Across from a baseball park and the Carrollton Boosters' home turf, a bare arc of slatted wood panels will soon be covered with foliage from pots of squash, mirlitons and fresh greens.
But the edible welcome mat isn't ready yet. The vegetables haven't been planted. The panels aren't all screwed into the frame. The model vision for the Hollygrove Market & Farm's front door — and everything else on the property — won't be completed until late spring.
The future farm, a collaborative effort with the New Orleans Food & Farm Network (NOFFN) and the Carrollton-Hollygrove Community Development Corporation (CHCDC), occupies the former Guillot's Nursery on Olive Street and will operate as a training ground for backyard gardeners in the Hollygrove neighborhood. The urban agriculture training program will provide 35 gardeners with four workshops for two growing seasons. For now, the farm operates as a weekly market hub for backyard growers, community gardeners, urban microfarmers and rural farmers to sell healthy and affordable food, previously a rare commodity in the neighborhood.
"Hollygrove was an extreme food desert," says Alicia Vance, a community organizer with the NOFFN. Until the opening of Robert Fresh Market on the corner of South Claiborne and South Carrollton avenues, Hollygrove's closest food source came from as far as Orleans Avenue or Airline Highway. But the supermarket's opening didn't necessarily solve the problem of finding affordable food.
"From a resident's point of view, it's unaffordable to most people, so it hasn't changed shopping behaviors," Vance says. "People don't feel like it's in their income level."
In early 2007, the NOFFN saw Hollygrove as an ideal location for a Good Food Neighborhood program, a three-year model in which the neighborhood is saturated with programs, educational forums and conversation about food.
"To have significantly increased access and desire for fresh foods, unless you know how to cook and can appreciate fresh foods — they don't have a place," Vance says. "So we started a conversation with residents, talked about mapping food access in the neighborhood: Where can you buy food? What sort of foods? What fresh foods are available? Part of the conversation is really about the food going from seed to table — what it takes to grow food, to process, get it to market, to purchase, cook and eat it."
Before Hurricane Katrina, the NOFFN worked with the Trinity Christian Community Center installing backyard gardens in 17 homes throughout the city. "They were wiped out (by the storm)," Vance says. "We were installing up until the day before the storm.
"People aren't going to be growing enough food in their yards to stop going to the grocery store. But it changes the behavior of what you buy and your relationship to fresh foods. You have so much pleasure being around watching a plant grow."
The network saw post-Katrina New Orleans as an opportunity to redevelop the food system around something other than large-chain grocery stores and focus on a community garden model — one already in place.
"Guillot's was pretty popular citywide," says Paul Baricos, executive director of the CHCDC. "It was so accessible to everyone, and I think people were hoping it would reopen. But now that it's not, they're happy to see it's not turned into a used car lot."
The CHCDC leased the property from Bobby Guillot, owner of the former garden and nursery, and opened the Hollygrove Market & Farm with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Nov. 7, 2008. In the following months, swarms of volunteers from the neighborhood showed up to help.
"It's been really welcome ... just to see a groundbreaking and see a physical change in the neighborhood," Vance says. "It really draws people's spirits up. It's long overdue to have a community space in the neighborhood that's around food. That's something people are extraordinarily interested in."
From the Olive Street entrance, near the vegetable awning, a courtyard pavilion is almost complete. The roof, designed to capture rainwater, hangs over a patio in front of a poolhouse-sized shed containing a tank that uses the rainwater to irrigate the surrounding farm. With funding from Aveeno, Tulane University's City Center and School of Architecture designed the project as a gathering place, where customers can meet farmers, view cooking demonstrations and hold community meetings.
A lot behind the pavilion adjacent to the main house on the farm will serve as the training ground for future farmers. The former gravel pit has been planted with cover crops like oat and wheat, which will be tilled to fertilize the soil with rich nutrients.
A large farming space in the yard will operate as a community garden where budding farmers may experiment with plants from other countries. "We'll look at crops from Vietnam, Mexico, Central America, wherever, with the idea of introducing them to the rest of New Orleans, with the idea of growing more than just squash, eggplant or mirliton," Baricos says.
The farm will also feature model garden beds, a greenhouse, compost storage, orchards and a "closed-loop" fish pond, where farmers will grow the feed, eat the fish, and use the water to fertilize the yard, eliminating waste for maximum sustainability.
The main building, which now serves as the weekly market home, will undergo green renovations, including a roof garden, solar panels and high-efficiency windows and insulation. The second floor will feature office space and cubicles for neighborhood groups such as ACORN and AARP in hopes that the floor will become a "center of community life."
Inside the main building, Baricos envisions a nonprofit retail store and market space "like the produce section of a supermarket," open five to seven days a week, where guests can buy and sell locally grown produce from urban growers and rural farmers at "the nexus between supply and demand."
"It's a critical piece of a much bigger puzzle," he says. "While we're getting fresh fruits and vegetables to Hollygrove, you see all the other things taking place — an anti-blight process, the educational aspect, the economic aspect, with job training and green jobs. As we go on and on and on, we see a different aspect every time we turn around."
"There's potential for this place to be anywhere in the city, a Garden of Eden," Vance adds. "It's something that can be replicated."