Reflections of an Urban Farmer

One Sunday morning, I took time to reflect my choice to work as a farmer. I sat under a volunteer pecan tree, near a pink lemon tree and a fig tree that survived Hurricane Katrina. As the wind hit my face, I couldn’t help but smile. The wind brought the approval of my ancestors, who worked as sharecroppers and farmers in Tallahassee, Florida.

I have been an urban farmer in New Orleans for some time now. My work as a farmer is similar to that of my ancestors, it is done out of necessity. There was a time when I could not afford the produce I needed to maintain my health. Using the tools I learned from my family, I started growing by assisting a neighbor with transforming a lot into an urban farm. I worked for myself, and for my neighbors. I really wanted the residents of the Hollygrove neighborhood to have access to the fresh food I’d grown.

I became known in my neighborhood, affectionately, as “Farmer Brown” because I’d often wear a straw hat while working on the farm. I quickly learned that seeing me on the farm could change my neighbor’s knowledge, attitudes and eventually their behaviors too, about including fresh produce in their diets. As my fruits and vegetables grew, I’d offer them to the community – so they could taste the different items I was growing.

After conducting a neighborhood survey, through Fitness Fleet, Inc., I learned many of the people I saw every day were plagued by preventable chronic diseases. As their “Farmer Brown”, I was unofficially dubbed their community health worker too and I wanted my work to ensure everyone around me had access to fresh, healthy produce at an affordable price, to support and improve their health.

Soon, I was given the opportunity to work as the head farmer at Agrowtopia at Xavier University. Agrowtopia is a farm that literally sprouted from an idea of a group of Xavier students. Like my neighborhood, the University is centered in a food desert in an area called Gert Town. These students, some now graduated, decided their urban farm should not only grow fresh produce, but provide information to the neighborhood on healthy living too. Now, I work with student volunteers on .2 acres of land with 28 raised garden beds – and we grow healthy fresh food.

Accessibility and affordability to healthy food is essential for a healthy life. Yet, in New Orleans, like many cities in the United States, especially predominantly Black and low income neighborhoods, there are disparities in retail food accessibility, affordability, and quality. My work as a farmer allows me to change this at a grassroots level, while honoring my family legacy and helping to ensure a healthy future for my family, friends, and neighbors.

About the author: Kaleb Hill is an experienced New Orleans urban farmer who runs the farm and programs at Agrowtopia at Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and also owns a co-op, Oko Vue Produce Co., he and a fellow Xavierite, Jonathan Menyon, founded.

Lower 9th Ward Garden to Build Living Shade Structure!

8 years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is still in recovery, and in the Lower 9th Ward, many things still show obvious signs of the storm. There are no grocery stores, and numerous overgrown, empty lots,  many of which have front stairs that lead nowhere, where houses once stood. Still, the neighborhood has heart and strength.

Since 2009, The Backyard Gardener’s Network, a nonprofit organization founded by Lower 9th Ward native Jenga Mwendo, has sought to rebuild pride and a sense of community in this neighborhood, through the community’s cultural traditions of gardening.

The Guerrilla Garden was conceived, developed and implemented by Lower 9th Ward residents committed to community revitalization. Recirculating Farms Collation, in cooperation with Backyard Gardeners Network, is raising funds to create a hydroponic living shade structure, to expand the growing capability of the garden, and provide a respite from the Louisiana sun for garden workers. Vine plants grown in nutrient rich water (without soil) – like grapes, tomatoes and luffa (those long tube-like sponges) will be trained to grow up the wall and over the top of the trellis-like pergola.

This is a fabulous project for an amazing neighborhood – check it out and get involved – from wherever you are!

Watch our video on the Guerrilla Garden project!

Dominique’s NOLA – hydroponics grows fresh and local fare!

What happens when art, sustainability, and delicious food combine? Just ask Chef Dominique Macquet (or go check it out for yourself) at the recently opened Dominique’s on Magazine, where fresh ingredients are growing just outside the kitchen. The restaurant, once an old firehouse, is home to a courtyard “secret garden” where hydroponic vegetables and herbs grow on the walls.

Hydroponics is a method to grow plants in nutrient-rich water, without soil.

Not only are ready-to-be-picked ingredients at the chef’s fingertips year round, but the amazing vertical garden creates a natural ambiance unique in the New Orleans dining scene, and gets the conversation started about just what innovative farming, like hydroponics, can do for communities.

Chef Macquet is one of an ever-increasing group of tops chefs here in New Orleans to openly embrace hydroponic garden grown fare, and across the country, restaurants are regularly teaming up with hydroponic farmers to ensure they have fresh, local produce year round. Read about the budding partnerships between restaurants and hydroponic farms in New York City.

Interview with Will Allen of Growing Power

This is a podcast interview with Will Allen of Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when he visited Brooklyn, New York this summer. Mr. Allen is known nationwide for his work in urban farming. This podcast was originally published on the Ecocentric Blog, hosted by one of our partner organizations. Check out the first podcast in our own series featuring recirculating farms and farmers from all around the U.S.