Farming Freedom and Hope After Katrina

August 30, 2009 by

Photo: Robin Plaskoff Horton

Four years after Hurricane Katrina, there are approximately 700,000 vacant lots in New Orleans. Enter groups like The New Orleans Farm and Food Network who help residents transform neighborhood abandoned or underused green space into urban micro farms with the goal of ensuring that local residents have access to safe, affordable food.

Pam Broom, Deputy Director of the New Orleans Farm and Food Network. Photo: Robin Plaskoff Horton

When I was in New Orleans last week, I had the opportunity to meet with Pam Broom, the intelligent and passionate Deputy Director of the New Orleans Farm and Food Network. Pam took me to one of the city’s neighborhood urban farms, Little Sparrow, started by NOFFN founder and Program Director, Marilyn Yank.

“Part of what Marilyn is demonstrating here at Little Sparrow Farm,” Broom explained, “is that it’s possible to create a sustainable growing space but also to enhance the growing experience by attracting the bees, butterflies, and beneficial wildlife. Even in it’s wild state, the garden is still so beautiful. There is amazing fertility here.”

Photo: Robin Plaskoff Horton

Little Sparrow is an example of the type of neighborhood-based micro farm that Broom and her colleagues hope will develop on more of the city’s empty lots. Small urban farms like Little Sparrow bring viability, health, and economic development to the neighborhood. Once a drug corner, Broom explained, the standard 50×100 ft mid-city lot, has been converted into something that can now provide food production for the home table as well as herbs and micro greens to the Ruby Slipper Restaurant across the street.

Photo: Robin Plaskoff Horton

Little Sparrow Farm: From crack corner to verdant urban micro farm. Photo: Robin Plaskoff Horton

Ultimately, if they can work through archaic city ordinances and policies, Broom explained, they hope gardens such as this one will be able to take a more entrepreneurial route by providing fresh produce for neighborhood farmer’s markets. Transformation of the lot to the present verdant garden has also made area landlords happy. The resulting neighborhood beautification has enhanced their property values and made renting easier for them.

Before Yank approached the lot’s owner, who lives next door, he was paying $40 a month to have the lot mowed. Yank and the property owner settled on a land use agreement under which she maintains the land and, in exchange for fresh vegetables and flowers, he allows her to tap into his water which supplies her drip irrigation system.

Photo: Robin Plaskoff Horton

Asked how farmers deal with soil contaminants, she cheerfully explained, “We find ways to adjust for this. We always encourage anyone starting a garden to test the soil. The tests here came back with high salt content—from the floods–but salt washes out.” Broom reported that there have been pockets in the city reporting large lead levels, but said that in urban areas this is typical, not unique to New Orleans. To put this lead issue into perspective, the White House garden soil test results showed a level of 93 parts per million, well below the 400 p.p.m. considered hazardous by the EPA, and not considered harmful.  Various soil amendments, such as lime, crab meal, and green sand, can be added to adjust the pH to a level that makes the lead unavailable to the plants. In soils with high levels of lead, adding one-third by volume of organic matter such as composted leaves can also reduce lead availability.

Photo: Robin Plaskoff Horton

Yank brought in 40 yards of fresh soil to plant Little Sparrow.  Broom would like to see New Orleans have a consistent resource for quantities of healthy soil needed to plant these neighborhood farms. One of NOFFN’s intitiatives, the Urban Farmers Collective, is aiming to drive this objective. “It’s like an old fashioned barn raising,” she said as she described the group’s meetings. “Support in numbers. We had forty people at our first forum for serious chatting and lots of eating. We share best practices and talk about branching out into sub groups to address things like policy building and soil issues.”  The group would like to see the establishment of a municipal composting site like those found in other cities such as Durham, South Carolina.

Villere Urban Farm courtesy of

NOFFN provides technical support to other organizations like the Urban Ninth Ward Farming Coalition, whose Villere Urban Farm is the first of such farms to occupy a once vacant lot in the devastated lower ninth ward. There no grocery stores and none slated for development in the lower ninth.

Backyard at Villere Farm courtesy of

Villere’s mission is to develop a community supported agriculture model that enables people to grow and distribute food for years to come, in the neighborhood, and for the neighborhood.  NOFFN helps them in their efforts to work with elderly land owners in setting up land use agreements to turn their abandoned lots into micro farms. The property owners in many cases do not have the resources to rebuild but they still want to hold on to their properties. Leasing their land to offers owners the opportunity to make productive use of their lots for the benefit of many while in the process also creating jobs.

Photo: Robin Plaskoff Horton

“A couple of weeks ago I cut back the okra,” Broom pointed out as she toured Little Sparrow with me. “It was an okra forest! Marilyn’s been gone about a month. She did some heavy mulching before she left. She has had some of the sweetest melons I have ever tasted!” Broom said exuberantly as she pointed to the remnants of the summer garden.

There remained a few melons, some eggplant, and colorful hot peppers among the cover crops and flowers attracting the bees and birds around us. Basil still sprouted for the Ruby Slipper’s chefs to cross the street and clip as needed.  As I gazed the abundant purple hyacinth beans climbing the garden’s fence, several butterflies fluttered by reminding me that these urban gardens are bringing the people of this city more than food. They are farming freedom and hope in New Orleans.


Four years ago this weekend, Hurricane Katrina unleashed its devastating floodwaters and shearing winds on the city of New Orleans, leaving more than 1000 dead and more than one million homeless, many of those the poor and elderly residents of the lower ninth ward.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data release last month, New Orleans was the nation’s fastest growing city in 2008.  Despite this, the population hovers around 311,853, up from up from 210,768 in 2006 following Hurricane Katrina but still well below the pre-hurricane level of 484,674 based on the 2000 census.

Today, 36% of the city’s housing remains empty, much of that in the poorest areas, such as the lower ninth ward.  Many of the properties left vacant after the storm remain so as many residents, even with the government’s financial assistance, can’t afford to rebuild.

New Orleans Farm and Food Network

Lower Ninth Ward Urban Coalition

Parkway Partners

USDA: Community Supported Agriculture

Local Harvest

The Eat Well Guide


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