Producing It Forward

17:30 November 20, 2014
By: 2Fik
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[Where Y'At Staff/Provided Photo]

Travel about an hour north of New Orleans and you'll find the small town of Loranger, a rural community located in Tangipahoa Parish that has recently become home to one of southern Louisiana's fastest growing CSA programs. For the unfamiliar, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, a term used to describe a program in which farmers provide local residents with a regular supply of freshly picked fruits and vegetables, often accompanied by other homemade items. While the concept isn't new, the team of farmers at Loranger's Berry Hill Farm are among the first to introduce such a program to the city of New Orleans, and they are having great success so far. At the center of the project is Murphy Fleenor, a 2013 graduate of Loyola University, who joined forces with fellow graduate Danny Milojevic to help kickstart a CSA program based out of the Fleenor family's farm in Loranger. The two recent graduates, who are joined by Fleenor's older brother Jessee, have managed to put together a program that is growing quickly and shows no signs of slowing down. With an unstoppable combination of ambition, planning, and good old fashioned hard work, they have turned a small family farm into a positive new resource for producing and distributing fresh, locally grown food.
Their story can be traced all the way back to Fleenor's childhood spent growing up on his family's farm in Loranger. Back then, they owned 10 acres, and right next door was another 10 acre plot known as Berry Hill Farm. Fast forward to a post-Katrina Louisiana, when Fleenor's eldest sister decided to purchase the adjoining plot, and you have the true genesis of what would eventually become the farm's CSA program. In the spring of 2012, Jessee Fleenor began an early version of the CSA. At this point, the program was small, but many of these early customers are still subscribers today. By spring of 2013, the program had already seen success. That season they provided weekly deliveries to over 50 customers over a two month period. They added homemade bread and fresh eggs and began to offer the program on a season long subscription basis, allowing customers to sign up for a weekly delivery that lasted throughout the whole season. This past fall, the program expanded again. This time around, the farm delivered to over 100 homes per week, and extended the program to a 10 week long season.
Now that the program has gotten off the ground, Murphy is optimistic about its future success, as well as the impact it has had thus far on the demand for locally grown food in New Orleans. For him, the CSA program is a chance to give back to the community that he became a part of throughout his time at Loyola University. "For me it felt like this is something I could do to give back to the city and actually add to it. I feel like if everyone's adding to it then it becomes a more worthwhile place to be," Fleenor says. This sentiment is one shared by young entrepreneurs throughout the city, many of whom are working hard to cultivate a culture that promotes the proliferation of small businesses that can help make New Orleans a more welcoming home for young professionals looking for a place to get their careers off the ground.
While local farming may seem like a strange career path for young people in a world where countless 20somethings are looking to make it big with the newest tech startup, the folks at Berry Hill have taken a decidedly different approach with their efforts to give back and help support the city they care about. As an undergraduate student at Loyola University, Fleenor studied journalism, but routinely found himself presented with opportunities that eventually led him back to his farming roots. One such opportunity was in working with the Edible Schoolyard program at Samuel J. Green Charter School. By the time graduation rolled around, the Berry Hill CSA was taking off, and the decision to get involved seemed natural. "There's something about my experience here that made me want to do farming even more, because to me it felt like the thing that I could bring to the table," Fleenor says.
As the program continues to grow, Berry Hill is working to ensure that they are providing customers with the best possible assortment of vegetables, fruit, and other homemade items that make each week's delivery a special occasion for subscribers. Every delivery contains an assortment of vegetables, often including loose leaf lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, radishes, brussel sprouts, green beans, okra, and more. Also included is a loaf of fresh baked bread, a half dozen free range chicken eggs, cut flowers, and a homemade farm product that changes each week. By structuring the program so that each week's delivery is different than the last, Berry Hill encourages customers to go outside their comfort zones in preparing new creations with their items. Fleenor is especially passionate about this aspect of the program. "I feel like the whole garden ends up affecting how you cook and eat, and how you think about the week," he says before launching into a story about one customer in particular who turned a seemingly random assortment of ingredients into a stellar batch of homecooked baba ganoush. These types of experiences, made possible through the combination of local agriculture and community involvement, are what drives the farmers at Berry Hill to keep doing what they're doing. From humble beginnings delivering their produce in Winn Dixie bags, to producing their own packaging branded with the Berry Hill logo, the CSA program has reached a point where the community support is really starting to take hold. According to Fleenor, "There are already people who wait on their porches for us." And there is no lack of gratitude in his demeanor when discussing how customers throughout southern Louisiana have continued to help make the program possible. Fleenor readily acknowledges that "every person who gets into it, even just talking about it, builds up support." For him, the community is what makes their efforts all worthwhile, and the farm's focus continues to be centered on helping to create a more positive awareness of how CSA programs can better the city.
With the amount of effort these dedicated young men are putting into the project, it's no surprise that they are expanding the program's customer base so rapidly. The team at Berry Hill goes on several delivery routes throughout the week, with different members covering areas throughout south Louisiana including Hammond and Covington. On delivery days, Fleenor andthe rest of the Berry Hill gang wake up at 5 a.m. to pick the day's supply of fruits, vegetables and bake loaves of fresh bread, and in some cases won't make it out for their delivery routes until well into the afternoon. Fleenor admits that the planning and execution of the orders can be stressful at times, but at the end of the day it's a truly rewarding experience. He is confident in the power of CSA, and his experiences thus far have led him to believe that Berry Hill's customers are thankful for the opportunity to be a part of the Fleenor family's long farming history, especially at this important moment in their story. "People really like new things coming into their lives," he says, "especially if it has the sense of being rooted in some kind of tradition." If Fleenor's words are true, then it seems we are at the early yet promising beginnings of what will hopefully become a long running tradition for Berry Hill Farm, their CSA program, and the people of New Orleans.
Berry Hill Farm's Spring Season CSA will begin in mid April. For information on how to subscribe, visit their website at berryhillcsa.com or email [email protected]

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