Corralled by staff from the LSU AgCenter, the array of cars trundled through the countryside outside Lafayette, stopping periodically at small farms along the route. It was the AgCenter's sustainable farm tour and, by all accounts, there was plenty to see.
Sustainable agriculture (in this case farming) is farming as it was before the arrival of the modern supermarket system, with smaller farms growing and serving local, fresh produce. The United States Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Culture defines sustainable agriculture as seeking "to provide more profitable farm income, promote environmental stewardship and enhance quality of life for farm families and communities."
There are several sustainable farms throughout the Lafayette area, including the four on that day's tour: Cajun Acres Hydroponic Greenhouse, T Moise Farm, Blazing Star Farm and St. Joseph Farm.
Dr. Carl Motsenbocker, executive director of the LSU AgCenter's Farm to School program, said the sustainable farming model was once the main model of food production in the United States.
"We're actually kind of recreating what our food system used to be before we had these industrialized food production areas and large corporate farms," he said. "There's really a lot of support for local food, for knowing where your food comes from, knowing your farmer and supporting them."
Sustainable farms provide a range of benefits to the communities they serve. Motsenbocker pointed to three key benefits.
"The first thing is profitability, famers making money for families," he said. "The second is environmental stewardship, taking care of the land and the environment. The third is the social aspect, dealing with farms and farm families in the community, and people sourcing local (products) and understanding where their food comes from."
Local farms were once abundant throughout the country. At the start of the 20th century around 40% of Americans lived on farms. Today, though figures vary, the number of American's living on farms is likely less than 1%.
While there are many factors at play for the rural to urban shift, changing food patterns in American society account for the decline in small farms. Beginning in the 1950s, the growth of grocery stores led to the bypassing of local farmers, with supermarkets instead opting for industrialized food production in areas such as California, Florida and Mexico.
"Farmers had carts that would go through the city and sell product right off their trailer, hawk their vegetables," Motsenbocker said. "We've kind of gotten away from that."
Small and sustainable farms provide an antidote to the modern way of food production. Along with her husband Jacob, Alisha Andrews Delahoussaye founded Blazing Star Farm in 2016. Though she grew up in what she calls a "farmstead situation," with her family raising animals and tending a small garden, it wasn't until she went to college that sustainable farming began to seriously interest her as a career.
She said that romantic as the back-to-the-land ideal may be, the reality is considerably more challenging — though, of course, rewarding.
"I found early on that so much of my training in college did not apply to my daily life," she said. "It's definitely helped me in some ways, but, honestly, I felt completely unprepared for the amount of management it takes … there's just so much research needed to get started."
One major issue is a lack of data on farms in the area. Andrews Delahoussaye said most resources, while useful, tended to look at farms in parts of the country with very different climates. Figuring out how to tailor them to south Louisiana's hot, swampy climate has often been a matter of trial and error and making networking connections with fellow local farmers.
"Sometimes it's like, ‘Here's the setup for your farm. Go and do it.' But that doesn’t always apply," she said, with a laugh.
Blazing Star grows a small amount of seasonal vegetables, though its main line of business is cut flowers that are sold directly to consumers and local florists. Coming in at a shade over 4 acres, Andrews Delahoussaye estimated the farm actually produced on about three-quarters of an acre — underlining just how much farmers could produce on small, well-tended amounts of land.
Along with the four on the AgCenter farm tour, she could think of at least four other farms similar in size and outlook to hers in the immediate area. While she said sustainable farming had become more popular in the area over the years, local farms had endured their ups and downs. Small farmers face a range of obstacles, including everything from the cost of land to the weather, perhaps making their occasional coming and going little surprise.
Farms like Blazing Star often form deep, symbiotic relationships with their community.
"I feel very humbled when someone tells me what impact I've made in their day or their week," Andrews Delahoussaye said. "It can be really phenomenal to be a part of that."
"You're having an impact economically, on people's health, ecologically — it's really invaluable to have small farms."