With a chill in the air and their orchard popping with bright, ripe satsuma and grapefruit, Ken Savastano knows it’s prime time to get the harvest to the market.
“Whatever we sell today was on the tree yesterday, it ripens on the tree, and that’s what people are looking for when they know what local citrus really is,” said Savastano, who with his wife Aloma farms the alluvial soils of Braithwaite, downriver from New Orleans.
This season, they have more places to sell their juicy harvest as the city’s largest farmers market network embarks on an unprecedented growth spurt.
The Savastanos’ A&K Citrus is a longtime vendor at the Crescent City Farmers Market. Last Wednesday, they took part in the debut of a new location in Old Jefferson called the Crescent City Farmers Market at Ochsner.
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They joined an arcade of tents stocked with everything from crabs, greens and farmhouse cheese to hot tamales and vegan Thai food. As the after-school traffic revved up along Jefferson Highway, the market swiftly filled with people who arrived with a mix of strollers and walkers, foodie curiosity and family shopping lists.
At precisely the same time that day, another new location for the Crescent City Farmers Market opened a dozen miles downstream in the Bywater.
Around the “rusty rainbow,” the arching iron footbridge connecting the neighborhood with the riverfront Crescent Park, shoppers who arrived by car, on bike, on foot and with dogs found fresh bread, grass-fed beef, bunches of carrots, heads of cauliflower and the sounds of an acoustic guitar drifting over it all.
These two markets came fast on the heels of a third new expansion for the farmers market. On Jan. 4, the organization hosted its first weekly Friday market in Bucktown, the lakefront neighborhood known to generations as a seafood hub.
This spate of openings was preceded in May by the introduction of yet another new location, held Saturdays in Kenner’s Rivertown area.
Together, the changes mean the Crescent City Farmers Market now operates seven weekly markets, held on five different days (two markets concurrently run on Tuesdays and Saturdays).
It has also greatly expanded the geographic spread of the markets. The Crescent City Farmers Market, which started in downtown New Orleans in 1995, now has three outposts in Jefferson Parish, where until last year it had none.
“Our whole goal is to increase access to fresh, healthy, local food,” said farmers market executive director Kathryn Parker. “We look at the whole greater New Orleans area as our market.”
For shoppers, it may look like a sudden expansion.
For market organizers, it’s been the culmination of several different development plans that ended up dovetailing together.
January proved an ideal time to launch, Parker said, with crops rolling in from the farms and those New Year’s resolutions for healthier eating still in play.
For farmers and food producers around the region, the market expansion has brought an opportunity to grow their businesses and cultivate new customers. Given the nature of these small producers, often the epitome of the mom-and-pop, grasping that opportunity has also brought pressure to ramp up.
“I started telling them months out, plant more food,” said Parker. “They need food in the ground a long time before we can sell it at the markets.”
Making more markets has been a welcome challenge for the Brandhurst family, who sell the shrimp they catch in local waters under the Four Winds Seafood brand. They have been part of the Crescent City Farmers Market for 20 years; since the expansion, they now have stands at five markets a week.
With wholesale prices tanking in the face of cheap imported shrimp, direct sales to farmers market customers seeking local seafood is vital.
“For us being shrimpers, it’s imperative to market our product because dockside prices are at an all-time low,” said Kay Brandhurst, who handles sales while her husband Ray captains their trawler.
Still, someone has to sell the shrimp, and the family has had to contend with staffing a less-than-conventional sales position.
“You don’t have too many people who want to lug ice chests and stick their hands in the shrimp,” said Brandhurst.
That arms-length connection to the people who produced the food is one of the draws of farmers markets. Their numbers have been on the rise nationally, growing from fewer than 2,000 in 1994 to more than 8,600 now registered with the USDA.
The carrots and radishes and rapini that William Champagne now sells through the New Orleans Food Co-Op are harvested a few miles away and del…
These grassroots markets have lately faced new competition as delivery services, major grocery chains and other players seek their own shares of the healthy food market.
In New Orleans, the local food system took a hit last year when Hollygrove Market & Farm, a hub for regional growers, abruptly shuttered. Good Eggs, a Silicon Valley company pitched as an online farmers market, expanded to New Orleans but soon collapsed.
To chart its recent growth, the Crescent City Farmers Market has developed new locations in conjunction with partners equipped with studies, master plans and constituent requests pointing to interest in local food markets.
The new Bywater market is held on property managed by the city's French Market Corp., and it replaces an earlier Crescent City Farmers Market held at the historic French Market itself. After four years operating once a week between the food stands and flea market, it was clear the farmers market wasn’t drawing a crowd.
The Jefferson Highway market is held in front of the Ochsner Rehabilitation Center, and Ochsner Health System worked closely with market staff to develop it.
“We wanted to partner to make it easier for our patients, our employees and our neighbors to have access to affordable healthy produce,” said Emily Arata, who leads Ochsner’s community initiatives.
She ties it to the health care provider’s interest in health determinants, and the role food choices play in prevention and better health overall. At last week’s debut market, Ochsner nutritionists staffed one tent, helping advise shoppers and answer food questions.
The connection was clear to William Fletcher, a new vendor drawn to New Orleans by the expanded markets. At the Jefferson Highway market, he sells colorful bundles of purple graffiti cauliflower and green Romanesco broccoli next to the strawberry preserves that he and his wife Ginger produce on their Ponchatoula farm.
“I love the opportunity to work with these people,” he said. “They’re telling folks to eat fresh local fruits and vegetables because they know it’s good for their health. Well, here it is.”
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