New Orleans Urban Farmers Prepare for Overlapping Climate Disasters

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This article was produced in partnership with Nexus Media News and Civil Eats.

Whenever a disaster strikes in Louisiana, Sprout NOLA springs to life to offer technical assistance to farmers, helping them navigate a wide range of challenges. The nimble group of New Orleans urban farmers and food justice advocates travels directly to farms across Louisiana to offer funds, lend tools, rehome animals, organize volunteers, distribute food, and help farmers with post-disaster paperwork.

“We’re able to be adaptive and react to the crisis and individual needs,” said Margee Green, a fruit tree farmer and the nonprofit’s executive director. “Everybody pulls together whatever resources.”

Historically, the crises they’ve responded to have almost always been hurricanes. But this year, Louisiana experienced overlapping climate disasters: the largest wildfire in the state’s history, record-breaking temperatures, and a developing crisis of saltwater intrusion moving from the Gulf of Mexico up the Mississippi River due to historically low water levels. While most of New Orleans will likely be spared, the saltwater intrusion issue is not going away.

“It has been a really rude awakening of our understanding of our capacity, and we are stepping up,” Green said.

She has seen nearly half of her orchard wither in this year’s heat, but Green is most concerned about other farmers — who operate on thin margins and depend on growing crops to make a living. It has been so hot that seeds have failed to germinate, and farmers have had to dig wells for the first time.

Sprout NOLA fills a critical gap, mainly working with the farmers who tend to be left out of government-level disaster support services. They range from small-scale farmers in New Orleans to LGBTQ and BIPOC farmers throughout the state and most lack crop insurance.

Civil Eats spoke with Sprout NOLA’s Mina Seck and Green about establishing new protocols, helping farmers navigate the new normal, and how the organization is preparing the region’s farms for an increasingly volatile climate future.

A community garden bed flush with thriving plant life boasts a sign with two panels reading, “Community beds” and “Take what you need leave some for others.”
One of the community garden beds Sprout NOLA maintains in its community garden.
Sprout NOLA

Civil Eats: How has this season been different for you with the wildfires and heat? How has it affected farmers that you work with?

Mina Seck: This summer, the heat broke records and was just absolutely abnormal. But I’m really feeling the effects of the lack of rain. Usually summers are really hot, but we get a lot of rain. We’d get those afternoon rains and the clouds would roll out—clouds really matter. Your soils were not being directly pounded by the sun. The drought really, really was rough.

In the community garden where we grow our food, we plant cover crops every July and August anyway. It’s a standard thing we do [because] it’s too hot to grow food in the summer. The heat has affected being able to start production in September though, and that’s what’s scary. We do food systems work. We want to be able to grow food for people. The soils were just so dry, even with the cover cropping. It was hard to keep them slightly moist, even covering them with banana leaves.

Being able to get seeds to germinate with the heat and lack of water has been an issue that I’ve seen farmers come up against. The soil in New Orleans, and in other parts of Louisiana, doesn’t retain much water.

We’re figuring out how to move through heat and drought as a [new form of] disaster this year and in coming years. We reached out to some funders to see if it would be possible to offer farmers help mitigating this part of the climate disaster, whether through digging wells or [buying] shade cloth. We were able to offer micogrants.

And we’re in the planning stages of hosting a climate gathering in January. I’m really excited about that. It’s going to be a space where we offer technical assistance to farmers, growers, and community members about what to do in the heat.

How could saltwater intrusion potentially impact farmers in Louisiana?

MS: We’re still waiting to see what happens. We’re working in partnership with Louisiana State University’s AgCenter and other organizations to keep up to date. When salinity reaches a high level, it can affect farmers and urban growers as plants may not survive, but it’s still a developing situation. Mulching, reverse osmosis, and injecting water with sulfur or sulfuric acid are some ways farmers can try to deal with it. We can offer folks tips and tricks on how to handle high levels of salinity as it pertains to growing. We’re planning a saltwater townhall meeting with LSU ag experts.

A sign planted in one of the garden’s beds reads, “Refresh Garden-,” before being obstructed by tall, healthy flower blooms and towering plants.
The community garden at Sprout NOLA.
Sprout NOLA

It sounds like the support you typically offer farmers during hurricanes doesn’t work for other climate impacts, such as extreme drought.

Margee Green: With hurricanes there’s the path of the storm. For the most part, only 20 to 50 farmers [within our network] will be impacted. It’s not every single farmer.

We are stepping up. It has taken us working in a coalition. We work with the Louisiana Small-Scale Agriculture Coalition to address heat and drought. It’s not really helpful to move alone on something that’s so widespread.

A lot of the farmers we work with had to go out and get pumps for their first-time irrigating. We can offset the costs of digging a well. But in terms of a climate resilience strategy, wells are not perfect, because we’re also running low on groundwater.

What options have you had to support farmers during hurricane season this year?

MG: During Hurricane Ida, we found that a lot of the paperwork and federal programs were very difficult for farmers to navigate. We noticed that it caused farmers [to experience] a lot of mental health issues while trying to navigate programs in the wake of a storm, especially without connectivity.

We’re going to pay people to sit with farmers and help them navigate all that paperwork. We have the structure built out and ready to deploy when it’s needed. In the past, we did this de facto, by the seat of our pants. But for this hurricane season, we have all the procedures in line, all the paperwork printed and all the iPads ready. We’re actually studying the effects of having a buddy in paperwork navigation on farmer mental health.

And because it’s a university grant, we were able to pay for $50 gift cards for farmers to participate so that we can use their anonymized data. That’s incredibly helpful for restocking their fridge. And then in a follow-up, where [we look at the program’s] impact after a storm, we can give another gift card.

We also have a call-in line. Immediately, in the wake of a named storm, we have a phone number for farmers and food systems people to call. We don’t have to do any organizing after the storm hits on how we are all touching base. We have a standing calendar meeting three times a week. [This is helpful] because there is often a duplication of efforts post-storm. I went through Katrina and Ida here; you don’t want to have 16 different people doing something individually that could be done better together.

One of the big things we want to drill into people — because they get overwhelmed after a storm — is that we have systems, so that nobody wakes up the morning after a storm and has frenetic energy and doesn’t know where to direct it.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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