Kathia Duran has been asking a lot of questions about soil composition, seeds and cover crops during her 12-day stay in Missoula. As she stands in the Northside Community Garden on a recent afternoon, she wants to know who runs it, how much money they make and what their workday looks like?
A small crowd of staff and volunteers from Garden City Harvest answer her questions one by one while Duran takes notes. She doesn't want to miss a thing. She's come more than 2,000 miles to hear every detail.
Duran and her travel partner, doctorate student and former chef Claire Menck, traveled to Missoula as part of an agricultural exchange aimed at teaching farming and organizational structure among likeminded nonprofits. As executive director of the Latino Farmers Cooperative of Louisiana (LFCL), Duran hopes to take what she learns from Garden City Harvest and apply it to New Orleans, a city transformed by crisis.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed the Gulf Coast almost five years ago and New Orleans is still recovering, Duran says, with only a limited number of resources to address the problems. LFCL was created to help fix what Duran sees as a broken food system.
"As I reflect every night I think about how farming is an art; it's like building a culture or developing a new language," says Duran of her Missoula tour. "Every person we've met puts their heart and soul and passion into it and you can tell that their farms are just a reflection of them. Each one is completely beautiful but different."
Duran, a former aviation consultant, has her work cut out for her in New Orleans. After Katrina, scores of the Latino community left the city. Many were already struggling to make a living because of language, cultural and political barriers, she says, and after the storm they were often left with nothing—no shelter, transportation or means of communication. Those who had already been marginalized before the hurricanes were left hungry in the disasters' wake.
"My community needs to eat," Duran says. "We're using urban agriculture as a way to provide vegetables to our community. We're providing the community with food."
LFCL works to address food scarcity issues and to educate, support and encourage members of the Latino community in Orleans Parish to grow their own food. The group also works to help secure urban farmland, and trains Latino farmers in sustainable practices.
But LFCL needs help. That's why Duran responded this spring to an e-mail from Garden City Harvest suggesting an exchange of ideas.
Josh Slotnik, director of the PEAS Farm, a joint venture between the University of Montana and Garden City Harvest, first thought of the exchange after visiting New York City last fall and seeing an urban farm on a two-and-half acre asphalt lot. Slotnik says the farmers had spread two feet of topsoil on top of the asphalt and were growing vegetables with a view of an IKEA across the street, a low-income housing development in the other direction and the Statue of Liberty in the distance.
"I saw their chalkboard with a list of tasks they were doing that day and thought, These people are totally different from me but I know how to compost, I know how to harvest broccoli," says Slotnik.
He took the idea back to Garden City Harvest and, with a student assistant, drafted a letter to send to farms across the country that were decidedly unlike the PEAS Farm, and in towns that did not resemble Missoula.
"We didn't send the letter to Madison or Bellingham," explains Slotnik. "We wanted to use urban agriculture as a medium of exchange to learn about a different culture and a different place."
So did Duran.
"They knocked on my door at the right time and provided all of the resources to make the trip a reality," she says. "This organization is very committed to reaching out to low-income people. Our mission has some intersection—we are just catering to a particular minority group. I was looking for an organization that would tell me their history, and how they fund projects so I might duplicate that model and bring it back to New Orleans."
So far, the exchange has been a huge success for Duran. In October, she hopes to return the favor when two staff members from Garden City Harvest visit her in New Orleans. She says they will likely see a food system in transition, in a vastly different climate, with farmers getting ready to plant oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, figs, blueberries and raspberries. They'll most certainly see Duran, moving from one garden to the next, just as she did in Missoula this week, still looking for answers, and still trying to fix a broken system.