Growing Urban Farmers in New Orleans

10 Apr, 2012

by Claire Thompson, via Grist.org

Nat Turner (third from left, white shirt) stands on a new compost pile with a group of OSBG interns, Americorps employees, and volunteers.Nat Turner, a former New York City public-school teacher, moved to New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward on Thanksgiving Day, 2008. He didn’t know anything about gardening — “I could barely keep a cactus alive” — but he had a vision to start an urban farm that would be a vehicle for educating and empowering the neighborhood’s youth. He’d been making service trips to the Big Easy with students, but he wanted an opportunity to dig deeper, literally and figuratively, into the city’s revitalization.

His first goal, Turner says, “is to figure out how to make the Lower Ninth food secure.” It seems fitting, then, that in a neighborhood with no supermarket, Turner set up shop in a falling-down building that had once housed a black-owned family business called the B&G Grocery. He filled a pink bathtub in the backyard with soil and planted scallions, which floated away when the bathtub flooded in a rainstorm. That was the beginning of Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG).

The school’s ramshackle appearance makes it look at home in the Lower Ninth, where wild plants and animals now battle residents for control of the land. I visited the school in March, and it was my second time in New Orleans. The first had been in December 2006, and my shock then at how little the hardest-hit neighborhoods had recovered since Katrina seems naïve to me now, given the fact that abandoned houses and empty lots still dominate the landscape more than five years later.

But people live in the Lower Ninth again, and that fact alone has made it less of a ghost town. Turner waves to neighbors as we drive toward the school, and I eye the sky full of thunderclouds and wonder what it felt like to watch Katrina roll in from this same spot.

After more than three years and a lot of grueling work (including picking all the glass and debris from the yard by hand so it could be planted), OSBG has become much more than a pink bathtub full of soil. Its rows of tomato plants, arugula, basil, and pole beans, framed by a background of weedy lots and some still-empty houses, present a powerful symbol of renewal. Turner and a handful of staff and interns (transplants, local teens, and three ex-offenders employed through Americorps’ Cornerstone Ministries program), as well as rotating volunteer crews, grow enough produce to sell to 10 local restaurants and the New Orleans Food Co-op. They have chickens, hoop houses, and beehives.

Turner met the urban farming pioneer and founder of Growing Power, Will Allen, in 2009, and the farm is now a Regional Outreach Training Center for the Milwaukee-based organization. Last summer, OSBG hosted a “food security academy” with around 40 kids from the neighborhood and the city’s summer youth employment program. In addition to discussing the intersections of food security, social justice, and civil rights, they calculated that it would take 1,100 tomato plants to feed the Lower Ninth Ward.

The garden has already expanded to the empty lot across the street, and soon the lot adjacent to that one will be planted, too. But Turner will need a lot more land, manpower, and money to scale up to the point where OSBG can indeed feed the Lower Ninth. In the meantime, the question of how to get there has often sparked controversy. Last year, he said, he fired his whole staff after internal conflict over the direction of the project reached a breaking point. Now, he’s up-front about the fact that a project like his, however noble its intentions, must become commercially viable in order to make a lasting impact.

“[This is] not gardening for fun,” Turner says. “This is urban farming.”

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