, the life here is dense and intoxicating. The catfish feed the plants, the plants feed the bees, the bees feed the community and the cycle continues indefinitely.
My tour continues down the road to Our School At Blair Grocery. On a quiet plot of land, a school building sits covered in empowering statements like “You can change the world with every bite.” In an animal pen beside the building, I notice a tiny goat stumbling on new legs. School founder Nat Turner greets me. I ask him about the two, brand-spanking-new kids trailing their umbilical cords. He takes a look and beams like a proud father. Not two, but three have joined his flock. He starts making calls and texting his family the good news. Turner is intensely devoted to public service, and his dedication to social justice has taken him around the world. He tells me of a trip to Havana where he heard a passage from Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?” It’s not money, or idolatry, or sacrificial offerings, Turner explains. “To act justly and to love mercy.” A couple of kids descend from the schoolbus. We pluck arugula together, eating most of it before it reaches the bag.
In Mid-City, I meet with another New Orleans farmer who is growing more than food. Emily Mickley-Doyle runs S.P.R.O.U.T. (Sustainable Produce Reaching Our Urban Table). She explains that she has an afternoon meeting, an opportunity to make things easier on all urban farmers. The “professional” costume she has donned for her meeting does not stop her from lying fully prostrate on the ground searching for the pesky slugs feasting on her tomato plants.
Emily was on track to become a social worker. She worked at an HIV clinic in upstate New York where the hospital kitchen sought to provide not just food, but nourishment for its patients. Seeing how much of a difference a nutritious meal, grown and prepared with care, could make on people suffering with illness changed her. She moved back to New Orleans and started a farm.
S.P.R.O.U.T. tries to involve people with various levels of commitment. In addition to a pop-up market at Whole Foods on Broad, S.P.R.O.U.T.’s garden beds are open for the neighbors to take what they need or grow their own for selling. They also offer mentorships and classes for anyone who wants to learn.
We discuss the way farming in the city necessarily involves conversations about environmental issues, land ownership, food justice, and the general health and happiness of a community. She laughs at the way people sometimes walk up to her as she sweats while working, telling her how nice it would be to take time off from their jobs to “play” in the garden.
Every city farm I visit shares the same predicament, namely battling for the land itself. Emily’s lot has been painstakingly cultivated for many years by some of the city’s greenest thumbs, yet it’s currently facing extinction as property ownership is contested in court. Turner’s school is fighting to stay where they are, while looking at rural options to keep the organization from dissolving entirely. David Young is hopeful that the government will allow him to continue his mission, but much of the Lower Nine is being sold to developers. There is little protection for urban farms in the harsh economics of city growth. The reasons to protect these spaces are bountiful, but the most important thing grown in city gardens is a lesson in connection. The earth teaches us that we’re all in this together, if we take some time to get our hands dirty.