The height of a Louisiana summer marks the low point for many local harvests. But even during a late August visit, the small farm that restaurant supplier Pelican Produce runs on Mazant Street on the edge of the Upper Ninth Ward was a dazzling display of less familiar crops.
Tiny striped togo eggplants sprouted from their stalks in Halloween shades of orange and green, the bumpy pods of colossal crowder peas showed a mottling of soft purple markings and fragrant and funky herbs like fish mint (a tongue-twister that tastes like fish and mint) reached out from plastic baby pools serving as simulated rice paddies. It’s not exactly mass-market produce, and that’s exactly the point.
“We’re tiny, we could never compete with the larger farms,” said Michelle Posey, a former New Orleans schoolteacher who runs Pelican Produce with her father John Posey, a retired surgeon. “So we grow stuff you’re not going to just find around town. The chefs we work with are adventurous. They always want something new, and that’s what we try to get them.”
From a network of a dozen small plots spread across the neighborhood, Michelle and her father grow locally rare, sometimes experimental crops. They supply a short roster of local restaurants that prize these unusual offerings, including Mopho, Maurepas Foods, Coquette, Root and Square Root, a pair of boundary-pushing restaurants from chef Phillip Lopez.
“With a smaller farm like this, you can really pinpoint what you want them to grow and you know they are watching it all very closely,” said Lopez. “I get giddy whenever I’m there. You see the whole formation of what’s going into a dish, from start to finish.”
It’s a unique relationship and one made possible by an unlikely ally in cutting-edge New Orleans cuisine — Habitat for Humanity.
Best known for organizing volunteers and building homes for the needy, the community development group has recently become a player in the city’s burgeoning urban farming movement through its Habitat Urban Garden program, or HUG. Since its start in 2012, the program has been quietly making once-vacant lots available for a variety of agricultural ventures, with results that are turning up on restaurant plates around town and making an impact on their neighborhoods.
From blight to bounty
The program was developed by Mitchell Danese, who oversees real estate for Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans, and officials with the group believe it’s the first of its kind for the national organization.
The nonprofit has acquired property all across New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, sometimes through auction or donation, Danese explained. Often these packaged properties included plots in struggling neighborhoods where demand for new houses was very low.
“I know what I’m building six months from now and I know what I’m building in a year, but then I also know I’ve had some of these lots for seven years and they haven’t been picked yet,” said Danese. “So we started thinking about what else we could do with them.”
The answer was urban agriculture, and now 33 lots are under cultivation by a mix of 15 different community organizations and small businesses. Habitat for Humanity essentially provides free access to the real estate, charging a token $1 a year under five-year leases. The farmers clear the land, bring in freshly-composted soil for garden rows or build raised beds to ensure a safe growing environment, and then start planting.
Some of the locations feel like they’re at the frayed edge of the city, abutting rail yards or overpasses. Weeds tower overhead on adjacent vacant lots, and while neatly-kept homes dot the surrounding streets they often share the block with charred and collapsing structures. It’s easy to see why some of these lots remained vacant. But as farm plots, they’ve become bright spots of activity in their neighborhoods and highly-valued resources for restaurants around town.
“The most amazing thing is to think that we’re in a major city and we can get produce like this from right down the street,” said Michael Gulotta, chef of the Vietnamese-inspired Mid-City restaurant Mopho.
Gulotta uses a robust and ever-changing mix of Pelican Produce vegetables in his som tam salad.
A recent example featured cucuzzi — fat, pale-green gourds grown along a chain link fence-turned-trellis on a farm plot the Poseys developed on North Johnson Street.
The essentially rent-free access to real estate in the city itself is also a rare opportunity for start-up agricultural businesses. For instance, the HUG program helped local grower Marguerite Green jumpstart her business Cow Apple Horticulture, which supplies cut flowers grown on a Mandeville Street lot in St. Roch.
“I didn’t expect to ever be able to do this, to get property in the city, it just didn’t seem viable,” said Green. “That’s why this is such a game changer.”
Green is also manager of Press Street Garden, a half-acre farm now under development by the NOCCA Institute as a teaching garden for high school students at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.
While that project takes shape, she’s leasing two more HUG lots, located about two miles from NOCCA’s campus, to supply vegetables for the school’s culinary arts programs.
“Not many things feel like a win-win in New Orleans, but this program does,” Green said. “There aren’t any caveats, except maybe that you’ll fall in love with a lot that you don’t own.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.