10/20/2010 02:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New Orleans Food Farms Struggle With Toxins and Red Tape

This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Oct. 18, 2010 edition.

Crescent City growers have revived a centuries-old tradition of producing vegetables and fruit on treated soil or special beds, while some raise poultry and at least one community group plans to stock fish ponds.

Soil tainted by lead -- accumulated from car exhaust and paint use -- and by arsenic from wood preservatives are threats that can be managed, urban gardeners say. A tougher issue is groundwater that is sometimes fouled by garbage dumps and processing plants.

Large-scale, community farming in the city requires soil and water testing and an array of permits. But that's not stopping gardeners in New Orleans East, Hollygrove and Treme, areas under-served by food markets in the first year or two after Katrina.

Toxic metals in the city's soils can get into food plants, though it's not a common occurrence. Lovell Agwaramgbo, Dillard University chemistry professor, said, "lead and arsenic have been the soil contaminants of particular concern here since Katrina." He and colleagues at New Orleans-based People's Environmental Center sampled local soils from gardens, other sites and suppliers in the past year.

Based on their research, he said "there's little evidence that lead or arsenic move into fruity vegetables, like tomatoes, okra, carrots and bell peppers -- as long as soil contaminants are below levels of 400 parts per million for lead as proscribed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the La. Dept. of Environmental Quality, and below the state's 12 parts per million for arsenic."

Agwaramgbo said "a small amount of lead above detection limits was seen in basil leaves" that the researchers planted on experimental soil with lead levels above 400 ppm. "But other vegetables planted in the same soil did not uptake lead."

Aside from the experimental basil leaves, locally grown vegetables tested by Agwaramgbo have not showed worrisome lead or arsenic levels. Nonetheless, "it's important to have soil used to raise food tested for contaminants by a commercial service, like PACE Analytical, or by Louisiana State University AgCenter or another university," he said.

In New Orleans East, Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corp., is planning a 20- to 28-acre Viet Village farm site, adjacent to the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. Daniel Nguyen, urban farm project manager at the development center, said, "we're in the process of having detailed soil testing done at the proposed farm site. With that data, we'll be able to pinpoint contamination and can then decide whether soil remediation or using raised soil beds is the better option." To create raised beds, growers set clumps of clean soil on the ground.

"We've been told it's not safe to use water from a nearby canal, which might have runoff from the closed Chef Menteur landfill," Nguyen said. Instead, the farm's irrigation system will probably use ground water that does not contain runoff, he said.

Nguyen continued "we have applied for a Section 404 permit," required by the Clean Water Act -- regulating the discharge of dredged or fill material into wetlands. "But we must have a mitigation credit before we can get the 404 permit. The best rate we got for a credit was from Paradis Mitigation Bank," operated by Chevron U.S.A, Inc.

In the economics of saving the coast, mitigation banks like Paradis, which is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District, create an incentive for restoring, creating, and preserving or enhancing wetlands. The Paradis bank was designed by ecologists, soils experts and a review team from the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries.

"At this point, we're still deciding on a drainage system for Viet Village," Nguyen said. The planned site is on soil called Kenner muck, which doesn't drain well, so the farm must be managed to prevent water logging. "We hope to break ground in early 2011, if we have all the permits," he said.

At the design firm for Viet Village, Wes Michaels, principal of landscape architects Spackman, Mossop + Michaels in New Orleans, said "we've been working on plans for the farm since 2007, and during the permitting process have met with every, imaginable state agency, including the Departments of Environmental Quality and Agriculture. We met with city agencies, and on the federal level with the Army Corps of Engineers." He said if any problems are found in soil testing, they would be addressed in the permitting process.

Nguyen said, "once the worries about permitting are over, we'll turn to other urban farming issues. The MQVN CDC has been trying for some time to get the city to enforce environmental laws better." Regulations for landfills, illegal dumping and the Sun Energy Group gasification plant -- which is less than ten miles from Viet Village, can impact the farm. The MQVN CDC conducts campaigns on air quality that are relevant to agriculture, he said. Public health issues in urban farming, like West Nile disease, will be addressed at the site.

Michaels said Viet Village would form a nucleus in New Orleans East, bringing area farmers together in one site to benefit from economies of scale for water, other inputs and waste composting. The community has held a series of meetings about the farm, including a Simulcast presentation with Vietnamese translation last year. Other partners in Viet Village are Tulane City Center, the New Orleans Farm and Food Network and LSU AgCenter.

About half of Viet Village's plots will be for individuals and half will be commercial, with plans to raise organic fruit, vegetables, chickens and ducks, Nguyen said. Local chef John Besh wants to buy the farm's ducks and fresh produce.

MQVN CDC is also planning an aquaculture site in New Orleans East but the location is not finalized, Nguyen said. "All these farm decisions are community driven, and the community will decide what kinds of fish to raise," he said.

At the Hollygrove Market and Farm, in the neighborhood by that name, executive director Paul Baricos, said "we didn't have a problem with heavy metals in soil because our farm is on the site of the former Guillot's Nursery, and had been covered with eighteen inches of oyster shells for decades. The farm is on Olive Street near South Carrollton. "We covered the shells with alluvial soil from Plaquemines Parish and with an ecological soil from a Baton Rouge supplier."

Baricos said one problem with the soils used at Hollygrove is that they contain naturally occurring, rotting wood chips, which soak up nitrogen. "But we compost to add in nitrogen," he said. "And for irrigation, we use city water, which we pay for."

Baricos said "we have plots for commercial growers, who sell their produce to the market and restaurants, and mentor other growers. Another eight or nine community farmers produce and consume their own produce and give demonstrations." The Master Gardeners program of Greater New Orleans, run by LSU AgCenter, operates eight demonstration beds at Hollygrove and gives Saturday classes.

Hollygrove Farm has ten laying hens and a coop in a fenced yard. As for how the farm decided on ten chickens, Baricos said "there's a gray area in city law, saying a household can have up to four." Meanwhile, the coop has never been inspected by the city. But LSU AgCenter has inspected it for cleanliness, treatment of chickens and how eggs are transferred. Chickens are shut in the coop at night and haven't had problems with dogs or cats. "And as far as I know, there are no foxes in the area," Baricos said.

He said his neighbor at home has backyard chickens that sometimes get loose, "but they're bigger than cats, who steer clear of them."

Hollygrove Market and Farm, which opened in late 2008, is a non-profit store, selling produce from its site and South Louisiana farms. The RosaMary Foundation, based in New Orleans, provided a grant to renovate the building and grounds. Partners in the project include the Trinity Christian Community Center, New Orleans Food and Farm Network, LSU AgCenter, Tulane City Center and Carrollton-Hollygrove Community Development Corp.

Daniel Etheridge, associate director at the Tulane City Center, said "raising poultry is an appropriate urban activity when people have the right training and experience. The projects that we support develop the appropriate infrastructure and understand the maintenance required." He noted that city dwellers across the country keep backyard chickens.

New Orleans ordinances allow "an unspecified number of chickens with written permission of property owners within 300 feet. Chickens are to be treated humanely and kept in clean, sturdy structures."

In the 1800's and earlier, many Crescent City residences had laying hens and vegetable gardens, while bigger houses raised citrus, sugarcane and cash crops -- like tobacco and indigo. Ariel Dorfman, urban agriculturalist at non-profit New Orleans Food and Farm Network, said, "victory gardens abounded in the 1940's, but city farming waned in the 50's. We've seen a recent resurgence because people want access to fresh, healthy food and enjoy gardening as a pastime. It's in fashion now." To avoid sun, bugs and anything lurking in city soils, however, Dorfman advises wearing a long-sleeved shirt and long pants when tending to plants.

After Katrina, Vietnamese Americans in New Orleans East were among the first residents to return to a town without food, and quickly replanted their vegetable gardens. Next year many of those plots will be consolidated at Viet Village, where growers will share the costs of seeds, fertilizer, insecticides and water.