Tradition & Change

Leona Palmer

Leona Palmer › Leona Palmer was a native of rural Wisconsin before becoming a time-tested New Yorker. After having ...

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Farming on the Road: Visiting Lafayette, Louisiana

Louisiana and food, the one is nothing without the other: boudin, etouffee, crawfish, po’ boys, gumbo and jambalaya. I love some Cajun food, no lie. So when I headed down from the fried green tomatoes of North Carolina and into bayou country I had only good things to look forward to. While the food is delicious, Louisiana may not have the best reputation for sustainable, organic or particularly health-conscious food. But these are a people with a long history of growing and raising their own food, passing down precious recipes and who are concerned with the future of agriculture in this country.

When I ask about the first thing on my mind: Katrina and coastal fishing operations, I hear some interesting things. First, that the oil-dipersant used (not Dawn dish soap, but Corexit), was actually more devastating to the ecosystem than the oil alone. More anomalies and genetic mutations are being discovered, and many family-owned businesses who struggled due to overfishing even before the wake of the storm have gone out of business. Second, that much of the high-quality seafood in Louisiana is now farmed, some of it sustainably, some of it not. BP is still paying for losses and damages, but what was lost is unrecoverable.

In other parts of Louisiana local agriculture thrives due to incredibly diverse ecosystems, whether it’s greens and grass-fed meats in the northern parishes, a rotation of rice and crawfish in the water beds of southwestern coastal parishes, or the produce and seafood of the eastern parishes across the MIssissippi basin. Commercial operations are increasingly challenged by their sustainable counterparts and local traditional foods, like pawpaw fruit and Poke salad—a local green hazardous unless cooked, the berries of which were used as ink for writing our national Constitution—are still popular. The Acadiana Food Circle Directory is an impressively comprehensive guide to in-season produce, local farms, products and restaurants in the Lafayette area and was recommended to me more than once.

Our first stop in the morning is Hub City Market. We had beaten the early morning rush by sleeping in but were now out in the radiating heat of the day. This means there’s room at the booths but also that many items are sold out. Breakfasting on some fresh and warm tamales, we pass stalls run by the licensed horticulturists of Les Dames Des Fleurs and their gorgeous hand-cut bouquets; Linda Jo’s Salsa, a bottle of which comes with us; Santa Rita Honey Bee Farm where I choose a jar of Muscadine grape jelly (their backyard perennials support the bees), though I’m tempted to try to the Mayhaw berry; Pasto A Mano homemade pastas; and Rosanna Czarnecki of R&R Artisan Foods, who offers a variety of kombucha (the Red Honeybush is supreme), raw coconut kefir, fermented sodas (the ginger is a local favorite), sprouted snacks and granola as well as fermentation classes, handouts, and cooking consultation.

Brian Gotreaux of Gotreaux Family Farms speaks with me about his journey to organic farming after a rural childhood that included gardening. A bout of high toxicity while working on a commercial rice operation made him ill and he became passionate about chemical-free growing, micronutrients and nutrient density in his foods, and maintaining optimum soil conditions. He belongs to the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) and mentions Joel Salatin as an inspiration. His 10-year-old family farm grows mixed produce and various organic livestock including tilapia, chickens, beef and lamb which are available at market and to his summer and winter CSA members, as well as a milk share from their grass-fed cows, whose members milk their cow each month. The farm opens for tours in the autumn. He’s watched the market grow exponentially over the last five years when he was the only farmer among artisans, and hopes to see it continue to expand.

That evening for dinner we head to Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro, a creole farm-to-table restaurant owned by the cajun painter George Rodrigue of Blue Dog fame, its menu boasts ingredients sourced from local and sustainable sources, weekly seasonal specials and a chef, Manny Augello, recently invited to cook dinner at the James Beard House in New York. With a family history of celiac’s disease, Augello is the only gluten-free chef certified by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness in the Gulf area, and Jolie’s features a special vegetarian and gluten-free menu. Our table starts with oysters from Abbeville Pearl Reef Oyster Company roasted three ways and Gulf crab cakes with horseradish remoulade. Entrees include Zapp’s Crawtator-crusted Louisiana drum fish; Cioppino seafood stew; the Isle Navarre Lamb Burger with apple & red onion confit, fennel house-made mayo and Belle Ecorce goat’s milk cheddar on a Poupart’s onion roll; and the Atlantic Yellowfin blackened tuna with roasted corn romesco and cucumber & cane vinegar salad. It’s all incredibly satisfying. There is no room for dessert.

An unexpected trip to the Tabasco factory of Avery Island, the fifth-generation business of the McIlhenny family, offered a surprising insight into a global operation that keeps local priorities. The family has a home-grown reputation as generous agrarian and cultural preservationists. The island is home to a diverse and extensive wildlife refuge, begun in the late 19th century by the founder’s son to protect the Snowy Egret from extinction, where now 20,000 of them, and other birds, nest. The salt and seed-peppers used are sourced from the island itself, while the barrels are recycled from the Jack Daniels factory, aging the pepper mash for 3 years, before being passed along for further recycling as the resin is used for various hot-pepper products.

Finally, we visit EarthShare Gardens where we meet head gardener Robert Faul. Started in 2002 by two university students as a Community Garden, this non-profit 4-acre site on land owned by the Catholic Diocese was originally part of a student initiative to start a community agricultural initiative in Lafayette. In 3 years the space has grown from 3/4 acre to 4 acres, and the CSA from 12 shares to 30.

Faul emphasizes that EarthShare’s mission is to combine education, service, and nutrition. Besides the CSA (which has a closed wait-list), community garden plots are loaned out each year to individuals who have use of all the tools and materials available and sign a contract stating they will refrain from the use of any chemical herbicides or pesticides. Most of the people who have space are entrepreneurs who grow flowers or produce for sale at market or with restaurant accounts. Two years ago, teens from the HALT (Halting Addiction in Lafayette Teens) program working through addiction began to meet weekly at the garden with their therapist and parents, and after their session cultivated the Giving Garden for donation to St. Joseph Diner, a local food kitchen. The model has been so successful with the 15th Judicial District Juvenile Drug Court, that the state Attorney General visited and is looking into reproducing the program throughout Louisiana. FoodNet, the greater Acadiana Food Bank, has also designed their own garden plot at EarthShare after years of receiving produce from their Donation Garden, which is cultivated by volunteers.

EarthShare has also collaborated with after school gardening programs focusing on renewable resources, Community Roots (a collaborative project to initiate more community gardens in the city), and Acadiana CARES (an HIV/AIDS outreach and support group) to begin their own garden site, and the Junior League of Lafayette (an organization devoted to developing leadership among women, community improvement, and charity) to release a popular Cajun and Creole cookbook.

When we visit the gardens they are just between seasons, taking a break in the height of August heat, and hoping to get one last crop of peppers, tomato and eggplant while preparing to put in cold-weather crops (like spinach, kale and carrots) which grow from September to April or May. Faul shows us beds of burgundy okra (which turns green when cooked) and the pinkish, flattened “creole pumpkin” (also called “cow” or “indian” pumpkin which travelled down the Mississippi from Canada with the French who became Creole). He wants to grow the fruit-like cassabanana or “musk cucumber” and the sweet seminole pumpkin (indigenous to south Florida, it does well in heat and has almost no pest-problem) next year. The plots are ringed with perennials like figs, pawpaw, plums, hibiscus, blackberries and even bananas—which don’t get large but are very sweet.

Faul utilizes some permaculture methods, has permanent beds and collects rainwater in drums with which he mixes a compost tea that he uses to sparingly water the plants in the heat. This is the first summer Lafayette has seen significant rain in 3 years. The less water the plants get, while being kept alive, encourage deep root growth so in dry weather they can reach ground water, and when it does rain the plants explode in lush foliage. The “lasagna compost” consists of mixed layers of restaurant leftovers, rodeo/livestock bedding and city compost collections which is turned once a week.

Having grown food all his life, Faul is committed to the expansion EarthShare and wants to invite 20 charter members to a year-round CSA. He notes that even ten years ago everyone in Lafayette had a backyard garden and that the city was known as the food capital of Louisiana (a claim some New Orleanians might dispute) but that the university, oil jobs, and post-Katrina residents have changed the culture, which he hopes can retain its roots and sway the populace to support the local agriculture and native foods that he is passionate about. The culture here, he says, is stronger than the people who come and go.

Have you ever visited Lafayette, LA?

Photo Credit: Leona Palmer