As Eat Local month begins in New Orleans, Andy Cook introduces you to some of the young farmers who are growing your food
by Andy Cook
In June, New Orleanians will have the chance to participate in the Eat Local Challenge – a pledge to eat only locally grown and produced foods for 30 days. (“Local,” in this case, means within 200 miles of the city.) The locavore movement is gaining steam all over the country, and it’s largely young people who are pushing this movement forward.
“All my life I’ve enjoyed the idea of living out in the woods and not having to deal with the city,” says John Bartlett, 28, owner and sole operator of The Garden in Folsom, an organic vegetable farm on his family’s property just outside Covington. “Growing up in this environment, that’s the way I felt life should be.”
With the exception of a few years at Louisiana State University (LSU) and a six-month stint in northern California, Bartlett has lived on this land his whole life. His parents were not farmers, however; for most of his life, their property was wooded. When Hurricane Katrina struck, it leveled a large swath of trees near their house, and Bartlett saw it as a chance to turn his hobby of backyard gardening into something bigger.
Five years later, Bartlett Farms is producing free-range eggs and nearly 40 different types of organic vegetables. He sells produce weekly at the Covington farmers market and offers a popular community-supported agriculture (CSA) program to residents on both sides of Lake Pontchartrain.
Bartlett found his interest in farming while in the LSU agriculture program, but quickly became disillusioned with big-agribusiness practices. “In the last 15 years (national agriculture) has been geared towards heavy chemical use and genetic engineering,” he says. “It’s just digging (itself) into a hole it won’t be able to get out of.”
Bartlett believes big agribusiness’ heavy government subsidies prove that the model isn’t sustainable, yet the laws favor large farm companies instead of small ones. “If the government was interested in promoting something like this, you wouldn’t have to subsidize it, ’cause it can live on its own,” he says.
“If there’s somebody like me in 40 or 50 years, a young person that wants to know about farming, I’ll be able to tell ’em. Historically, that’s how this knowledge is passed down. You gotta get your hands dirty to really know.”
Grow Dat Youth Farm
Tyrione Williams, 18, and Victoria Carter, 16 – seen here harvesting greens – are participants in Grow Dat, a youth farming program founded by food educator Johanna Gilligan. Grow Dat’s mission is “to nurture a diverse group of young leaders through the meaningful work of growing food,” says Gilligan, who started the program last fall in collaboration with the Tulane City Center and Tulane’s Social Entrepreneurship Initiatives. Students in Grow Dat receive a stipend to meet twice a week and learn about farming both in the field and in a classroom setting. Currently, they operate at Hollygrove Market and Farm but will be breaking ground on their own two-acre farm in New Orleans City Park this summer.
Though the students are learning about agriculture and healthy food choices, Gilligan stresses that Grow Dat’s goals are much bigger. “Communication and coping strategies are two of the things that are most needed in youth populations here and are often not addressed,” she explains. “Farming is the perfect tool to bring out leadership skills in these young people, because (food) is a common denominator and growing it requires teamwork.”
Gilligan believes that through open communication and the long-term commitment required of farming, the kids will be better prepared for real-life work environments.
“We’re not just training them to grow food,” she says. “We’re giving them skills that will have applications throughout their whole lives.”
Oakland Organic Farm
Originally from North Carolina, Jessica Barker, 20, found her way to the former plantation-turned-organic farm through the group World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). The organization pairs volunteers with organic farms all over the world, and it recently has taken root in Louisiana. A year ago, its website (www.wwoof.org) listed only three host farms in the state; it now lists 11. Oakland Organics was one of the first and hosts a steady stream of volunteers, sometimes as many as 15 at once.
WWOOFing is largely driven by young people. A study last fall discovered that the average age of WWOOFers is 25.8 years old, with about 72 percent between the ages of 19 and 28. WWOOFing is often categorized as eco-tourism, as many of the young people doing it cite as a reason the opportunity to see other parts of the world at little or no cost while also exploring the world of organic farming. Barker says she chose Oakland as a means of nurturing a lifelong interest in farms and learning more about her neighboring Southern states.
The ArtEgg Rethink Garden
Qasim Davis, 25, and Brennan Dougherty, 27, are bringing to life a semi-edible community garden, tucked behind the ArtEgg studios in the shadow of the I-10 Broad Street overpass. Davis and Dougherty are both Americorps volunteers and were placed with ArtEgg resident organization Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools just over a month ago. In that time they have transformed a mostly unused side lot into a luscious garden and meeting space for the Rethinkers and other inhabitants of ArtEgg. They’re even growing a pineapple bush.
“The Rethinkers have spent a lot of time working on school food reform, but a lot of them still don’t practice healthy eating themselves,” says Davis, referencing the organization’s efforts toward bringing healthy food to New Orleans school cafeterias. He hopes access to this garden will encourage them to explore new food options and change their eating habits.
Our Light Healing Center and Organic Farm
Formerly the sprout salesman at Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG), Cory Ashby, 23, moved his operation to Hammond a little more than a month ago and is replicating the successful OSBG sprout business. Ashby and his collaborators, Sunflower and Jahba Andrews, Bill Hill and Arthur Levine are supplying Restaurant August, Coquette, Le Foret, Emeril’s and other local restaurants with organic sprouts. In a hoop house built for only $80, the team is producing 22 pounds of sprouts per week, which translates to roughly $1,000 in sales.
“Right now that money is going towards operating costs,” Ashby says, “but our goal is to use it to start a youth social entrepreneurship program this summer.”
In addition to being a successful business model, Ashby sees the opportunities to use his company (Good Food LLC) as an educational tool at every level. By recruiting community youth to participate in the farming process, Good Food teaches them agricultural and entrepreneurial skills not available in school. By tapping into the new small plate culture of high-end New Orleans restaurants, the company also can reach a wealthier cosmopolitan audience with its message of the importance of sustainable agriculture and community development.
Coq Au Coin Poultry Farm
Every morning, Adam Aucoin, 26, drags his chickens farther down his driveway. His homemade pens are equipped with nylon rope expressly for moving them easily, so his flock can have fresh grass, bugs, and seeds to peck at on a daily basis. After only a year in business, the young proprietor of Coq Au Coin Poultry Farm has made his all-natural chickens a profitable endeavor. He mail-orders 50 chicks a week and keeps them on a strict rearing schedule.
“Eight weeks and I’m done with ’em,” he says with a smile.
What drew him to chicken farming, Aucoin says, was the opportunity to make a healthy product at a relatively low cost and with a quick turnaround. After eight weeks in the yard, Aucoin slaughters the birds himself and takes them to the Crescent City Farmers Market to sell for $3.75 a pound. He admits his prices can’t compete with factory farmers Purdue or Tyson, but his sales are evidence that people will pay more for a chicken they know is healthy and hormone-free.