Bringing Water to the Desert
Recirculating Farms Coalition aims to pull New Orleans out of “food desert” status with their cutting-edge, water-based growing systems.
Marianne Cufone, executive director of the national nonprofit Recirculating Farms Coalition, showcases the organization’s efforts at its headquarters in what was formerly the Higgins Boat Yard in Central City.
New Orleans is famous for being one of the top food destinations in the country. But while thousands of tourists visiting each year fill their bellies with succulent Southern treats, Southeast Louisiana is actually considered a “food desert” by the Food and Drug Administration. The term is defined as a geographic area where affordable and nutritious foods are difficult to obtain, particularly for those without access to a car.
In her role as executive director and founder of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, Marianne Cufone is hoping to bring New Orleans out of the desert with her organization’s flagship project, the Growing Local New Orleans Community Garden.
Cufone is an environmental lawyer who works at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. She is also a professional chef, trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute, and a healthy food advocate with over 15 years experience working in natural resources management, focused on oceans, fisheries, seafood and agriculture.
“Recirculating Farms Coalition is a national nonprofit, and we work in communities all around the country, supporting the establishment of green jobs and bringing healthy, fresh food into neighborhoods using innovative water-based growing methods,” says Cufone. “We use hydroponics, aquaculture and aquaponics. We’re headquartered in New Orleans, and we offer training classes and other events at our garden in Central City.”
“We did an in-depth analysis of cities across the United States — we looked at poverty rates, the difference in income between higher- and lower-income communities, food deserts and unemployment rates,” she says.
When they cross-referenced all of the data, they came up with a handful of locations, New Orleans being one of them. Cufone had worked here for the last 15 years.
“I had a long history with New Orleans, so perhaps there was a bit of bias,” she says, “but in truth, the day I came back to specifically talk to people about food and urban agriculture and recirculating farming was the day they were hosting a ReThink Media event at Hollygrove and it was all about kids wanting healthy and fresh food in schools. And I thought, well what do you know, that’s a message.”
The organization is working more and more with bamboo instead of plastic piping.
Though she was already living here, Cufone says she scouted locations around the country for her nonprofit and found that New Orleans just made the most sense.
Cufone and her team chose Central City as the spot for their garden, rehabilitating the old Higgins Boat Yard as their space. During the process of outfitting the two lots to become an urban agricultural center, they removed hundreds of pounds of trash. They even held what they called “trash mobs” as a way of making the cleanup fun — holding contests to see who could find the biggest piece or trash, or the most unique piece of trash. Among the contenders were Mardi Gras doubloons from the 1920s and an entire clarinet that had been taken apart and scattered around the property.
Next, Recirculating Farms Coalition began engaging the community to help them grow healthy food in their own neighborhood.
“One of our lots is the Community Garden, where we made spaces for people to have raised soil beds, because they are familiar with that here, and we thought it would be a good way to introduce the community to our garden,” says Cufone. “We hoped that would entice them to come and do what they were familiar with and then learn more, and that’s what’s happened. We have people who came and grew their food in the raised garden beds and now are working with aquaponics and hydroponics.”
With hydroponics, growers substitute soil with nutrient-rich water.
With hydroponics, growers substitute soil with nutrient-rich water, often growing plants in tower gardens. This method both saves space and avoids the need for harsh chemicals to keep weeds at bay. Cufone’s group is taking its technique a step further by combining it with aquaculture — the raising of small aquatic animals in aquarium-style tanks.
“Hydroponics most people are familiar with,” Cufone says, “but aquaponics is a cross between aquaculture and hydroponics. It’s actually been around for decades, but it’s become a lot more popular in urban growing these days.”
Recirculating Farms’ aquaponic systems use the nutrient-rich water from the plants and circulate it through a fish tank below. The waste from the fish is then routed back into the growing water, allowing the plants to break down the waste as a sort of water-based fertilizer. The water continues to circulate between the plants and fish in an entirely closed-loop system.
Hydroponics is paired with aquaculture: the raising of small aquatic animals who provide the plants with a sort of water-based fertilizer.
“The benefit of these systems, especially in New Orleans, is that we don’t use soil,” says Cufone. “And for various reasons, Katrina being one of the biggest ones, a lot of our soil here is contaminated, and a lot of our vacant lots are paved or rocky and are not easily transitioned to what would be considered conventional farming and ground-growing. Growing in raised beds is an option that a lot of people use, but they’re expensive.”
At a rate of several hundred dollars to create a proper raised bed for farming, cost to grow enough food to sell could cost an urban farmer thousands of dollars, while an aquaponic tower can be constructed out of reusable materials that require no fertilizer and no harsh chemicals.
While many members of the Community Garden have started out with raised soil-based beds, Cufone is excited at the prospect of more and more of them transitioning to the more environmentally friendly aquaponics systems.
“We can make these systems out of reusable materials like bamboo,” she says. “It grows in my backyard, so every once in a while I can chop a few pieces down, take them to the garden, and we can create another system.”
The outpouring of support within the community has been huge, and the organization has been able to do a lot of good with the space.
“We offer free classes three days a week,” says Cufone. “Wednesdays we do an exercise class, Thursdays we do a farm-to-table, health-supportive cooking class, and Saturdays we do a gardening and farming class. We also host professional farming classes for commercial farmers, and we do a mentorship program where we hook those participants up with local growers to help them continue their process and education. We also help people get externships on real working farms.”
Cufone says it’s easy to participate become a member of the Community Garden. Members pay dues through their time, not money.
In exchange for being given everything they need to grow their garden, community members are asked to donate 12 hours of service a month.
“Everything is free,” says Cufone. “We build them the garden bed, we give them soil and seeds and water, compost tea and anything else they want, and in return we ask for 12 hours of service a month. This means they might tend someone else’s garden beds, or mulch, or feed the chickens, or table at an event for us.”
Through a partnership with Life City, the Recirculating Farms Coalition has been able to engage with many local businesses.
“Restaurants and chefs have been really easy to get involved with,” says Cufone. “They often have food scraps that they would like to do something good with instead of contributing to a landfill, so we hook up with them to take their leftover food and coffee grounds and things like that. Also we ask the chefs to come to the garden and teach classes. They do a lot of the health-supportive cooking classes. We’ve had Chef Dana from Carmo and Chef Katie from Café Reconcile, and everyone has been very excited.”
Now that the Recirculating Farms Coalition is more well known and running smoothly, Cufone says they’re able to accommodate requests for the sale of their produce. Their second lot is currently being used as a commercial garden.
“It’s still a community garden,” says Cufone. “But it’s meant for production, so it’s much more intensive than the community lot, where we have a big lawn and a stage and a teaching area. This other area is primarily for production. We’ve just started growing things hydroponically and aquaponically. We’re raising catfish for food and we have been growing microgreens, which we’ve been sharing with local restaurants to see what blends they prefer.
“The primary goal was always to get fresh and affordable food into the neighborhoods and we haven’t lost sight of that, but to do that we need to be self-sufficient financially,” says Cufone. “So the plan is that the commercial garden will be the moneymaker. We will partially sell to restaurants and partially sell to the community at a much reduced rate, and be able to sustain the community garden with mostly the proceeds we make from the restaurants.”
Cufone says she is content with the work that her organization is doing within her community and excited for what the future brings.
“There are a lot of gardens and projects like ours, and it’s exciting,” she says. “It’s great to offer people more choice when it comes to food. The community here has been very interested in urban farming. It’s been really important that the people living here are interested in healthy, fresh food and creating jobs in food systems, and that urban farming is something that was on the radar. That’s why we thought we’d be very successful here, and we are.”
While many members of the Community Garden have started out with raised soil-based beds, they will eventually be transitioning to the more environmentally-friendly aquaponics systems.
Eat Local This Month!
The Recirculating Farms Coalition will be participating in the “Eat Local Challenge,” which challenges participants to eat locally for the entire month of June. To honor the event, the organization will host an Eat Local Dinner June 18 at its community garden (1750 Carondelet Street). The entire menu will be composed of local foods and ingredients. For more information, visit recirculatingfarms.org.