Nick Usner’s father was an organic farmer and fitness buff who suffered a fatal heart attack while jogging at age 44 when his son was just 13. Though his time with his son was cut short, the impact of Thomas Usner’s long days “in the dirt” with his son was profound. He left Nick with the passion for organic farming and love of the land that have shaped his life. Three years after his father’s death Nick Usner began his own agricultural operation, GROW Farm, at an age when most young men are consumed by more carnal obsessions. He soon became one of the state’s first farmers’ market vendors to gain organic certification.
The young farmer, who recently turned 31, now owns 12 acres of land in Waldheim, five of which he farms along with another two-acre plot planted with massive 350-foot lateral rows on a neighbor’s nearby property.
His is an unusual operation in so many ways. In an era of computerized this and machine-driven that, he eschews outside help, rising before dawn each and every day to till, plant, pick and cut by hand all alone, save for the company of Eula May, his young and friendly black-and-tan female coon hound. Usner further distinguishes himself with the varieties of unusual, often heirloom, produce he grows: Exquisite root vegetables such as baby beets, Easter-egg radishes, nutty sun chokes and brilliantly hued Evangeline sweet potatoes; a rainbow of herbs, lettuces and greens; 35 varieties of plump, luscious figs; 50 varieties of crisp, tender okra – many of which he propagated himself; 60 to 70 varieties of vine-ripened tomatoes; tender eggplant; exotic varieties of shelling peas; edamame and red beans.
He inspects each and every vegetable for perfection, harvesting only when a specimen is at its absolute prime for same-day delivery to area chefs and farmers’ markets.
Eateries showcasing Usner’s stunning produce in daily specials include Ristorante del Porto and OxLot 9, both in Covington, and MoPho in Mid-City. At del Porto, chefs Torre and David Solazzo recently featured a Puréed Soup of Grilled Okra, Prosciutto and Sweet Corn; Fresh White Bean Ragout with Grilled Ciabatta; and Braised Beef Short Ribs with Summer Shelling Bean Stew. Just across the street, chef Jeffrey Hansell incorporated a rainbow of exotic okra into his presentation of Pan Roasted Mangrove Snapper, Sautéed Okra, and Corn Cream with Tasso, and Chili Vin. MoPho’s chef, Michael Gulotta has used Usner’s candy-like Fingerling Evangeline Sweet Potatoes in a stew with Coconut and Sweet Spices.
Usner’s produce is also commercially available at the Covington Farmer’s Market, the Crescent City Farmers Market at the French Market and by appointment at GROW Farm.
Not much to look at but still the rightful pride of Plaquemine’s Parish, Creole tomatoes are misshapen with mottled skins and ridges that often crack open. They range in size from medium to huge and they’re dense and meaty, rich in fragrance and flavor. To be classified as a Creole a tomato must be of no particular cultivar or pedigree. But, and this is the most important part, if the tomato wasn’t born forth from the rich alluvial soil and sweltering climate of Plaquemines Parish, it may be close but it isn’t the real deal. This specimen is all about the dirt and the humidity.
On June 13 and 14 the French Market will host the 29th Creole Tomato Festival to mark the official opening of the season with music, a Creole tomato eating contest and food booths with dishes based on the favorite summer delicacy from area restaurants and caterers. For the second year the festival will hold a “Best of the Fest” food booth judging contest. Last year’s winners were a Savory Crepe with Creole Tomato, Bacon, Basil and Mozzarella; Jumbo Lump Crabmeat and Avocado Salad with Creole Tomatoes and Fried Plantains; Creole Tomato Eggplant Parmigiana with Homemade Spaghetti; “Creole” Shrimp Creole; and Beaucoup Salad, a paring of tomatoes with Hass Avocados, Vidalia Onion and Green Vinaigrette.
Covington Farmers Market Saturdays 8 a.m.-noon, 609 N. Columbia St., Covington, on the side lawn of City Hall
Crescent City Farmers Market French Market, Wednesdays 2-6 p.m., 1235 N Peters St., 596-3420, FrenchMarket.org
French Market Wednesday 2-6 p.m., 1235 N. Peters St., 596-3420, FrenchMarket.org
GROW Farm 80181 Bob Baxter Road, Waldheim, (985) 373-3016
MoPho 514 City Park Ave., 482-6845, MoPhoNola.com
Old Ironworks/Piety St. Market Wednesdays 11 a.m.-3 p.m. 612 Piety St.
OxLot 9 428 E Boston St., Covington, (228) 216-1806
Ristorante del Porto 501 E. Boston St., Covington, (985) 875-1006, DelPortoRistorante.com