“I have trouble sleeping sometimes,” admits 22-year-old Demian Reed. It’s not his Tulane course load that’s causing his insomnia. Reed’s sleepless nights are caused by something completely different, a problem that likely doesn’t affect any other business student on Tulane’s campus.
“I can’t stop thinking about cherry tomatoes.”
Last year, Reed joined the growing number of New Orleans produce growers. These growers range from backyard enthusiasts to full-blown farmers with acres of crops. They supply farmers’ markets and restaurants with fresh, local produce; in return, farmers’ markets such as Hollygrove Farm and Market (HFM) provide economic stability for the growers and a nurturing community environment.
“We’re good for growers because we provide stability,” says HFM marketing director Alyssa Denny. “We buy every week.” She estimates that Hollygrove uses about 40 rural growers and 10 urban growers.
Stability is something a budding grower such as Reed would like to have next year as he expands his crop. The New Orleans native cleared a half-acre of land in Picayune, Mississippi for his cherry tomatoes and peppers. He called his business Tomatito, LLC after his favorite flamenco band and in honor of his Spanish heritage (“tomatito” means “little tomato” in Spanish). Reed sold his crop to restaurants, which wasn’t much—he’d been hit hard by the draught. The young entrepreneur now hopes to grow his plot to an acre-and-half, which would enable him to include farmers’ markets in his list of buyers. Farmers’ markets tend to buy produce at wholesale price, whereas restaurants often pay retail price, Reed says.
“There’s a lot of satisfaction out of finding fresh food,” Reed says. “At somewhere like Hollygrove, I could provide that not just to restaurants but to individuals.” He chose to raise cherry tomatoes and peppers due to their high market price.
HFM grower Bernadette Green chose her crop with the same market consciousness as Reed, but she chose herbs instead because she didn’t have much land. Her plot, located on HFM’s site, is bordered by other growers.
Before she was a grower, Green worked as a licensed social worker and a nurse. She joined a local gardening community two years ago. Today, she sells her herbs to HFM every week.
“I thought economically,” Green says. “I love being healthy and growing healthy food for people to eat, but independence and making money is also important.”
In addition to stability, HFM provides a fostering environment for professional growers, enthusiasts, and individuals interested in local food. Dense gardens surround the market’s orange building, so shoppers literally walk by the land where some of their food grows. The growers who use HFM’s land interact with shoppers and often double as mentors or “master gardeners” for HFM.
When I visited the Hollygrove Market on a Saturday morning, cars filled the parking spaces in front and were lined down the street. Their drivers pulled out canvas or other eco-friendly totes and watched the growers dash back and forth between the gardens and indoor market.
Bernadette Green emerged from the side of the building, wearing a HFM apron and a determined expression. She clutched a pair of scissors and made a beeline for the back gardens, where there are flowers, vegetables, fruits and herbs. She disappeared from view behind a few tall stalks, then appeared with a bunch of freshly snipped herbs. Once inside, she stuffed them into clear Ziploc bags and arranged them into rows on the growers’ table for customers.
Another grower, Ronald Terry, tended to his vines on the opposite side of the gardens. He wore a wide- brimmed straw hat and long sleeves to protect his skin from the coarse plants and incessant mosquitoes. His picture is on the HFM home page, and I found him in a similar pose—bending over his plants.
He welcomed me into his crop. The tall vines had what appeared to be giant black grapes dangling from their tendrils. The air smelled sweet, scents emanating from the fruit and the nearby potted citrus trees.
“Sorry it’s a mess,” Terry apologized, although the rows of vines looked perfectly neat. “We had a big harvest this year.”
He invited me to pick my own fruit. He said the grapes were Muscardins—“It’s like the southern grape”—and pointed to one of the better picks, which was dull and black. I popped it into my mouth. It tasted sugary and juicy, somewhere between a purple grape and a black cherry. I immediately grabbed another.
Inside, HFM workers arranged the growers’ produce onto several large stands in one open room. The smooth, cement floor and brightly colored walls, paired with the colorful produce, create a minimal, cheery atmosphere. The fact that this place smells like nothing but fresh produce highlights the disconnect one feels from food at some larger grocery stores, where most things smell like sanitizer, and you have to bury your face in any flower or vegetable to get its scent. The growers’ work at Hollygrove Market speaks for itself. Above each item is a sign saying how much it costs, what it is, and where it was grown: Algiers Point. Baton Rouge. Picayune, Mississippi. Some of the growers, like Green, also work at the market.
When the shoppers entered on Saturday mornings, they swarmed the stands, eager to see what was available. Because the food is fresh, it must be seasonal. While there is delivery service available for the $25 box of mixed produce—which comes stuffed with enough to feed two adults for a week—shoppers take pleasure in discovering the fresh items in the stands. “Fairy eggplants!” someone gasped. They picked one up and examined it. It was pale and small, the eggplant version of a fingerling potato.
“Box” is a misnomer. Customers fill their shopping bags with the designated number of specified items. This day, the stand offered Heirloom eggplants, butterbeans, okra, bell peppers, a bag of Cajun grain rice, four organic key limes, a bag of Shiitake mushrooms, a bag of golden Chanterelles, one pound of peaches, sprouts, scarlet red tomatoes, microgreens, and a large bunch of lemon basil.
After I picked up my “box,” I spent the week experimenting. I discovered that I love okra when it is sliced lengthwise, and chopped Chanterelles are an easy way to add color to a dish. It was the cheapest week of grocery shopping I had all year in New Orleans, as well as the healthiest.
HFM is on Olive Street, right by Carrollton, on the edge of the Hollygrove neighborhood, which in recent years has become known as the boyhood home of Lil Wayne. On my way out on Saturday, I drove past a corner house with a long front stoop that faced the baseball diamond across the street from the market. I wondered if anyone from the neighborhood actually shopped at HFM, so I pulled over. “Miss Lynda” Duplessis welcomed me into her home as warmly as Terry had welcomed me into his crop. “Let Miss Lynda tell you ‘bout Hollygrove,” she said.
She and her neighbor, Ruth Kennedy, rattled off the produce prices and stock of every store in a 10-mile radius. Neither woman was happy with the produce available at most of them. Kennedy was very angry with at least two stores, but the fresh market, despite being within view of Duplessis’ front stoop, was financially out of reach. “If they’d drop the prices for us, I’d shop there,” said Hollygrove resident Ruth Kennedy. Duplessis nodded in agreement.
HFM accepts SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) cards, but she felt the prices of the produce are still too high for a family dependent on food stamps and/or welfare to shop there. As far as I could determine, the Hollygrove shopping demographic seems to be people who, even if they are on a budget and might not be able to afford shopping at more expensive grocery stores, can make freshness an equal or higher priority than price.
“We aim to provide growing space where Hollygrove and New Orleans residents alike can cultivate their gardening skills,” the Market’s homepage states, but for whatever reason, Duplessis doesn’t take them up on their offer. It provides mentorship classes, volunteering opportunities, and environmental initiatives, but she and Kennedy only know one Hollygrove resident who takes advantage of the classes. She lost her family home in Hurricane Betsy and again in Katrina, so she grows what she can on her front porch. Her morning glory vines recently flowered, and their tendrils climb up the wrought iron and expand onto the ceiling.
“I do have a green thumb,” Duplessis says.
Demian Reed, on the other hand, has access to family land, which makes it possible for him to be more ambitious, but the two—along with Bernadette Green—share something. “I’ve always loved to be outdoors and grow things,” Reed says.