A Garden Grows in Central City
Paradigm Gardens Keeps It Local
The seeds of Paradigm Gardens in Central City were planted decades ago up in Wisconsin, where both Jim Seely and Joel Hitchcock-Tilton grew up on farms. Jim’s parents founded one of Wisconsin’s most successful organic vegetable CSAs while Joel (pronounced Joe-EL) was raised on a 19-acre farm during the year and on nearby Amish farms over the summer.
“My folks would grow food and my brother became a farmer, but I was all about girls and sports, until I moved to New Orleans,” laughs Joel.
But it was New Orleans that provided the fertile soil for their many fruitful joint ventures after they met down here in 2004. Shortly after Katrina, they were two friends moving back into their Uptown neighborhood when they quickly realized that no one around them was able to get fresh produce since all the grocery stores were still shuttered.
They pooled together some savings and began planting seeds on two adjacent lots that quickly became the beloved Delachaise Community Gardens. “As soon as we started planting seeds, neighbors started coming out to help and get produce,” remembers Joel. “Pretty soon, the neighborhood kids were out there in the dirt with us, helping, too.”
The goal was to grow food for and with the neighborhood, utilizing Jim’s and Joel’s farming experience to keep the lots producing, which they did for seven years.
But as the neighborhood gentrified and grocery stores returned, the community gardens became less of a necessity and more of a side project that started costing them a lot of money. It was time to turn the community gardens into an income-earning farm.
“It is virtually impossible to make a living growing in the city—property values, limited space and other reasons. We aren’t a nonprofit and we don’t have volunteers or grants. We needed to make it work financially.
Paradigm Gardens’ business model allows for financially sustainable farming. The produce mainly goes to the three “member restaurants”: MeauxBar, Coquette and Patois. Through their yearly membership fee, those restaurants get exclusive promotional rights. The restaurants get to host two events a year on the farm, which allows them to make back the membership fee. The farmers limit the membership to three restaurants because they “want to be able to provide the best produce. We don’t want to dilute the benefits the restaurants get regarding promotion and exclusivity. We’ve been approached by other restaurants, but we had to turn them down.”
Twice a year, Jim and Joel sit down with the restaurants to develop a crop plan, allowing the chefs to not only have a menu full of seasonal items, but to also have specialty items like Purple Atomic carrots and micro versions of things—things they can’t get anywhere else. The restaurants then return their compost to the farm. This virtuous cycle has created a beautiful little space in a formerly downtrodden part of Central City, bursting with heirloom fruits and vegetables, goats, guinea fowl and bees. They’ve even expanded some growing operations to another nearby lot with a greenhouse, chickens and quail.
The other side of the revenue stream is that Paradigm hosts its own field trips, workshops and events. Paradigm’s popular spring and fall concert series hosts chefs as they showcase their skills on the grill and in the brick oven—all while bands play under the stars, singing along to the calls of the animals hunkered down in their pens.
Come check out the magic yourself at one of their many events, listed at ParadigmGardensNOLA.com.