I got to New Orleans about a week after Mardi Gras. As I biked the first day from the Bywater to the Lower Ninth Ward, I crunched on the (in)famous bead necklaces littering the avenue. Crossing the bridge over the industrial canal, I could look to the right and see the huge cruise and passenger ships on the Mississippi River and look to the left and see Lake Pontchartrain. A few blocks later, past the rows of houses built by Brad Pitt’s NGO, I’m shocked to see a boat high and dry in the street.
The Lower Ninth is still fairly depopulated seven years after Katrina. Sometimes only one or two houses on a block are occupied, sometimes none. In other words, there’s lots of space for farming. Nate Turner (yep that’s his real name) and his crew run an urban farm at Blair Grocery that is one part farming, one part education, and several parts community building. They have a constant stream of volunteers coming through from the local area and from universities and church groups from all over the country. While I was there, Alternative Spring Break students were on site from universities in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Blair’s after-school program is an argument for community building and the profit motive when it comes to urban farming. All the students I met were African-American high school students, some of whom had been coming there consistently for two or three years. In addition to urban farming, the school teaches life skills in engaging ways. One day they were deconstructing a rap video and another day they were looking at what it means to be a strong woman by looking at poetry by women authors. Needless to say, urban farming also teaches plenty of life skills. When I interviewed some of the students, they said that two things kept them coming back: the community of fellow students and the $50 weekly paycheck they get for the work they do. Although Blair has gotten several big grants, they are bringing money in, too: they sell sprouts, arugula, tomatoes, and other vegetables to restaurants, at a Co-op, and at local farmer’s markets. They also have an aquaponics system up and running, with local fish from the Mississippi in the tank at the bottom and two levels of plants up top.
The Urban Farm at Blair Grocery really is an oasis in the middle of a recovery, and the endless stream of volunteers is only one testament to their success – the stronger proof is in the changes that they’ve brought about in the young people they work with. Some of these kids are the ones you’ve heard of that didn’t know the names of a lot of vegetables a few years ago, and now they want to grow up to be botanists and farmers.
I also had a chance to interview the legendary Macon Fry (everyone I interviewed there seemed to have a memorable name) while I was in town . Macon has been in New Orleans since the early 80s and has been a teacher and advisor to a whole generation of farmers. One tidbit I took away from our conversation: unlike many jobs where you feel like you’re banging your head up against a wall or wondering if you’re really doing anything worthwhile, farming pays back: “All you have to do to see what you’ve just accomplished is look over your shoulder and look at the row of seeds you just planted, or look over at the row you planted last week that’s already sprouting up.” Macon was humble, too – when I said I’d heard he was the godfather of urbam farming in the Big Easy, he was quick to tell me all about the guy who taught him everything he knows.
From what I saw, Macon Fry and Nat Turner are both living up to their oversized names by leading through example. These guys aren’t just talking the talk; they have their hands in the rich Louisiana soil every day.
Thanks very much to my fixer, Virginia Currie, and my hosts in New Orleans: Lisa, Jesse, Emily and Adam. Couldn’t have done it without you!
More of my photos from the New Orleans shoot are here on Flickr.
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