In New Orleans, today, farmers, fishers, shrimpers and chefs will join the community in a Thanksgiving dinner at the Crescent City Farmers Market. They will give thanks and “celebrate surviving, reinventing and rediscovering the power of community.” On our recent trip to the South, Azalia and I had the privilege to experience the power and strength of the Crescent City Farmers Market. We witnessed the endurance of the producers to continue with a long tradition of going to the market, and the customers’ relief that they continue to be there.
On the day that hurricane Katrina hit, Crescent City was to celebrate their 10-year anniversary. Started by Mississippi farmer, Ben Burkett, and the Executive Director of the Economics Institute (housed at Loyola University), Richard McCarthy, the market at its peak had 70 producers, 1500 customers and $1 million in annual sales. The market was open year-round, 4 days a week.
Today, the Crescent City Farmers Market producers and customers are truly Katrina survivors. Many of the vendors have disappeared, some displaced, some dead. There are notable absences to long-time customers. One customer that was searching for a specific cheese vendor was told that he had been displaced and they were looking for a new one. Ben, who brings produce from the Indian Springs Farmers Association, is the only watermelon vendor now. One that he knew of died and the other farms were wiped out.
But they are rebounding. They re-opened the market 3 months after Katrina and have 30 vendors. They are only open two days a week because the other locations are still inaccessible, and the customer and producer base is no longer there to support a 4-day a week market.
Katrina isn’t the first struggle that Crescent City Farmers Market has survived. The French Corridor was home to the oldest farmers market in the country. It was known for supplying all of the famous restaurants and chefs for which New Orleans is recognized. It was so popular that all of the producers would be sold out before sunrise. But tourism got the better of the French Corridor market and, today, trinkets and souvenirs are the main feature in the market.
New Orleans is ideal for a farmers market because the region can support a market all year round, and there is a desperate need to create markets for family and minority farmers and fishers. Ben tried several times to start a farmers market in New Orleans to replace the one in the French Corridor, but bureaucracy and lack of political will prevented it.
The power of partnership eventually brought a peoples’ farmers market to New Orleans. Richard became interested in establishing a farmers market but needed the farmers to make it happen. Ben, a long-time farmer organizer in the region, was the farmer that could make it happen. With a pool of producers to supply the market and a Loyola University-based institute to legitimize it, Crescent City, then Green Market, rang its first bell in 1995. In the first three years, fifteen new businesses were formed and twenty-two new jobs created.
Not long into their initial years of operation another fight ensued. They began receiving letters from a lawyer in New York City representing a farmers market there. A lawsuit was threatened for infringement of the “Green Market” name, to which a NYC market claimed proprietary rights. For a time, they ignored the letters; they couldn’t imagine that a market in New Orleans was a threat to a market in NYC. Eventually, they had to change the name. They held a contest where their customers submitted names, and ‘Crescent City’ won the contest.
Despite the legal battles, the political wrangling and Katrina, Crescent City Farmers Market is about a few simple notions: local food builds healthy communities, sustains rural livelihoods and the environment.
Azalia and I worked with Ben to bring 100 pounds of okra (we picked it under the hot Mississippi sun!), 65 watermelons (both red and yellow ones) and 35 cantaloupes to the market. We woke up by 4 am to make the 3 hour drive to New Orleans in time for the opening 9 am bell. And it was worth it. The Indian Springs Farmers Association made $500 that day, which supported two producers and many customers.
Ben is back today–selling more okra (300 pounds!), bell peppers, peas, eggplant and hot peppers. He, and the other farmers of Indian Springs, will continue to be there because they believe in the right of farmers to produce for local markets. They stand for the rights of resource-poor and Black farmers to own land and build self-sufficient communities.
Driving through East New Orleans on our way to the market, the rising pink sun gave way to many unimaginable sights: a mountain of refuge from Katrina debris, vacant and destroyed shopping malls, housing developments ripped to shreds and no evidence of repair in sight. One year later, New Orleans remains uninhabitable in 50% of its neighborhoods, and martial law was reinstituted in the lower 9th ward to curb violence in this ghost of a community.
In this backdrop, Crescent City Farmers Market seems even more remarkable. One okra customer said to me, “Thank God, you’re here. The okra in the supermarkets is rotten. After Katrina, we can’t get good produce. It’s so nice to have fresh food.” The value of the farmers market is as basic as providing one customer healthy food. And it is as profound as preserving humanity itself. In the nightmare of Katrina, the market has provided stability and a model for rebuilding. Grassroots gives thanks to all the farmers, fishers, producers and partners that have made the market a reality. They give hope that a stronger, more sustainable New Orleans is possible.