You don't have to own a farm in the country to grow fruits, vegetables and herbs or raise chickens and bees. You just need to learn some basics and find out what's available. That's where New Orleans Food and Farm Network (NOFFN) (864-2009; www.noffn.org) comes in. NOFFN is a network of organizations and people involved in urban farming, but it also is a hands-on group that holds informational sessions and helps individuals, communities and schools install vegetable gardens.
"We are a food accessibility organization," says Ariel Wallick Dorfman, an urban agriculturalist and NOFFN educator. "The goal is to work with other partner organizations, community groups and individuals as a network to increase access to healthy, locally grown, sustainable foods."
The network, founded after Hurricane Katrina, seeks to increase the number of growers in the New Orleans area and optimize the yields of urban agriculture, whether growers are raising crops to sell or are backyard gardeners interested in producing at least some of the food they normally would buy at a market.
"There clearly are economic benefits," Dorfman says. "It's much less expensive to grow your own seasonal produce. There also are tremendous health benefits, particularly when you are using sustainable practices. The food is grown closer to home, so it hasn't traveled so far (as produce that comes from California or other countries). It's pretty much the freshest food possible. As long as your soil is healthy, you're going to know what goes into the production of your vegetables."
In addition to teaching people how to farm, compost and use the compost to enrich soil, NOFFN shares resources, distributes information about food projects in the city and exchanges horticulture information with local growers. It helps identify places food can be found in a given area and works with neighborhoods to identify food needs and potential resources. The network also tries to steer public policy to ensure better access to healthy foods.
Dorfman leads NOFFN's seven-part Gro Mo' Betta 2010-2011 sustainable gardening training series, which started in October and has sessions scheduled at 3 p.m. the second Saturday of each month through May at Hollygrove Market and Farm (8301 Olive St.; www.hollygrovemarketcom). The series is open to the public; admission is $5 per session.
The remaining topics are urban coop building and chicken care, Nov. 13; winterizing, harvesting and storage techniques, Dec. 11; composting and soil building, Jan. 8, 2011; planting a spring garden, Feb. 12, 2011; sustainable pest and disease management, March 11, 2011; irrigation and rainwater catchment, April 9, 2011; and home orchards and urban beekeeping, May 14, 2011. To register, email email@example.com or call 864-2009.
Free vegetable, herb and flower seeds will be available at the sessions, but gardeners who don't attend also can get seeds. "We, along with Parkway Partners, have a large seed bank available for people to work with, and we've also done seedling distributions," Dorfman says.
To start a garden you just need to stake out some space and make sure you start with healthy soil, Dorfman says. "Think about the soil first," she says. "Instead of feeding your plants, it's important to feed the soil. One of the easiest ways to do that is composting. By composting at home, you're keeping trash from the landfill and turning it back into healthy soil that can be used in your garden.
"Gardening gives everyone a closer relationship to the food they eat. It's a very restorative process."