Friday, December 30: The road to Belle Chasse is bordered in cabbage, collard and turnip green fields, blue tarps and small FEMA trailer parks. Further along, the route ends at a checkpoint that gatekeeps the wipeout of Port Sulphur and Nairn and Empire. I’ve come to Plaquemines Parish with Jim Bremer to check up on the farmers and their citrus. “There’s Arthur and then Carol and then Hewitt and then me and then Saxon and then Thomas and then Shirley and then Ben and then Johnny.” Seventy-five-year-old Robert Becnel, with his mouth full of fillings and his gall bladder recently departed, sits on his stoop in stocking feet by a stack of unpacked roofing. He’s not so much talking Becnel geneology as geography. There were nine Becnels in his generation, all of them living within pointing distance. Some have died. Some have survived. Robert Becnel was born in the little house across the street. The midwife who delivered him stuck a flag on a stick in the road to wave down the doctor the following morning. “I grew up like a crawfish out of the ground,” he says, meaning dirt poor. Hurricane or no, “oh, it’s heaven now. Look at my new shingles. They’re gonna match my bricks.”
“We’ve got 10 acres of citrus plus greenhouses for smaller trees. On a good year – not a Katrina year – we harvest 8 to ten boxes per tree. That’s 400 pounds per, and we have 1000 trees. We had ten boxes of grapefruit last year. This year we had but one.” Robert’s son Paul is talking storm damage. “We lost 40% of our fruit. Navel production is off 80%, satsuma production is at half. And the fruit is good, but it’s not our fruit.” He hefts boxes of satsumas to Jim Bremer’s car. “The citrus should’ve peaked in November, but all the young, tender fruit hit the ground.” What was left was greener, and “we picked it a bit too early.” A farmer’s gotta make money.
We walk a bit on the acreage. “Katrina was bad, but we still have our trees. Twenty miles south, they lost everything. It’s a wait-and-see game” that depends on the rain and then some for those farms to come back. “A lot of the farmers were older, and there’s probably salt in the soil.” It’s coastal farming, after all, wedged between river and canal on a gulf. “It’s a 45-minute drive to Lafitte, but it’s seven minutes in a little flat boat.” “There’s so much arable land down there. I’m just thinking,” says Jim, as Jim is always thinking, “of everything that could grow there.” He wants arugula. He wants mizuna. He wants baby squash and squash blossoms and Romanesca and frisée and cardoon and raddichio and artichokes. Can’t they pump water over the levees to flush out the fields? Paul shakes his head, “That’s a very expensive setup.”
We taste navels and tangelos and tangerines and Louisiana Sweets and sour kumquats and sweet kumquats and satsumas and candy-like Paige mandarins at the farmstand. “Look at how scarred up this fruit is,” Paul’s sister, who runs the stand, says. “It never looked like that. We had 170-mile-per-hour winds. I’m horrified, but we’re lucky to have any fruit at all." We drive back to town. We drop beans at La Petit Grocery, herbs at NOLA and Alberta and Stanley, oranges at a borrowed cooler. Jim tells me his storage woahs. Before the storm, he rented space at New Orleans International. After the storm, the Feds confiscated the warehouse and all its contents. Since the storm, he’s found himself the sole tenant of an enormous refrigeration facility out at the airport. His arrangement there is “casual” momentarily. There’s no one to pay the rent to.
I go Uptown to Table One where Gerard Maras is executive chef. Maras’ wife Tommie tends to sprouts and shoots in greenhouses on the North Shore. I beg the waiter for a plateful. They’re spicy and nutty and snappy and green, green, green. They practically stand up and introduce themselves. Warren Smith calls on the phone. His Smith Creamery is near Maras’ farm. It got smacked hard by Katrina. Buildings were destroyed, “some totally, others messed up”, to the tune of $100,000. The pipeline from the dairy to the creamery blew down. That’ll cost $40,000. They lost all their product to a 17-day power outtage. They lost three cows. They lost the majority of their accounts. “We stayed there, watching everything blow away. But we have our house, and we had no funeral, so we’re mighty fortunate,” says Warren. The Creamery is only a few years old. “We couldn’t make enough money selling to larger outfits, so we started bottling to keep our farm going. We pasteurize; we don’t homogenize, we don’t use hormones or additives.” They sell at the farmer’s market and to specialty stores and restaurants. I saw bottles of their milk and cream on the shelf in the walk-in at Herbsaint. “We were just finding our niche market before the storm,” says Warren. “It was going real good.”