Amid the long commercial thoroughfares and sprawling subdivisions of New Orleans East is a little oasis of fruit trees, chickens and row after of row of leafy greens that Thanh Nguyen tends to so closely that they brush the brim of her wide sun hat.
“It’s hard work but I enjoy it,” Thanh, 77, said in Vietnamese as her 81-year-old husband, Tham, tinkered with a finicky rototiller. “And for (Tham), his doctor said it’s good for him to not just be sitting at home.”
The Village de L’Est Green Growers Initiative, commonly called the VEGGI Farmers Cooperative, has been lifeline for many Vietnamese Americans in New Orleans East, and not just because it offers a healthy post-retirement diversion.
Established after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster crippled the seafood industry, the cooperative put Vietnamese American shrimpers to work using the food-growing know-how they brought with them from Vietnam, where many people have farming experience and backyard gardening tends to be an intensive, utilitarian pursuit rather than a weekend hobby.
Now capping its first decade, the urban farm on Dwyer Boulevard produces about 10,000 pounds of produce each year. And growers manage to do it on a 1.5-acre nub of land between a parking lot and a row of suburban homes.
The produce — mostly heirloom vegetables native to Louisiana and Vietnam — is sold at the Crescent City Farmers Market or featured in the menus of high-end New Orleans restaurants.
The cooperative also manages a community supported agriculture program, which delivers boxes of fresh food to customers’ porches. The selection is different every week. A recent box had a salad mix, mint and eggs from the farm, and honey, carrots and strawberries from other local producers. The box almost always has a fresh block of tofu made by a member in a commercial kitchen in Westwego.
The back end of the farm is a maze of fruit trees: Thai lime, figs, nectarines, peach and apple. The middle has an ever-growing village of chicken coops. The rest of the farm is dominated by rows of vegetables, some with half-hoop coverings.
The farm uses mostly organic methods, refraining from spray pesticides and putting homemade and other natural bug deterrents to use instead. Compost is carefully managed to produce fertilizers.
The greenhouses, coops and packing shed were made with salvaged materials.
“Everything gets reused,” operations manager Maddiy Edwards said, even fish from a small aquaculture operation that was damaged by a recent storm.
“Now those fish live in the soil,” she said. “It’s a full-circle system.”
It’s also a healthy business, with demand outpacing production.
“We have no problem selling,” Edwards said. “But what we sell is based on (the members’) capacity.”
The cooperative started with 15 members, but is now down to six. The aim is less about profit and more about supporting members. If production wanes but members are happy, so be it.
Thanh and Tham and most of the other founders arrived in the U.S. in the 1970s, but newer immigrants have been welcomed into the cooperative.
The cooperative gave Xuan Nguyen employment soon after she arrived from Vietnam seven years ago.
“There were not many opportunities for me when I came here,” she said in Vietnamese. “Maybe work in a restaurant. That’s it.” But having grown up on a large fruit farm in South Vietnam, she had “natural skills” that made her an asset at the cooperative.
For Thanh and Tham, who had 14 kids together, the farm has supplemented gigs working in oyster shucking houses and grocery stores.
Other producers benefit from the community supported agriculture program, which has opened new markets for a strawberry farm in Ponchatoula, a mushroom grower in Metairie and a beekeeper in Algiers.
While the business is above water, the farm itself is increasingly under it.
The farm, like much of New Orleans, is sinking due to the natural compacting of the region’s soft riverine soil, but also because of the pumping of groundwater by large industries.
Subsidence is especially pronounced in Village de L’Est and other parts of New Orleans East. Research by LSU and NASA suggest the area’s rapid rate of subsidence was tied to the Michoud power plant, which used to pump millions of gallons of groundwater per day before it closed in 2016.
Some sunken spots on the farm are now too soggy to grow crops.
Climate change is also making things wetter on the farm. Stronger, heavier rains now flood parts of the property several times a year. An area that used to grow vegetables from trellises has become more swamp than farm.
“After three days of rain you can’t come back here or you might step on an alligator,” Edwards said while walking by the trellises, now overgrown with weeds.
The cooperative is mounting an ambitious response to their water woes. Since 2021, they’ve added at least four dump truck loads of sand and gravel to raise the land by as much as a foot in some places. To soak up excess water, they’ve increased the number of fruit trees and started planting cypress, a particularly thirsty species. They may also add a duck pond with added capacity for stormwater.
Thanh shrugged at the challenges the farm faces. She’ll approach them with the same steady determination that has served the farm all these years.
“When hot, we work. When wet, we work,” she said, switching from Vietnamese to English. “See that,” she said, pointing to a tuft of weeds along one of her lettuce rows. “Now I go work.”