We arrived in New Orleans on Friday evening. A perfect start to the weekend, we took a few days to experience the vivacious culture of the city before diving into some urban garden projects. An annual bartender’s convention (aptly named “Tales of A Cocktail”) had brought bartenders from around the world to the city to mix world-class drinks for the crowds. As is the norm for this city teeming with life, live music can be found around every corner at all hours, pungent smells of rich food saturating the thick hot air. We danced in the streets for hours, making friends with passersby and fellow funk enthusiasts. Staying up ’til dawn and sleeping until dinner, it finally felt like summer had set in.
Monday brought back our energy and desire to continue our mission in this city that never sleeps. With its cheap land, multitude of abandoned buildings and lots, and massive socioeconomic disparity, NOLA seems to be one of the more obvious places to start an inner-city farm. While most people resort to shady spaces and air-conditioned buildings during the humid summer days, the sun blares down on the pavement and the rain falls like fat tear drops on this cities’ urban farmers.
Our first site visit was to the Wise Words Garden, part of the umbrella NOLA Green Roots organization. Brock, the executive director of the non-profit, is an incredibly intelligent and humble man, giving all credit to the organization, his “one true love.” He is a businessman man through and through, with a background in forensic and computer science. His attention to detail and meticulous nature lend themselves quite seamlessly into creating one of the most well-thought out and truly sustainable business models we have seen yet. “I got into this because I tasted real food,” Brock says matter-of-factly, “I’ll never go back.”
“I wasn’t thinking big,” Brock adds as a huge grin creeps across his face, “in the beginning.” Brock talks about how the project found him, and ever since he’s been in love with “her.” He does not take what he is doing lightly, greeting us at the front gate dressed in a button down and slacks, and welcoming us in to his epic story of building his brain child. He envisions organic gardens and accessible food all over North America, a noble goal especially when developing small-plot urban garden sites. “I decided not to chase around the green movement. I wanted the green movement to chase me.” Successful in this endeavor, there are seven major gardens under the Green Roots name within New Orleans, and five others scattered among states including California, New York, and Mississippi.
With almost no grant funding, NOLA Green Roots has built itself up and is covering its own costs through workshops, CSA, its specialty store, and private donors. Brock goes on to say that while grant money can be helpful, it can create unnecessary competition in a community that needs to be working together. He also speaks to the instability of relying on grants when you have people depending on the work that you’re doing: “Relying on grants is a stumbling block. If you really want to learn to be self-sustainable, you need to start with a business plan.” When initially raising money, he did not want to have to owe anyone anything. After working to orchestrate the money, property, and manpower to come in at the right moments, he was ready to work hard, building both of his first properties in just a couple days with support from community members and volunteers. NOLA Green Roots is so needed in this city that funding finds them, instead of having to chase after governmental or unreliable monetary sources. That being said, the wise use of what little money they have makes all the difference.
Everything on site is a tangible learning tool. Brock wants to facilitate change, pushing everyone to explore and ask questions while in the garden, and then encouraging them to replicate his model. Not only is Brock’s goal to grow food, it is also to serve as a teacher offering courses to individuals and groups with the intent to feed themselves while supporting one other. Brock teaches a one-week intensive course for those wanting to learn every aspect of urban gardening, both business and practical sides. We can all say we would love to spend a week (and could probably spend a lifetime) learning from this man, and encourage our readers to do so if you have any interest in urban agriculture. The organization offers year round workshops and room and board for individuals wanting to stay, truly immersing themselves in this city and movement.
Brock walked us through two of the seven sites in the city, explaining how “everything connects.” The rain barrels contain feeder fish that connect to a hydroponic system, which is yet another “example bed” he uses to teach new-comers about intensive urban agriculture. Every inch of space is utilized; after all he is “in the business of feeding people.” The CSA membership program here really encourages people to get closer to their food, by coming out to touch mother nature. There is a requirement of all members to work at least 1 hour every week in the garden, and a program established for children and their parents called “Pick Your Dinner,” providing produce at discounted rates for those who come to harvest.
The second site, adjacent to the first, is a children’s hands on learning garden. Complete with a prop green house, chicken coop, and toy tractors, groups of kids can come here to learn all about growing their own food. Schools and other organizations can rent out the space for interactive class time: “If they want to learn about chickens, we’ll bring a few over and put them in the coop,” says Brock. He also brings the props to schools and daycares, taking time to explain compost, worms, and where food comes from.
As in any organic operation, compost and soil end up being one of the largest costs. Forward thinking again his strong suit, Brock had decided to open up another company simultaneously called The Composting Network, the only composting facility in the city. This aspect of his organization partners with local restaurants, picking up their food waste and turning it into high-grade compost. This is beneficial on both ends. As the waste pick up in New Orleans is done by weight, Brock provides restaurants with hard numbers showing how much they are saving in trash costs by paying him to pick up the food instead. “There’s so much waste in the restaurant industry, it’s hard to justify selling them product if you really want your produce to make a difference. But I’ll certainly be waiting out their back door to catch it on the other end,” Brock says slyly. This compost is then distributed around all of NOLA Green Roots gardens and the remainder is packaged and sold.
NOLA Green Roots was the perfect example of what productive and efficient urban agriculture can look like. There is a major importance in doing this work for the right reasons. This does not only include the desire to provide quality food where it is scarce, but also to teach people how to grow it themselves, connecting communities by urging them to get involved. This is a whispered but powerful revolution, and with determination like what we found at NOLA Green Roots, it will succeed. Brock reminds us: “This is a fight, and I’m gonna win most of mine. Don’t play with the green movement, because it’s not playing with you. Feeding people is serious.”