This is a re-post of an entry I wrote for the 2010/2011 Disaster Politics class blog from our time in New Orleans over winter break. I encourage everyone to visit it (http://oxyinneworleans.wordpress.com/), as well as the blog of Our School at Blair Grocery, an inspiring example of empowerment and food justice we also got to work with (http://schoolatblairgrocery.blogspot.com/)
Here is a brief look at Gotreaux Family Farms:
In a bit of a departure from our time at the Lower Ninth Ward Community Village, a group of us were fortunate to travel to Scott, LA to visit Gotreaux Family Farms, along with students from New York 2 New Orleans currently housed at Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG).
Situated on 28 acres 60 miles west of Baton Rouge, the operation contains an innovative set of hydroponic and aquaponic system the Gotreaux family uses to raise organic tilapia. What makes this system special is its process of cycling phyto plankton through above-ground tanks that provide the vast majority of the tilapias’ diet without necessitating any use of antibiotics or chemical inputs.
This “green water” (caused by the color of the phyto plankton) then flows from the recycling pump tanks to human-made ditches that draw the nutrient rich water to the crop rows and the compost pile outside the tents that house the tilapia. Instead of waste water flowing back into potable water sources like those used in many conventional fish farms, the adjacent vegetable crops and soil are nourished organically.
It was hard to ignore the sound of hundreds of chickens roaming the acres of pasture across from the tilapia tanks and crop rows. Raised for nine and a half weeks, instead of the conventional four, the chickens are free to feed and stroll the 20 acres of pasture without restriction. For anyone who is familiar with Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm (profiled in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, “Food Inc.” and “Fresh”), Gotreaux Farms uses an “eggmobile” to strategically transport the chickens to fresh grass.
Outside of the operational details of the farm, there is an important human side to the Gotreaux story. Bill Gotreaux, who runs the farm with his wife and 10 children, provided his explanation for starting the farm by stating that is was for purely health reasons. A career in the mechanical field had apparently given him dangerously high levels of chemicals, including arsenic. In short, he decided to raise his own organic food to save his life. This lifestyle change eventually became the farm we visited, but according to Mr. Gotreaux it has not been easy to create a food community embracing organic, fully sustainable foods that have historically been absent from the meat-centric diet that makes up Cajun cuisine: “This is Cajun country – they don’t eat vegetables.”
On a final note, there is an important connection to be made between the work of Gotreaux Family Farms and Our School at Blair Grocery. In a sense they are both trying to address food justice and community needs. For Gotreaux it is a wider food community that currently does not have the proper access to ‘good’, sustainable food (The vast majority of tilapia sales are to New Orleans-based vendors). For Our School, it is addressing youth empowerment through food justice in the Lower Ninth Ward. In both cases I believe that the government has failed to support the work being done. Bill Gotreaux detailed how the recently passed FDA Food Safety Modernization Act could effectively close down his operation due to increased regulation of smaller farms (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alison-rose-levy/food-safety-why-food-safety-bi_b_795515.html). Government focus, however, has failed to address major food and education disparities in communities like the Lower Ninth. This is where Our School provides a unique space for a larger empowerment movement that has yet to be fully supported despite community involvement.