Louisiana Update #9: A post-flood visit with a market farmer

Spent Wednesday morning tagging along with Copper Alvarez on her BREADA Small Farm Fund site visit to Lucy Capdeboscq’s home and farm near Amite. Copper has been crisscrossing the state seeing farmers who are reporting losses from this month’s floods. It’s important to note that BREADA is not focused only on their market farmers needs, but doing their best to get funds to any market farmer across the state.  Although one of Lucy’s daughters had been one of Red Stick market vendors in the past, Lucy sells only at the Saturday Crescent City Farmers Markets down in New Orleans. As a result, she was surprised when Copper contacted her by phone, asked if she had damage and then offered an evaluation visit in case BREADA’s fund might be able to help.

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Of course, no decisions or promises are made during the visits about any support, but as Lucy commented, the contact and visit were very welcome. Crescent City Farmers Market is also reactivating their Crescent Fund and has already had Lucy fill out their short form to receive assistance. The Crescent Fund is hoping to raise enough money to handle the 8 or so CCFM market farmers who have indicated losses, by quickly offering up to $1,500 for their farm needs.

To get to Lucy’s place, one turns off the main road at the permanent sign indicating it is also the direction to the legendary Liuzza strawberry farm. Although their famous berries are still a few weeks from being planted, other products like cucumbers could be seen in some of their fields. When you know that Lucy is a Liuzza by birth , it is clear why she lives amid those fields, (just off Jack Liuzza Lane) on the land deeded her by her parents. She and her late husband Allen raised their children here and kept their land productive even when they took on other professional occupations.

Allen and Lucy joined the Crescent City Farmers Market shortly after it opened. The Caps (as their farm name is known) were a huge hit immediately due to  Lucy’s charming customer service and Allen’s practical sense for growing their traditional yet innovative items. Lucy’s arrangements of zinnias and lilies with her decorative okra, hibiscus buds and her legendary sunflowers have remained market favorites since those early days.  As Poppy Tooker wrote in the 2009 Crescent City Farmers Market cookbook: “Lucy and Al have built a reputation for forward thinking innovation. They were the first to try early harvested rapini and green garlic made so popular in California.”

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Lucy’s okra, used for her bouquets.

To me, the Caps are a quintessential market vendor type: growing traditional and newer South Louisiana products on a small piece of land behind their home within sight of other family members also still farming. As a matter of fact, on one of my visits to the farm years ago, Lucy told me how much she was looking forward to letting a shopper know that next Saturday that their favorite item had been planted that week and would soon be back at market. That deep awareness of specific customer likes seemed to me then (and still) to be the best illustration of the personal touch of direct marketing farming that I have come across in my site visits.

Since Allen passed away in 2012, Lucy has kept on with her farm, albeit on a slightly reduced level. She focuses more on her flowers these days but her prized lettuces are also still available along with a few other items throughout the year. When Allen began to falter, they began to use part-time workers. Five years ago they trained their current worker, Lazarus who can handle some of the harder physical tasks that her children would prefer her to skip, especially since her back surgery earlier this year.

The August flood came from the back of the property, across part of nephew Anthony Liuzza’s fields, overtopping a canal and swamping the area, stopping just short of her flower room/garage. Lucy recounted that she had never seen water rise so fast out of that direction. Out in the fields two weeks later, flowers could still be seen atop some of the plants, but as she pointed out, they are rotting from below and will stop more blooms from forming and becoming stalkier and weaker, finally toppling the plant.

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The direction of the water can be seen in the tilt of the row on the right.

 

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Lucy is a a patient and concise storyteller, a skill honed from her many years of market vending, and so was able to steer Copper and I through her entire process within an hour. Her main losses were the heirloom varieties of flowers she has to repurchase and replant and the added labor to clean and reseed her fields. Since her September market sales will be much lower due to the loss of the current crops, she will need to carefully mete out Lazarus’ hours of paid work. The floods picked up and moved heavy irrigation systems and brought piles of sand from a pit at a neighboring quarry, and those hours will first have to be used for that work by the two of them, working in 95 degree August heat amid the legendary Louisiana humidity. To make up for her losses, she has also added some items like fast-growing mustard greens to more quickly recover some of her Saturday market sales. She recounted to us how that idea was one that came from her father’s voice echoing in her head from when he had losses in his fields 30 + years ago and did the same to recover.

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As one visits the farms in the flooded areas, what strikes you is the humility and dignity of those who supply our agricultural items. To ask for help is difficult for anyone, but more so for those who grow and build with their own hands. Yet, when prompted they fill out forms and squire clipboard-wielding organizers around, grateful for the offer of financial help but clearly even more for the emotional support. As we discussed while there, the damage is sometimes hard for visitors to assess. The emotional toll of watching water rise in one’s hard-worked fields, the physical wear and tear to repair the damage is often equal to or more than the financial needs of these small plot farmers. Add to that the continued worry about more rain or wind while new shoots are starting out later than usual, compounded by the lack of understanding among some shoppers at market who grow frustrated with light tables within a few weeks time. Or the stress in dealing with some government bureaucrats who know little about measuring losses on “specialty crop” farmland.

So yet another reason why farmers markets and CSAs remain vital to farmers, even while much of the support and media attention is spent on aggregation initiatives and food hubs: the ability for one farm at a time to be supported in good times and in bad, according to their need. Hope and comfort are the flowers that organizers can replant on behalf of their farmer partners in return for their years of service.

 

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A sweet picture on CCFM’s Instagram account of Lucy and her North Shore neighbor, farmer Isabel Mendez. Both are currently at the market with a much reduced set of items during their recovery from the floods.

 

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