Giving Thanks for an Urban Farm

New Orleans, LA –

I knew something was up in my Mid-City neighborhood last year when sheets of black plastic appeared over the entire surface of a vacant house lot on the corner of South Cortez and Cleveland streets (map). Then a small sign materialized at the corner explaining that this long-empty site would become the new Little Sparrow Farm, and that local farmer Marilyn Yank would create a market garden here.

This spot is right around the corner from my house, and I pass it daily while walking my dogs. In this way, I have watched Marilyn's seemingly simple work unfold on her fledgling farm. And I've witnessed its rapid progression from blank slate to bounty. During my walks, I've stopped to discuss her urban growing techniques over the short farm fence, I've quizzed her on the seasonal changes I could see manifest in her beds, and occasionally I've hauled lagniappe produce back home to my kitchen.

It turns out, I was playing right into this farmer's plans. Marilyn Yank is an urban farming advocate, someone who believes small organic farms like Little Sparrow could thrive across New Orleans. She sees layered benefits, from the obvious local food production, to sparking a learning interest in neighborhood children to simply beautifying the neglected lots that have proliferated since the levee failures.

In the past Marilyn has worked for the New Orleans Food & Farm Network, a nonprofit helping others establish their own farms. She conceived Little Sparrow Farm last year as an independent public demonstration of what's possible when time, attention and old-fashioned know-how are applied to even tiny vacant lots.

I learned that the peculiar black plastic covering was a simple solar energy tool to cook and kill all the lot's weed and grass seeds underneath. Then, I learned, she brought in a few dozen yards of soil and began building beds. She explained how some plantings were intended to attract birds and others beneficial bugs. Some of the plantings are intentional conversation pieces, like the vivid purple hyacinth beans so lushly entwining the farm fence these days. Marilyn wants to draw people in, and while she works her farm for an hour or two each day she enjoys fielding questions from passersby, from the patrons waiting for tables outside the Ruby Slipper Cafe just across the street and, as planned, from curious kids around the neighborhood.

This all started in the summer of 2008, and by this time last year she was selling her first crops for neighbors to use in the their Thanksgiving dinners. She now has a small roster of restaurant clients buying her produce and cut flowers. Since the first harvest, we've seen the greens and carrots and broccoli and kale shift to hot weather crops in the spring and return again to the coming winter cycle.

Little Sparrow Farm sits on a normal New Orleans house lot, measuring about 3,000 square feet. That's less than one-fourteenth of an acre. It's not feeding the world, and it's not making anybody rich. But as the beds at Little Sparrow move into their second year, its clear the farm has made a big impact on one New Orleans neighborhood. And for that, at Thanksgiving time, I just wanted to give thanks.