Purple hyacinth bean vines entwine the short fence lining the edge of the Little Sparrow Farm in Mid-City. They grow so lushly and have such vivid purple blossoms that many passersby are compelled to stop, admire and even pick a few dangling lengths. That is exactly what Little Sparrow farmer Marilyn Yank had in mind when she planted them.
"People ask me about it all the time and take little clippings," Yank says. "It's been the biggest conversation piece, which is great because part of the reason I built this (farm) is to start a conversation about urban farming. Eventually I want to have stuff just heaped over the fence and really draw people in here."
Yank began the farm last summer on a long-vacant lot on the corner of South Cortez and Cleveland streets, and she brought in Little Sparrow's first harvest of lettuces in time for Thanksgiving. Today, she sells some of the farm's crops through the Hollygrove Market & Farm, which pools the produce of many local growers, and she also supplies herbs, vegetables and cut flowers to a short roster of neighborhood restaurants, including the neighboring Ruby Slipper Cafe.
From the very start, though, Little Sparrow has been cultivated with an education mission in mind. Yank is an urban farming advocate, and she believes small organic farms like Little Sparrow could thrive throughout New Orleans. She sees layered benefits, from producing food locally to sparking a learning interest among neighborhood children to simply beautifying the empty lots that have proliferated since the levee failures.
A Detroit native who moved to New Orleans from Austin in 2002, Yank previously worked for the New Orleans Food & Farm Network, a nonprofit organization that helps others establish their own farms. She conceived Little Sparrow as an independent public demonstration of what's possible when time, attention and old-fashioned know-how are applied to even the smallest vacant spaces.
Little Sparrow sits on an ordinary Mid-City lot measuring 3,000 square feet, or about 1/14 of an acre. It once was home to a tiny movie theater, called the Cortez, though the property has sat empty since a fire destroyed the cinema in the 1950s. Yank struck a deal with the lot's owner for use of his land and water in exchange for maintaining the property and giving him a share of the produce.
She tested the soil for contaminants and got a clean bill of health before moving in a few loads of manure and topsoil to begin building beds. Like the hyacinth beans on the fence, her plantings of carrots, broccoli, collard greens, okra and peppers are designed to attract interest.
"I want to have things in here that people in the neighborhood recognize, things they already use in their recipes," she says. "That's part of what I want to demonstrate here, especially to the kids. They're really curious about what I'm doing over here, and when I show them things that they already eat and where it comes from, that really blows them away."
In the year since her first harvest, neighbors, patrons of nearby restaurants and even visiting journalists and sustainable-farming advocates have all watched Yank's seemingly simple work unfold. The tiny farm is not feeding the world and it's not making anybody rich, but as the beds at Little Sparrow grow into their second year, Yank has shown just how rapidly one small patch of New Orleans can change from blank slate to bounty.