Urban Farming - Good for the Environment, our Health and our Community

September, 2016

Farming pre WWII was an elegantly simple system reliant on solar and human power. The sun produces energy for the plant, the plant turns that into sugar and provides fuel for animal and human life.  This design by nature is not only simple and efficient but sustainable because it doesn’t rely on industrialization. In our pursuit towards mass production and convenience we tried to reinvent something that was already perfect. This pursuit has had a lasting effect on communities all across America and a strain on our natural environment.

Before Hurricane Katrina, there was someone, in any neighborhood in New Orleans, who had some type of "Victory Garden" in their yard. Mirlitons,satsumas, bananas,meyer lemons and Creole tomatoes were just some of the produce that were grown. Because this produce was so plentiful, the prices at the local grocers and farmers markets were low, anyone (especially a family with a fixed income) could enjoy these healthy and fruits and vegetables instead of depending on microwave dinners and fast food for their nutritional intake. However, with the advent of free trade (NAFTA to be exact) we can have national and international fruits and vegetables all year round.  Free trade changed our local produce economy and local produce that we grew up with became less accessible (this buzz word term is called ‘seasonal’).  ‘Seasonal’ fruits and vegetables indigenous to this region are available at ridiculous prices and locally grown produce is just as expensive as a mandarin grown in Chile by way of Minnesota.

Fortunately, there are some local farmers and cooperatives that are changing the method of consumption and favoring organic traditional methods. They are educating, employing people and re-launching the seasonal produce of this area by developing environmentally friendly, self sustaining work farms and growing fresh fruits and vegetables without using herbicides and pesticides at a reasonable price. Urban Roots, Veggi Farmers Cooperative and Grow Dat are just a few urban farmers on the frontline of this movement.

Urban Roots Garden Center: Uptown

Urban Roots nestled in the Irish Channel neighborhood is part of the community’s renewal which started 5 years ago. Owners Tom Wolfe, Matt Frost and Julie Summers’ original mission,when opening this respite in the city, was to create a community based business. The idea for this nursery in the city started over 20 years ago when Mr. Wolfe wanted to have a funky and fun place where plants, history and architecture formed in a harmonious balance. This land architect by trade finally realized his dream but what really makes him proud is that he lives in the community and gets to see how neighbors yards flourishing with the same plants that he and his crew labored for under the sun.

Bacchus Tales did a Question and Answer session with one of the owners Tom Wolfe. We asked what made Urban Roots so unique and the impact that his business has made in the city of New Orleans.

Q. Does Urban Roots fill a need in the community? If so, how?

We believe we do. We wanted to be walkable and /or bikable for our neighbors. We are very non-traditional in our merchandising approach. We provide inspiration to our neighbors rejuvenating the yards of their properties by grouping our displays with compatible plants and coordinating textures. We sell honey to support a Lower Ninth Ward honey producer and two local school garden programs. We are a part of our community and know many of our customers by name.

Q. Are the animals that roam this space essential to Urban Roots’ uniqueness?

Very much so! We love our animal friends and believe they help make us a destination retailer. We are known around the city for our animal friends. Our philosophy has always emphasized education. We strive to educate our customers on plant care and maintenance. It is the same with our animals. Many urban dwellers have not been around goats or chickens. Many have never tasted a duck egg or watched a tortoise eat a hibiscus flower. We love the smiles on their faces when they experience these things for the first time. We actually have customers who come just to say “hi” to our animals. Kids and adults alike enjoy interacting with our animals and learn a little about them along the way. That makes us smile!

Q. Do the placards help guide your customers about what they are purchasing and the usefulness of that particular plant/herb?

We hope so! We try to guide people to the right plant for the right spot. The signs help explain the basic growth pattern, size and shape a particular plant or group of plants. We try to be self-service as possible. Our signs help get us there. Of course, we are always available to answer questions and provide guidance. They also have an educational value. We try to show all the uses plants can have. For instance, lemongrass is a great culinary herb used in Asian style cooking, but also make a good mosquito repellant. This is the information we share with our customers.

Q. One thing that you want people to take away when coming to Urban Roots?

We want you to have enjoyed your experience! Whether it is buying your first tomato plant or petting a goat for the first time, we want you to have fun. And we will do everything we can to make that happen. Our best marketing tool is word of mouth! When you have a great time playing with our animals when you thought you were just going to purchase a petunia or orchid, you will share that with all your friends. Those purchases help keep us doing what we do.

Veggi Farmers Cooperative: East New Orleans

Veggi Farmers Cooperative located in East New Orleans was first ideated in 2005 when the largely Vietnamese community was devastated by the aftermath of the 100 year storm- Hurricane Katrina.  

Conversations ensued about creating a community garden but were understandably sidelined by more pressing issues around housing, infrastructure and FEMA. The idea of the community garden was secondary to those immediate issues and was soon forgotten. However, on April 20th 2010, the BP Oil Spill happened and this man-made environmental disaster cost Gulf Coast residence their livelihoods and their peace of mind. This also devastated the Vietnamese Fishing community because they relied on the bounty of the Gulf of Mexico as their main source of income. This event forced them to revisit their previous idea about starting a community garden which became Veggi Farmers Cooperative

In 2011, with the help of the city of New Orleans JOB1 program and developing a curriculum at Delgado Community College,12 members of the community were trained in greenhouse and aquaponic technology. This knowledge obtained by the community members allowed them to produce the best product. Along with training, OxFam partnered up with Veggi Farmers (in the form of grant funding) giving them the financial sustainability needed to maintain this noble ongoing endeavour. Now, Veggi Farmers Cooperative is farming the best produce in the city. They supply their salads and vegetables to over 20 restaurants in the city of New Orleans. Most of their clientele rave about the quality of the vegetables they receive.

One of the reasons their produce is of such high quality is that the farmers use no pesticides in the farming process according to Mr. Khai Nguyen, who heads up public relations for the cooperative. Mr Nguyen also points out that the farmers are meticulous with their vegetables and wash the produce before sending it out. Before Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Nguyen recalls that most of the community used to grow vegetables in their own yards, and some still do.

Now, with the addition of the cooperative they have a living wage for those who lost their livelihood due to the BP Oil Spill. The Veggi Farmers Cooperative mission is to "create sustainable, high quality jobs that enhance the quality of life of communities through increasing local food access and promotion of sustainable agriculture."  By creating an opportunity for people who saw none-this is in keeping with their ultimate mission.

Grow Dat Youth Farm

In the Mid-City section of town, located in New Orleans’ City Park, lies Grow Dat Youth Farm. This farm is part of the Tulane University and Tulane City Center with Johanna Gilligan as the Founder/Co-Executive Director of this program. The idea for a youth farm started when Ms Gilligan who worked for the New Orleans Food and Farm Network approached the former President of Tulane University (Scott Cowen) who saw the potential and was inspired to help. The university wanted Mrs. Gilligan’s goal to be sustainable and involve the community at-large.

With the weight of Tulane university behind this project a dream was going to become a reality and the people at City Park were willing to help and provided a long term lease for 7 acres of land that was formerly part of a golf course. Grow Dat reached out to other youth farm programs around the country as well as the beloved local garden center ‘Urban Roots’ for their expertise in horticultural matters. This farm has a lot of unique features, from the use of shipping containers as their architecture to the landscape and structure that blends into nature and the fact that the produce grown on the farm is free of herbicides and pesticides.  

However, the real gem that distincts this place is its Youth Leadership Program designed for young adults that are in High School to College (age 15 to 21). Grow Dat partners with local schools to teach these young people how to grow and celebrate the fruit of their labor and also gain knowledge about the food they eat and hopefully transform the communities they live in. Grow Dat is the perfect marriage of educational institutions and a non-profit business that wants to educate people in the community about the food they digest and the environment they live in. This is what happens when university resources go towards community engagement - it’s  beneficial for everyone involved.

Urban Roots, Veggi Farmers Cooperative and Grow Dat had ideas that manifested itself to become a reality. These businesses saw that something needed to be done so that the local community can benefit either by providing employment opportunities, educating people and providing reasonable and fresh local produce. These urban farms are giving back to their communities and some restaurants are also aiding the local farm to table movement. However, it would behoove more local grocers to help out and assist these local agri-businesses to thrive even further and along the way provide local products to local people at a reasonable local price.


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