Growing Opportunity

The last article I filed before I left for Natchez, Miss., on Aug. 27 looked at The Farm-Yard Project, a community-based effort to help people build kitchen gardens in their yards. The lead organizer, Macon Fry, got me all fired up about agriculture’s place right here in the urban core. I left that interview determined to do more articles on urban agriculture. 
That was Aug. 27 of 2005, however; my stay in Natchez was longer than the weekend I had planned, and, well, other stuff happened. But good ideas, like strong perennials and weeds, tend to come back. When I heard that Grant Estrade was developing an urban farm to serve chefs in the city, it seemed like just such a good idea was poking its head out of New Orleans’ dense river soil again. 
Let me disclose some relationships here. Estrade is my source for garden stuff. As proprietor of Laughing Buddha Nursery, he’s my local go-to guy for organic plant food; nontoxic caterpillar repellent; and this foul, fish-smelling stuff that deters most fungi and bugs (and some people) from enjoying my plants. I met Estrade the weekend I killed my worm bin, and he gave me the courage –– and sold me the worms –– to try again. We speak infrequently, but when he mentioned his farm project, I was intrigued. 
“My main thing is: Lots of farmers grow stuff and can’t make
a living,” says Estrade, who points out that time spent selling
at market or delivering produce conflicts with operating a successful farm. “I’m interested in doing it and making a living.” 
Local Cooling Farm, as the business is named, is not open to the public. It defies many other stereotypes of the cute modern farm, as well. Situated in the industrial area between Dwyer and Chef Menteur, it fits the zoning but not the image of New Orleans East. The 3-acre plot is situated far from homes, so residents won’t be bothered by the sound of the Bobcat Estrade uses to grade his beds or the fumes from the biodiesel he collects from restaurants to run it. 
Because he’s growing specifically for chefs, Estrade is free to concentrate on lesser-known varieties of familiar vegetables that have great visual impact –– bull’s-eye beets, whose red and orange concentric rings set off a plate, for instance, or Bright Lights multicolored chard, whose leaves are best harvested young. Some time this winter, he’ll also transfer some of the culinary herbs that he has started at Laughing Buddha over to the farm. The fledgling business is getting a boost from Johnny’s Select Seeds, which is partnering with Estrade to field test some of its varieties. 
“I can get a phone call and harvest for delivery the next day,” says Estrade. 
For distribution, he’ll rely
on specialty produce purveyor
Jim Bremer.
It’s not that specialty vegetables are not currently available in New Orleans, says Bremer, who Estrade credits with prodding him into the business. Bremer already sells direct from a select group of farms in California to an A-list of New Orleans restaurants. But Bremer gets excited at the prospect of seeing local farms emerge right in the metro area, particularly if those farms explore the variety of vegetables that our climate will support. He estimates that only about 10 percent of the products currently used by chefs in New Orleans originate in Louisiana, simply because local production of food is limited. Given Louisiana’s long growing season and the absence of a killing winter, that doesn’t
make sense. 
“You can open the encyclopedia of vegetables, and so much of it can be grown between Belle Chasse and Baton Rouge –– and so little of it is being grown,” Bremer laments. 
Keith Kron of Nature’s Greenhouse can also blame Bremer’s enthusiasm for luring him into the local farm-to-restaurant network. Kron was growing wheatgrass at his Magazine Street shop for Surrey’s Café and Juice Bar when Bremer talked him into experimenting with microgreens for chefs. Two years later, Kron devotes one 10-foot-by-30-foot greenhouse to wheatgrass, pea shoots and sunflower shoots and another 50-foot-by-35-foot greenhouse to microgreens and baby lettuce. The greens are harvested in only 30 to 40 days, so they can be grown in flats, obviating the need for arable soil. An air-conditioned 40-foot-by-20-foot interior room is devoted to sprouts, which require only plastic bags and water. The whole operation has such a low impact that visitors to the Bridge Lounge, across the street, are probably unaware that they’re within yards of an urban farm. 
Bremer distributes some of the sharp-tasting greens Kron produces, but much of what he grows is claimed directly by local chefs. “California is too far,” says Kron. “They can call me at the last minute.” The advantage, of course, is that Kron doesn’t harvest what he sells until the buyers are on their way. He says that several chefs make him a part of their Saturday routine, calling on him after they leave the Crescent City Farmers Market a few blocks distant.  
A reception like that suggests that New Orleans can support more specialty farmers who sell directly to chefs. Bremer agrees: “I’ve been working the local angle for a long time. There’s room for more than one.” 

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