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The weather has been finicky in my neck of the woods lately. It seems as though every time I think it's warm enough to put spring and summer seeds down, Mother Nature abruptly changes her mind and it's already chilly out again. It's frustrating. I just want to grow squash and okra.
I guess I just have to wait.
Summer veggies aren't the only good news peeking over the horizon. Late last year, an announcement came down the pipeline that was enough to get urban agriculture advocates in New Orleans excited. The Crescent City was chosen among several urban centers across the U.S. to partake in an agriculture pilot project, joining Atlanta, Dallas, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix, and St. Louis, among others. The program is intended to help promote urban food production, whether through school projects, community gardens, or a backyard gardening patch. The initiative is part of the latest farm bill, and it's a project of the USDA's Farm Service Administration.
I spoke with Anna Timmerman, an extension agent in Orleans Parish for Louisiana State University, to learn more about the program, what to expect from it, and the city's larger urban farming culture for this week's Salt, Soil, & Supper installment.
XP: What do you think food sovereignty looks like in a city like New Orleans?
AT: In a city like New Orleans, we're still very connected to our local food system in a way that doesn't really happen in other cities. Food is a part of the culture. It's kind of written into people's lives. Producing food and sourcing food locally is something that still happens; it didn't really go away. I think food independence, food sovereignty here would just be continuing to honor those food traditions and food pathways–getting produce from local farmers, getting seafood from the Gulf, which is right in our backyard, things like that.
We have gotten some zoning changes here in Orleans Parish in particular, but I'd like the suburban parishes to maybe follow suit, making it a little easier for beginning farmers to access land. That seems to be the biggest barrier at this point with our young farmers, and LSU does train a lot of new farmers, about 50 a year, through a program called Grow Louisiana. We did a cohort here in New Orleans a couple years ago and out of that graduating class of 15, I think only three have land to work right now. It would be really cool to see that open up. We have so much blighted property, so many empty lots here, ever since Katrina and before. We used to be one of the largest agricultural areas of the state, right here in Orleans Parish. Even out in Jefferson Parish, we were the green onion capital of the world, believe it or not.
(See also: Growing pains)
XP: [LAUGHS] I had no idea.
AT: We were shipping green onions all over the country, before California took over. We have good soil, we have a good growing climate, we know we can grow things year-round–we just need to have a way to unlock some of the land resources. I think that's our largest barrier right now. The will is definitely there. We have trained people, and they're kind of itching to go.
XP: Do you think this new generation of farmers is enough to fill the needs of the farmers who are aging out of the industry?
AT: I work with a lot of the citrus growers down in Belle Chasse, and their average age is well into the seventies. Many of them don't have a child or a relative that can take over those operations. But at the same level, all these new farmers, many of them are removed a couple of generations from agriculture; they don't have access to capital to buy into those kinds of operations. They need to start small. One of the farmers I work–he's a citrus grower–said, 'A young man or young lady today would need to be a millionaire to start farming' at the scale he's farming at, and he's right. But at the same time, you can start growing produce in a very small area and get a high price for it selling to restaurants, selling at farmer's markets, maybe doing CSA, and kind of work up to that throughout your lifetime, so that you do have an operation of some scale. I think there is a great need, especially as farmers age out, which, unfortunately, I see every time I send a mailing out—I get letters returned, saying, 'So and so retired, so and so died.' That's getting really depressing.
XP: It's also depressing that our generation of farmers will have to work their whole lives just to scale up. Are there any other means or projects that are helping folks bypass that obstacle?
AT: There are some USDA initiatives through that last farm bill that I'm pretty optimistic about. Recently, we got word from the Farm Service Administration, which is a branch of the USDA, that they're creating three urban agriculture zones within Orleans Parish. What that's going to mean is that if people want to set up some sort of urban agriculture enterprise, and it doesn't have to be a garden, it could be just about anything connected to agriculture, there's going to be more resources and there's going to be dedicated staff or the USDA to connect them to those resources, including grants, different trainings, different equipment, kind of cost shares, like the high tunnel grants. I'm pretty excited about that. This is the first farm bill that considered urban agriculture to be a part of the American food system. That's coming down the pipeline, and they're going to start making some tracks in this calendar year, and I'm in on some of that through their agency. I think that might help to get some of those resources into the hands of people who have the will, have the training,[and] have the desire to produce food in an urban area. That could be one piece of that solution. They still need to kind of navigate City Council and the mayor's office and zoning and all that. So, I'm going to be kind of helping with some of that.
They actually chose six or seven cities nationwide, and New Orleans is one of the pilot programs. They approached me and the agents here, asking us: Where are the urban farms concentrated in the parish? What resources are they most in need of? Luckily, I had done a survey a number of years ago, so I had that data to back up what we were talking about, and they ended up choosing to put in three of these urban ag districts. We're going to see what that looks like. We have some meetings coming up, and there will be some press releases as soon as we get some programming in place. It's super exciting. It came out of nowhere. We weren't expecting to be one of the cities that they would focus on initially. There are definitely other cities like Minneapolis, Kansas City, Detroit, that are leaders with the urban agriculture movement. It's really cool that we were put in that cohort.
XP: That's so exciting. Tell me a little bit more about what you've been doing with your community garden. What projects do you have in the works?
AT: Normally, me and the other two agents in the New Orleans area work with a lot of community gardens and school gardens in particular. We'll do troubleshooting. We'll do site visits, soil testing. If they're having any pests or disease problems, we'll come in and diagnose things for free and offer some solutions. Just being there for them. We do a couple of big training sessions a year as well. Usually, we have one in December and it's an all-day feature in-service and garden educator in-service. They get free trees and plants if they complete that. It's a good, little program. But COVID-19 shut all that down. Obviously, the need is still there. Even though we can't meet in person, we started switching to online classes. That was going really well, and still is. We're doing one on citrus trees soon.
That's what we normally do. Then I'm on all the mutual aid Facebook groups because I like cooking and giving food out and stuff like that. Somebody had posted [the question] of how many of us would be gardening or producing food for ourselves in our communities if we had the resources and the knowledge? There were over 1,000 responses. I was like, wow, okay, that's clearly a community need right here where I live. How can I tap into that? Because I'm trapped working at home, all my programming got canceled for the next six months. I just started kind of using some professional connections that I have through my job with different landscapers, arborists, nurseries, and just started aggregating materials to give away. That's where it's kind of gone. It's become more of a grassroots effort, versus sit in this room and get trained. It's really more like, okay, we've trained enough community members over the years, we have these virtual classes available for people to get up to speed. Now, the biggest need seems to be material support and getting things planted on time. That's where I'm tapping in with the needs. Just assessing what people are in need of most.
XP: A decade from now, where do you hope all of these efforts lead urban agriculture in New Orleans?
AT: I'd like to see even more urban farms in 10 years. If you look at the number of them, at least since I've been here, I've been here for 12 years now, they've definitely increased over time. The number of farmers that have been able to hire employees is increasing as well, the longer they're in operation. There's a lot of training programs, either through the schools or after school programs. Different nonprofits are teaching youth how to grow things, and how to set up businesses as well. I think that there's this whole generation that might be able to get productive, start producing food, whether that be growing vegetables or some value-added thing, like starting a business. Making anything, canned pickles or salad dressing. The skills are there. They're being bought. I'm optimistic for the 10-year picture of New Orleans. We just have such a heritage of food, and we honor our food and seasonality and eating that way. I don't see it going away.