It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
George Lafargue is proud of his tomatoes. They're not like the tomatoes you'd buy in the supermarket, their centers lifeless in taste, color an off-white. His are as red on the inside as on the outside, full of flavor, like fireworks on your taste buds. As tomatoes should be, he says.
He grows some of his stock for George's Produce, his storefront in New Orleans' Westbank, on a 23-acre plot of land he owns outside the city. The rest of it comes from other small farmers across south Louisiana and Mississippi, and only from those he trusts: A man in Marrero grows his okra and beans; three guys in Mississippi grow his watermelons; a friend in LaPlace grows the rest. But the tomatoes are his, made in his dirt. To prove their ripeness and his growing prowess, he has tomatoes cut in halves throughout his small store, showing their cardinal color.
"Mr. George," a lady might call to his father, the curlers still in her hair. "Send me up a dozen of bananas, a pound of grapes, some peaches, some plums."
"This is just like being married, doing this, like any other business. But a business like this, when you walk into an establishment and you see," he says grandiosely, stopping to uncross his arms draped across his burly chest to point at his surroundings, from the garlic cloves hanging from the ceiling to the oranges in a rolling crate next to him. "It tells a lot about me."
The business was handed down from his father, George Sr., who started truck farming––setting up on corners or making rounds through the neighborhoods to sell produce––and running vegetable and fruit stands around the city in 1931. At age 7, a half-century ago, Larfargue joined the tradition. Each day, before dawn till past dusk, they'd hop in his father's pickup truck and drive their routes, their produce loaded in the back. The neighborhood they were in depended on the day. On the job, Lafargue remembers, people would hang their heads out their windows and holler at them to stop as they made their way down the block.
"Mr. George," a lady might call to his father, the curlers still in her hair. "Send me up a dozen of bananas, a pound of grapes, some peaches, some plums." Young Lafargue would fetch a pan from the lady, fill it up with her order, and bring it back to her to collect the money. "Look," George, Sr. would tell him. "They owe you $15." If he didn't get the change correct, he risked an ass-whooping from his father. It's how he learned to count.
Today, Lafargue says, he still sells to some of the same customers as his father. But the business changed. He opened his storefront in May 2000, but the New Orleans suburb of Terrytown is a far cry from the business' roots in the city's historic French Market. And with it has gone a tradition across New Orleans, it seems––gone like his father, like some of the customers from back then, all memories.
George Lafargue holds one of the many types of tomatoes he grows and sells at George's Produce, the market he owns with his wife Chanel Lafargue. Lafargue and his father were former truck farmers.
What happened to New Orleans' truck farming? It's unclear how many truck farmers were once scattered across the city's street corners. But according to those who lived in New Orleans during the mid- to late 20th century, seeing and buying from these mobile farmers was a common occurrence. For generations, they consistently hawked healthy food for parts of the Crescent City, particularly for its poorest residents. Today, the truckers around town are largely nonexistent, despite widespread food affordability and accessibility challenges facing many New Orleanians.
Almost 22 percent of Orleans Parish residents and more than 12 percent of Jefferson Parish residents are described as "food insecure," according to a 2017 estimate by Feed America. Last year, researchers at Loyola University in New Orleans also produced a report citing Louisiana with the nation's second-highest rate of food insecurity, with New Orleans ranking similarly high among U.S. cities.
Truck farmers like Mr. Okra were a regular sight in the city until the late 1960s, when more supermarkets were built, Broom said.
"I'm from the generation when it was really sort of a prolific occurrence in the city," says Pamela Broom, the founder and former deputy director of the New Orleans Food and Farm Network. "Now, I guess the last sort of cultural representation of that and the city was Mr. Okra," or Arthur James Robinson, the truck farmer known for singing out his available produce through a PA system attached to his brightly painted truck. He died in February 2018 at age 74. For at least a short time, his daughter, Sergio Robinson, continued the tradition.
Truck farmers like Mr. Okra were a regular sight in the city until the late 1960s, when more supermarkets were built, Broom said. In fact, the generations before them were the last remnants of Louisiana's slaveholding plantation system and those who couldn't immediately buy land took advantage of the opportunity to transport food to more urban areas, according to a 1937 article in the Journal of Southern History. And even before Hurricane Katrina's havoc in 2005, some local farmers and re-salers kept up the truck farming culture and would park in locations around the city. "But for the most part, you don't really see that anymore," Broom says.
What changed? It's hard to point to a specific event, though food systems across the nation have morphed dramatically. Even so, the decline of food systems like truck farming is, partly, a result of federal policy changes, incentivized land consolidation brought along large-scale industrialized operations that decreased citizens' reliance on small-scale operators. Indeed, many small and mid-sized farms failed since these policies were enforced in the 1970s. Recent data from the federal judiciary show that from September 2018 to September 2019, Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies increased by 24 percent from the previous year; notably, Chapter 12 bankruptcies are meant to allow "family farmers" to restructure their finances to avoid liquidation or foreclosure. Between 1987 and 2012, as the number of mid-sized farms (200 to 999 acres) fell by 44 percent, farms with more than 2,000 acres almost doubled, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Arthur James Robinson, known as "Mr. Okra," was one of the last active truck farmers in New Orleans. He died in 2018.
From a macro perspective, even today's mid-sized farmers are seemingly set up to fail, which does not bode well for smaller farmers. But Lafargue has his own take on additional problems undercutting old foodways: a changing culture in which people prefer buying their groceries from large discount stores like Wal-Mart––"people buying this stuff for what it costs, instead of buying what they should for they health," he says. Younger generations lack technical skills necessary for farming––"they don't have a class in school where they teach these young people about being responsible … what produce is for, what it benefits," he says.
The demise of small farming is also a matter of financial access in the modern context, as compared to the old system of truck farming––no permits, no health insurance, a lack of today's commonplace food-selling regulations. Or, as Lafargue says, it's just too damn expensive.
Truck farming presents a complicated problem that partly revolves around landownership under capitalism, Green said.
In particular, regulatory red tape at the city and state levels are difficult to financially navigate: A mobile vendor permit from the city of New Orleans to sell produce on the street costs no less than $305, and health and pharmacy certificates for the truck carry additional hefty price tags. In the 1980s, the federal government began to crack down on food packaging and nutrition labeling, sending a ripple effect of regulations across the nation. A truck farmer would need a certain amount of insurance due to liability, and the same goes for an employee operating the truck. Permanent parking places for the farmers' and resalers' trucks are elusive, and if you do find one, another insurance policy is also likely required. "So you go into a business where you got to be buying million dollar policies," Lafargue said. "That's why you don't see them on the street no more."
But it's not just new regulations keeping truck farmers off the street. The lack of financial access to pursue small-scale farming is also a factor, says Margee Green, a local urban farmer and former Democratic candidate for Louisiana agricultural commissioner.
Truck farming presents a complicated problem that partly revolves around landownership under capitalism, Green said. "I think a lot of the blame for local food systems failing shifts to consumer habits, and we kind of like to look back towards this pastoral model of food and food distribution." But that model was not great either, she said, especially for communities of color.
Whereas truck farmers who didn't own land were once capable of eking out a living, despite the marginalization of their work, it's unlikely these days without owning a sizable portion of land.
Local produce sold at George's Produce in Terrytown, LA.
To buy a farm, Green continued, a person would be required to either have enough capital or be able to find an equitable lease that's affordable, "which basically doesn't exist." Equipment is required, as is a surplus of personal time. "One of the [examples] I like to use when I explain this to people is that you'll never make a living growing carrots, especially not on an acre," Green said.
It's the people who own land and are capable of scaling up over time who can make a living by farming. They're able to sell in more efficient marketplaces, to wholesalers or grocery stores. So, while truck farmers likely have a lot of talent and skill for growing food, they are pushed even further to the margins, forced to figure out other ways to sell the food they've grown.
But truck farming isn't dead––not yet. It's been revamped for this economy.
"None of these people have the ability to buy big pieces of land and cooperative farms so that instead of having to sell out of the back of a truck, they're being able to sell at affordable prices at a grocery store," Green said. It's a ripple effect, as Green explained. "[Today], when you see somebody selling out of the back of a truck––90 percent, 95 percent of the time––that's no longer going to be somebody who grew that and brought it to, let's say, New Orleans." They likely bought the produce from big landowners, making them the food system's middlemen.
But truck farming isn't dead––not yet. It's been revamped for this economy.
Green is also the executive director of the group SPROUT, which has run a truck farm table for the past two years. As she explained, it's a twice-per-week table that allows multiple small-scale farmers to drop off their produce, where it's sold free of charge for vendors, allowing the farmers to profit. "The idea behind it is to give people an opportunity to decide whether or not retail sales are the right thing for them," Green said. "It's not a profit-making enterprise for us. It's just a market development enterprise."
Most of those who partake are new faces, not those of truck farmer lore, Green said. "It's the people who have either the time and energy to work a full-time job and also grow, or the people that have the safety net, whether it's financial or social, to be able to take the risk of farming." Most of these "new faces" are young and white.
"My thing is that I worry about this stuff being good and where it comes from. Who grew it? I got to know that for you to buy it from me. Ain't nobody in this business do that."
Enticing Black communities in particular to get back to the roots of growing food is a challenge Broom has become well-acquainted with. She blames it on generational gaps in knowledge and desire to farm. "It's still sort of has this spin on it of, 'Oh, we don't do that kind of thing,' or 'I don't have time to do it.' But then on the other hand, I'm connected with some Black growers that are constantly looking for ways to find property that's secure to grow on, and to help members of the community get better access and actually participate. But it's a struggle."
When Lafargue gets excited, he'll stop talking and glance at you from beneath his thick black-rimmed glasses––his eyes lingering in the bottom edges of the frames––and he'll wait for an answer.
But only briefly. If nothing's said, he'll go back to talking about his work, his philosophy. "I'm not saying I got the best produce. I'm not saying my prices [are] the best." Lafargue says of his business methods. "My thing is that I worry about this stuff being good and where it comes from. Who grew it? I got to know that for you to buy it from me. Ain't nobody in this business do that."
That more father and sons aren't out truck farming today, in his eyes, is exemplary of New Orleans' changing community makeup. Back then, he said, neighborhoods were safer. Now he says he would rather bring a gun. Back then, without their produce and fruit, people couldn't make home remedies for illnesses. Now, Lafargue says, if you learn there's a problem with your health, the doctor will give you a prescription for pills.
But could the idea of community-wide truck farming work, again?
"I'm not saying it wouldn't," Lafargue says. "If you do the research on it and take an interest in it, it could work. But the red tape and what you got to have to set it up, it costs a lot of money." In New Orleans, a mobile vending permit from the city costs $305, plus application fees, an insurance policy that covers at least $500,000, along with other farming and vehicle costs.
But some people value the heritage that came with the farm trucks––the tradition of the local food system––more than the money it costs to run and maintain it. For one New Orleanian, that means paying the property tax, among other costs, to maintain an abandoned lot he hopes will serve a similar purpose within the community.
Among New Orleans locals, Tyrone Henry is known simply as "Brotha T." He studies herbal remedies, a multigenerational tradition passed down from his grandmother. He's also a local businessman with Bissap Breeze, a hibiscus tea company founded by him and his wife Esailama Artry-Diouf, and Veggie NOLA, a catering and food meal planning company they launched in April 2018, which also operates a small fruit stand under Interstate-10 along the Claiborne Avenue corridor, once a popular route for the bygone era of truck farmers. Henry is the person you call when you want a natural home remedy to cure a sniffle or ease a chronic illness.
"You can feel the absence of it. It's like the birds singing, the traffic singing its song; you don't hear the fruit man no more."
Henry spends most of his time tending to the small farm and spiritual space in New Orleans' Seventh Ward neighborhood, a fenced yard with a small house on stilts used for storage. He calls the space "Ile Osain," the ancient Yoruba name for "Mother Earth," though the description of the name is more complicated than that, he explained. On paper, he calls the space an "ecological epicenter."
It's a place to learn more about sustainability projects, like rainwater catching and solar energy, and to connect with the land through activities such as introducing local kids to growing food. He's leasing the space for now but is actively working to secure funding so that he can officially purchase it. "Connecting with the earth, connecting with the wind, connecting with the air and water, under whatever modern name it's called––permaculture and horticulture––all of those new names that have been put on ancient living techniques," Henry said.
Only a few herbs are growing in the garden, and a handful of goats keep most of the weeds and overgrowth to a minimum. But it's a start.
Henry grew up working on trucks periodically. He had family members who did so as well. Without them, he says, relationships are lost.
"These food truck type situations, it's more personal and you bring these components within satellite spots throughout the neighborhood. Even the energy of those trucks passing through, when the people shouting out what they selling and what they have, that's a certain color and a certain natural, organic kind of prayer that's missing," Henry says. "You can feel the absence of it. It's like the birds singing, the traffic singing its song; you don't hear the fruit man no more."