Marianne Cufone is Working to End Food Insecurity with Growing Local NOLA Aquaponics Farm

Caption photo via Marianne Cufone

Growing Local NOLA

Fish farming often gets a bad rap because of problems like overcrowded cage and pen conditions and water pollution in offshore pens. There are much better ways to farm fish, like land-based recirculating farms that often include the use of the fish waste to fertilize produce grown hydroponically (what's known as 'aquaponics'). People might not be familiar with this type of fish farming (or produce farming either, for that matter), so we thought it would be a good time to introduce our readers to a few of the farmers that grow both fish and produce on their farms.

This week we talk with Recirculating Farms Coalition Founder and Executive Director (and aquaponics farmer) Marianne Cufone. You've heard from Marianne before in our 'Our Heroes' interview and when she told us all about the best way to order sustainably produced fish. Now that she's got her own farm and community center - Growing Local NOLA, located in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans - we thought it was a good time to check in and see how things are going.

It's been three years (two growing seasons) since your farm opened. How is it different from your expectations going in?

We opened the farm in 2013, so it's been running for almost three years (in October). Based on discussions with the surrounding neighborhood, we had planned for a variety of uses of the land in addition to a market farm and community garden, including an onsite fresh food cafe and market. Because the property zoning turned out to be different than we (including the city and land owners) all thought, we had to change some of our original plans. So we don't have a cafe or onsite market. We do have an online market, and in place of a cafe we host parties, events and dinners. We also have a variety of free classes at the community garden: exercise on Wednesdays, health supportive farm-to-table cooking on Thursdays and gardening on Saturdays.

We host commercial farming classes, too - beginning, intermediate and advanced - throughout the year, and have special seminars, discussions and demonstrations on various individual topics. The farm has become an active community space where people come to socialize, take classes and grow their own food. We provide 14 raised garden beds for growers who donate 12 hours per month of their time in return for getting everything they need - from seeds to help from our on-site experienced farmers - at no charge. In many ways, the farm is way more than we'd hoped for when first making plans.

What obstacles did you have to overcome to build the farm and what do the neighbors think about it?

Zoning was a big issue, as well as permitting. We spent thousands of dollars unexpectedly on building design and approvals. Finding space for the farm was difficult because even though New Orleans has thousands of abandoned and blighted properties, getting access is very difficult, lengthy and can be prohibitively expensive. We tried to work with a variety of entities to get inexpensive or free land, but nothing worked out in a timely manner. We decided to just go with a regular lease for now until we can find land to purchase - but it cuts significantly into our budget and ability to be self-sufficient without grant funds.

The community has totally embraced the farm. We have hundreds of active participants regularly - from weekly classes to special events. For example, last week, we had 21 people at our 'yoga in the garden' class! We have a mini CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) where members come get "shares" of what we grow weekly - and we always have a waiting list for people to join. We are trying to grow more to meet demand!

Give us some stats: How big is the farm? What do you grow? What kind of fish/seafood do you raise and what do you feed them?

We have two lots: one community garden where we host the classes and events and one market (commercial) farm where we grow food for sale. The lots are about one block from each other, each about 1/2 acre. Right now we are raising catfish and koi in the aquaponics section. In terms of plants, in both the hydroponics and aquaponics sections, depending on the time of year, we have various herbs, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squashes and lettuces. We also grow in-ground and there we have potatoes, kale, chard, onions, carrots, watermelon, eggplants and more.

We feed the fish a combination of duck weed, insects, worms and fish feed. We are working on making our own feed, but need to make sure the fish stay healthy. I'm not an animal food expert so we are moving slowly on it.

Who buys your food, and what do they buy? Where do you sell it?

We have a weekly CSA, an online market and we sell food to local restaurants, too. We haven't done farmers' markets yet - we have a small farm staff and they [farmers' markets] are super time consuming. We've discussed having our own community market once per month and to invite others to join in to sell their own products at our site. If we do that, we'll sell what we grow there, too.

We also use the food we grow in various programs - we participate in a farm-to-school program with local schools, where students come intern at the garden and then we use the food they grow in a health-supportive cooking class. It is truly farm-to-table! We also use the food we grow in our on-site community farm-to-table classes. We sell everything we grow - and eggs from our chickens, too! We also sell a handful of products we make from what we grow, like hot sauce, pesto sauce and herbed butter.

Can you talk a little about the role recirculating farms play in agriculture and the food system?

Recirculating farms - where water, nutrients and waste are all constantly reused and recycled in the growing systems - have become even more popular in recent years. These unique farms are literally sprouting all over the US on rooftops, side lots, terraces and, notably, urban lots. Because they are versatile in design (using towers or other methods), and because of their closed loop nature they are excellent for use in places where space is limited or soil is too rocky, paved over or contaminated for traditional in-ground growing. There are many places recirculating farms can be where it would be too difficult to grow food otherwise.

Both hydroponics (growing plants in nutrient rich water) and aquaponics (raising fish and plants together in one combined system) can provide a large amount of food in places where it is most needed, for example, in cities. Recirculating farms can grow more food in less space more quickly than most other farming methods. The constant exposure to nutrients gives plants a boost. Also, having the farms right where the people are can cut down on use of fuel for transportation and refrigeration, providing fresher food and also reducing production costs. When savings are passed on to consumers, it allows good food to be more affordable, too.

Now that you have a few growing seasons under your belt, do you have any advice for people interested in learning more about aquaponics, or even trying their hand at it?

Growing can be very different in every location. What works in New Orleans might not work in Miami. Each factor matters and can impact productivity - temperature, humidity, altitude, insects, water quality, etc. We've learned what grows well, when and what does not at our farm. I think the most important thing is to start slow. Experiment some, expect to have complications, and once you figure out what works and what doesn't, expand slowly.

I know you've been doing a lot of policy work all around the US on laws that impact recirculating farming systems? Can you give us an overview?

We work on a number of local, regional and national policy initiatives every year. The "hot" ones currently are:
  • Farm-to-School - bringing fresh food and farming programs into schools to teach about nutrition, growing, science, cooking and more;
  • Organic certification for aquaponic/hydroponic farms - working with the National Organic Standards Board and USDA to set standards for aquaponic and hydroponic organic certification;
  • Open water aquaculture - challenging systems that use public resources and harm natural waters and wildlife; and
  • City/state laws supporting urban agriculture and recirculating farming - working with individual states and cities to change or create laws that support urban farming and specifically recirculating farming.

 
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