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New Orleans Urban Farmers Prepare for Overlapping Climate Disasters

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, lends tools, rehomes animals, organizes volunteers, distributes food, and helps 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.”

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

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 salt water intrusion issue is not going away.

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

She has seen nearly half of her orchard wither in this year’s heat, but she’s 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 in 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.

Margee Green is a fruit tree farmer and executive director at Sprout NOLA. (Photo Photo by Lizzy Unger.)

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.

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