New Orleans is famous for its food. Fried seafood, rich gumbos and spicy etouffees are some of the city’s staples. But healthier fare is making its mark on the city’s landscape in the form of urban farms.

Arugula, beets, basil and parsley are popping up in small plots and even on rooftops like one above a Rouse’s Grocery Store just blocks from the French Quarter. The rooftop garden uses towers and water, but no soil, to grow herbs and greens in an aeroponic system. The plant roots don’t sit in water, but water is run through the towers periodically.

Marianne Cufone is executive director of Recirculating Farms Coalition and is working with innovative farmers who are using water instead of soil to grow their crops.

“It is outstanding for an environment like New Orleans because we can grow on rooftops, side lots, backyards, indoors and outside,” Cufone said.

Using water instead of soil allows farmers to grow where soils may be contaminated, which was common in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. A lot of available land may be an odd size, paved over or rocky. Rather than building soil beds and spending a lot of money on soil and materials, one can start a recirculating farm and use rain water to supply it.

Cufone said a few restaurants are using recirculating systems to grow vegetables on site.

Uptown at Hollygrove Market and Farm, an aquaponic recirculating system using fish with crops sits among more traditional small vegetable plots. Hollygrove serves as an urban farm, local produce market and a community garden space.

Amber Dawn is an intern at the farm and oversees its programs for children. She is passionate about urban farming and teaching others to grow their own food.

“The more I learn, I take that information and hold my own workshops. People hire me to come to their gardens and show them how to garden and farm,” Dawn said.

Hollygrove’s “groasis” includes a small outdoor classroom, rabbits and chickens. She hosts local school children who come to learn several times a week. Dawn teaches them about gardening, plants, animals and healthful foods.

Parkway Partners is another organization working to build community gardens and urban farms in New Orleans. Program director Susannah Burley said exposing young people to urban agriculture shows them another career option.

“We don’t have that many jobs for young people who are not bound for college, so there is a viable living to be made from urban farming,” Burley said.

Burley sees New Orleans’ diverse population embracing urban farming.“The urban farmer could be anybody. It could be an 80-year-old. We have some retired folks who already had a full career who are farming. Then we have 22-year-olds who are urban farmers.”

The urban farmer faces challenges that typical farmers may not. Space is limited, soil may be of a poor quality, and farmers are dealing with numerous crops.

Andrew Loyd, a horticulture agent with the LSU AgCenter, is helping farmers recognize and overcome the challenges. “You’ve got to know more crops, and you can’t go out and fertilize them all the same like you do with one crop, such as sugarcane. You can’t water them at the same rate as one agronomic crop being grown on a large scale.”

In New Orleans poverty rates are high, and some areas are considered food deserts. Burley said gardens are helping to eradicate food deserts one garden at time.

New Orleans Food and Farm Network also is addressing issues of food security and increasing food access in certain neighborhoods, and they are helping urban farmers thrive.

“We help people figure out how to access land. We give them training and mentoring. We also help them figure out how to finance things,” said Sanjay Kharod, executive director of New Orleans Food and Farm Network. 

City dwellers looking to produce their own food can contact their local LSU AgCenter office or visit www.LSUAgCenter.com for more information about starting a garden.