- Associated Press - Saturday, June 27, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Tons of steel and miles of concrete have gone into the rebuilding of New Orleans in the decade since Hurricane Katrina. A lot of seeds and soil also have been a part of that rebirth.

A growing network of urban farms is flourishing across the city - with green spaces sprouting produce, chicken coops and herb gardens wedged between residential lots, next to schools and on formerly blighted properties.

Before Katrina, there was one active urban farm in the city. Today, there are 13, said Jean Fahr, executive director of Parkway Partners, the nonprofit agency that coordinates community gardens and farms in New Orleans. The farms typically sell their produce and operate as businesses, while the community gardens are run by volunteers who work the rows for their own consumption.

In some cases, the community gardens have become a stepping stone for the farms. That’s what happened with head farmer Caroline O’Brien of Grow Me Somethin’, a commercial farm on the grounds of ARC of New Orleans.

Grow Me Somethin’ specializes in heirloom and heritage vegetables, herbs, flowers and medicinals. It sells its produce through Good Eggs, the online farmers market, participates in a once-a-month farmers market at the Hillel House at Tulane University and works with a few restaurants, including Toups Meatery in Mid-City.

Until 2013, O’Brien had worked at a community garden. “At that particular garden, we all had an 8-by-16 plot, and we were welcome to plant whatever we wanted,” she said. “There were a couple of community beds in front of the property, and they were supposed to be community managed but the reality was I was taking care of them for a long time.”

After that experience, O’Brien said she was “ready to graduate” to commercial growing.

And she’s not alone. After putting out an ad for apprentices, thinking she’d get “maybe two responses,” instead she got 30. Seven of those applicants are now working at Grow Me Somethin’.

“That’s my second biggest crop right now - farmers,” O’Brien joked.

On a recent Saturday, several of the urban farms scattered around the city opened up their fences for the third annual Urban Farm Bike Ride, hosted by NOLA Social Ride, Parkway Partners and the Eat Local Challenge, a monthlong adventure in locavore eating. For the month of June, participants in the challenge strive to eat foods grown or harvested within a 200-mile radius of New Orleans.

The ride began at the Zeitgeist Interdisciplinary Arts Center with a free breakfast of omelets and crepes provided by the Louisiana Egg Commission and Hollygrove Market and blueberries, syrup and cream from the Progress Milk Barn, Chapappeela Farms and J & D Blueberry Farms.

Then it was on to the first stop, just a quick ride from the Zeitgeist to the Urban Farmstead at 1730 Clio St. A project of Southbound Gardens, the farmstead sells produce and vegetable starts and doubles as an education center, offering classes on just about every topic related to organic vegetable growing - from how to build raised beds and where to put them, to growing with seeds versus starter plants, composting, fertilization, mulching, beekeeping, water management, raising (and slaughtering and butchering) chickens, basic organic pest control and how to use mushrooms to help grow other plants.

“It’s becoming a lot more popular to inoculate soils with fungus because a lot of fungi have beneficial relationships with the plants you’re growing,” said Jordan Bantuelle, who started Southbound Gardens with Ian Willson. “They grow alongside the roots and extend the ability of the plant to uptake nutrients and water.”

Southbound Gardens uses permaculture principles in its practices. Think of permaculture as “trying to answer the question of how do we provide for human needs while also restoring ecosystems,” Bantuelle said. “So we try to not just grow edible plants, we try to grow other things that will bring in pollinators to diversify the ecosystem and build the soil, because the basis of what we do is building soil. Healthy soil produces healthy plants.”

The farmstead sells its produce at the Hollygrove Market and at several restaurants and pop-ups around town, Bantuelle said. It also sells vegetable transplants for the home garden.

Like its produce, Southbound’s plant starts are grown with minimum organic fertilizer in a non-acclimatized hoop house to ensure they’re well suited to New Orleans’ temperamental climate.

“We put our plants through the ringer,” Willson said. “Basically, I treat them poorly on purpose so that they are extra well acclimated to your bed once they make it into the ground.”

Around noon, the bike tour hit the road for the longest leg of the tour, a trip across town for a quick stop at Ms. Marion’s Community Garden in the Riverbend. Then it was back the other way to Grow Me Somethin’.

At this point, the riders had become slightly wilted in the heat and were invited to try a shot of DragnFyre elixir, brewed from ingredients picked from the Grow Me Somethin’s dozen rows of crops. The recipe: raw, unpasteurized apple cider, onions, garlic, horseradish root, ginger root, turmeric, glangal root, dried hibiscus flowers and some habanero and Serrano peppers.

For the less adventurous, a cold glass of hibiscus iced tea provided a nice refresher.

Grow Me Somethin’s also grows tomatillos, cherries, jalapenos, melons, green beans, zucchini, squash, cucumbers and many other items.

The tour finished up not far from where it got started, just down the road from the Zeitgeist at Paradigm Gardens.

Paradigm is an urban farm that works closely with some of the city’s top restaurants and hosts regular dinner/music events.

“We sit down three times a year with Patois, Meaux Bar and Coquette,” Paradigm co-founder Joel Tilton said. “We go through with them, and they say, ‘We want this, this and this, in approximately this quantity at approximately this time,’ and so we grow accordingly.”

The arrangement works out great for the chefs, Tilton said. “They get stuff that they couldn’t get otherwise. Or if they did get it, they’d have to ship it in mainly from a specialty farm in Ohio that a lot of chefs use that’s more expensive.”

Paradigm also operates the Delachaise Community Garden, largely as an educational resource for children in the neighborhood. But the Rampart Street site, “we run this one as a business,” Tilton said. “There were a lot of community gardens around, a lot of well-intentioned people, but they kind of peter out. So we wanted to be able to have a garden that would serve as a model for an viable business model for a garden.”

To make the business more financially diverse, Paradigm has introduced other revenue streams, such as hosting school field trips, live concerts and dinners. Its next event will be Saturday and will feature music from Hawaiian singer Anuhea and food from Chef Jonathan Lomonaco.

Weather is always a factor in farm events, but for the bike tour, the clouds mostly cooperated. The tour wrapped up around 4 p.m., just before a sudden shower brought some water to the myriad farms.

___

Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com

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