Meet Your Farmer

Celebrating 20 Years of the Crescent City Farmers Market

By Stefin Pasternak / Photography By Matthew Noel | September 24, 2015
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Ben Burkett
Ben Burkett, B&B Farms/ Indian Springs Cooperative, Petal, Mississippi.

CELEBRATING 20 YEARS OF THE CRESCENT CITY FARMERS MARKET

Ben Burkett

B & B Farms/Indian Springs Cooperative, petal, Mississippi

Ben Burkett farms the same land his great-grandfather, George Tisdale, began farming in 1889 in Petal, Mississippi. Back then, his great-grandfather received 164 acres from the federal government under the Homestead Act and they’ve been adding to it ever since. Now at 320 acres, Burkett’s daughter, Darnella Winston, is the farm manager and fifth generation to work the family land.

But Burkett and family do more than farm. They organize, too.

He and a group of farmers founded the Indian Springs Farmers Cooperative by organizing African American family farms. He served as president of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives; he sits on the board of the Community Food Security Coalition; and he is the state director of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, to name a few. He also served on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta Market in the late ‘90s at the recommendation of a regular customer at the Crescent City Farmers Market.

Along with growing fields of Southern veggies and non-GMO soybeans, Burkett spends a lot of his time organizing new farmers. Burkett and the FSC run a two-year course for upstart African American farmers across the South to help them secure financing, plan growing seasons, build processing infrastructure and secure means of distribution and markets for their crops.

“At the end of the day,” says Burkett, “these kids gotta be willing to work, you see. ‘Cause farming is work, let there be no mistake about it. You gotta get up every day and get up early. You gotta work till the sun gets too hot in the afternoon and then go back out when it cools off again to work a little more. I’ve been farmin’ all my life and I love it. I’ve never had to fill out a job application—never—and I couldn’t be happier.”

Burkett received a James Beard Leadership Award last year for “the positive impact this life-long family farmer has made through his support of the American family farm and advocacy for the rights of every individual to wholesome food, clean water, air and land.”

Pete Gerica
Photo 1: Pete Gerica, Pete & Clara's Seafood
Photo 2: Jim Mizell, Mizell Farms, Folsom, Louisiana

Pete, Clara and Christina Gerica

Pete & Clara’s Seafood, New Orleans, Louisiana

After three decades in the fishing business, Hurricane Katrina and the flood wiped out the Gerica family’s local seafood business. “All we had were the clothes on our backs and we were lucky to have that,” says Clara Gerica of Pete & Clara’s Seafood. “It took us more than a year to get on our feet and back to the market, but when we showed up, our customers were right there for us.”

The Gericas are known for their locally caught, freshly hand-processed shrimp, crab and fish. They sell out so fast that they encourage customers to call ahead and ask them to set an order to the side.

Pete started commercially fishing as a teenager in 1971, shortly before he met and married Clara and they became the formidable fishing duo they are today.

Their operation is elegantly simple: Pete does the fishing, mostly in Lakes Pontchartrain and Borne, while Clara and their daughter, Christina, do the processing and selling. Everything they sell has been caught the previous day and delivered directly to consumers and chefs by their own hands—the freshest, healthiest, most local and sustainable seafood you can get anywhere in New Orleans.

Back in 2000, before joining the Crescent City Farmers Market (CCFM), they sold some of their catch wholesale and some retail through a little seafood market they ran at the corner of Chef Menteur and Crowder in New Orleans East.

Pete spent what time he had on-shore to organize and lobby for the benefit of small, sustainable fishermen like himself. In 2010, he was on the front cover of Bloomberg Businessweek as part of a story about the BP oil spill and its effects on fisherman and others.

It was through Pete’s position on the Louisiana Seafood and Marketing Board that they met Richard McCarthy, one of the founders of CCFM, who was looking for money to start up a Tuesday market. Pete and Clara signed on to be one of the founding vendors of that Tuesday market and they’ve been there ever since.

Their debut at the market was a watershed moment for the Gericas. They realized they could get top dollar for their unbeatable product while at the same time dialoguing with their faithful customer base about the work they do and the policy shifts needed to preserve local fisheries and their livelihood.

Nowadays you can find Clara and Christina most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at the market. “My husband often makes fun of me for how much I do for our customers,” says Clara. “I tell him that I’m gonna do whatever it takes to get them to enjoy our seafood. And I’ll tell ya, I’ve met some of the nicest people at the market. I always tell people that we have the best customers in the world. I would do just about anything for ‘em.”

Jim Mizell

Mizell Farms, Folsom, Louisiana

“My granddaddy started in the nursery business during the Depression and Daddy picked up right after him from ‘52 ‘til the mid-’80s. We had millions of dollars of orders from one huge chain store and one morning we woke up and the order was canceled. Daddy’s business went bankrupt.”

Jim Mizell’s father decided to retire and Mizell went across the road to another nursery, where he worked as a propagation manager for a few years until he relaunched the family business under the name Mizell Farms in the late 1980s. Mizell hired his father back on and they started with herbs. After the abrupt collapse of the original family nursery, they decided to focus on the niche markets that mainstream nurseries were missing.

So they started with unusual herbs like chocolate mint, holy basil and rue.

They figured that if they offered unique plants that gardeners couldn’t find elsewhere, those gardeners would also buy their herb-garden standards from them, thus doubling their business.

Now back in the game for almost 30 years, their gamble has paid off. Over the years they’ve expanded from herbs to vegetables, butterfly and hummingbird plants, native plants and exotic plants, trees and shrubs. Propagating plants is in Mizell’s blood and it’s been with his plant starts that thousands of Louisianans have started and maintained their gardens.

“It’s amazing,” says Mizell. “I start growing a plant like rue because it’s food for the Yellow Tiger Swallowtail butterfly, but then I’ll have folks at the markets come up to me from Africa and Central America telling me about how their grandma used to grow it for medicine or their mama used to make them tea out of it if they were sick. You know, I’ve raised all three of my kids at the market, and it’s the best learning tool you could want for your kids. It’s that building of community and cultural exchange that you can’t beat.”

 

Article from Edible New Orleans at http://edibleneworleans.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/celebrating-20-years-crescent-city-farmers-market
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