Cheryl Nunes, co-founder of River Green Queens, was hoping the farm would be able to include lettuce, which is “a big draw,” in its farm shares and at farmers markets this year. Instead, after an unusually hot and dry summer, the farm lost thousands of dollars of lettuce and has to rely on other leafy greens, like arugula, to serve customers. Had it gone to market, that lettuce likely would have wound up in hundreds of homes around Greater New Orleans.

“We’ve been watering 22 hours of the day. We’re gonna cut that down to be probably closer to 15 or 16 hours of the day and that’s not even hitting everything that we would need to hit,” Nunes said.

It’s only the beginning of growing season in the region, and local farms throughout Greater New Orleans are already experiencing crop loss due to a months-long drought throughout Louisiana, according to local agricultural experts.

Over 20 farms in and around the city have felt the impact. Anna Timmerman, assistant extension agent at the LSU AgCenter, said production is down at local farms throughout greater New Orleans. And according to farmers who spoke to Verite, recouping their losses can be particularly difficult for smaller urban farms, as most relief programs are aimed at larger, rural farms.  

And with above average rainfall not slated for another couple of months and potential saltwater intrusion, many growers are unsure what lies in their immediate future. This means a different variety of vegetables for residents who can afford it, but it means less food access altogether for those who need it most.

“Everything still feels very tenuous,” Nunes said.

Southeast Louisiana is in a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which is the second highest level of drought an area can experience. In the past, severe drought has resulted in lower water pressure, trees being stressed from the lack of precipitation and fires being difficult extinguish. In Louisiana, it can also mean lower crawfish populations. A large swath of the state that includes Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles and Alexandria is in exceptional drought, which is the highest level of drought an area can experience.

During its monthly call in September, analysts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said this summer was Louisiana’s warmest and third-driest on record. The month of August was its driest August on record.

“So when you combine the record heat and the record-to-near record low precipitation, you got intense drought conditions during the warm season and no relief from tropical activity,” Karen Gleason, a climate scientist with NOAA, said on the call.

Leafy greens sit in the nursery at Grow Dat Youth Farm on Thursday, September 28, 2023. Staff at the farm said they have put a protective cover over the nursery to shield young plants from the extreme heat. Credit: Lue Palmer / Verite News

Unusually dry conditions are becoming more common in the usually wet Louisiana. In late 2022, drought in the upper Mississippi Valley caused record-breaking low water levels in the Mississippi River. And research from Louisiana State University showed that drought could cause between $55 to $60 million in crop loss in Louisiana by 2050, more than the damage caused by extreme cold or heat, tornadoes, hail or lightning.

Timmerman, who provides New Orleans with growing advice and hears from growers about how their farms are doing and provides them with free consultation through the AgCenter, said farmers in the city have been relying more heavily on irrigation to keep their plants moist because of the dry conditions.

Alex Sanders, assistant farm manager at Grow Dat Youth Farm, said they are using irrigation much more than they have in the past. Extreme heat caused irrigation parts to break in the greenhouse of Nightshade Farm & Flowers, Becca Greaney said, killing all of the business’ young plants. And Nunes said River Queen Greens spent $1,500 over a two-week period in September to increase their irrigation capacity because all of the crops need the water as opposed to just the newest crops.

“And unless you have an agricultural water meter that can get very pricey using the city water,” Timmerman said.

Some farms have cisterns and rain catchment systems to store rainwater during times of higher precipitation, but, Timmerman said, many of those went dry over the summer and haven’t rebounded because of the lack of rain. So even farms with ways to store water have had to turn to irrigation from the municipal water system.

And this would be somewhat sufficient if it weren’t for the threat of saltwater entering municipal water systems, farmers said. Many of them are worried about losing even more crops if they are forced to water their plants with high-salinity water. The U.S. Drought Monitor even says that a potential effect of severe drought is saltwater intruding into rivers and river water becoming too salty for irrigation. 

Before speaking with Verite, Nunes was reading a document Timmerman sent to local growers detailing all of the ways that saltwater can affect crops and livestock. The latest estimates from the Army Corps of Engineers put a Mississippi River saltwater wedge in the New Orleans area by late November, if at all  — a significant improvement from previous forecasts. The wedge has since retreated several miles downriver, potentially increasing the chances that it won’t affect the city’s drinking water supply at all.  But even if it’s not a problem this year, Nunes worries about the future.

“It’s just another thing that we now have to learn about and prepare for and potentially invest in preventing as a result of the drought,” Nunes said.

In the document, Timmerman said there is a risk of saltwater accumulating in soil the longer it’s in the water supply, but also that it will flush out of the soil if there is sufficient rain. Still, she also said that plant nurseries and garden centers should invest in desalination units to treat water from the city before spraying it onto their crops. “This pattern of dry, hot summers will increase chances of saltwater intrusion in the coming years, such units would be a good investment,” she wrote.

While there are federal relief programs established for much larger farms in rural areas that experience hardship through drought, the same protections aren’t consistently in place before disasters strike for local farms. They usually have to rely on receiving relief from grant programs set up by the federal government after disasters strike, like those created after COVID-19, or emergency funds created by nonprofits. Mina Seck, community food manager with the local farm assistance nonprofit Sprout NOLA, said they’ve been able to provide microgrants to farmers in New Orleans that they can use as they see fit.

Clarence Webb, farm fellow at Grow Dat Youth Farm, stands in one of the fields at the farm on Thursday, September 28, 2023. Staff at the farm said that they have been relying more on irrigation than in years past because of unusually dry and hot weather. Credit: Lue Palmer / Verite News

Nunes said that funds from federal grant programs take up to a year to arrive, long after losses have been tallied and hardship has taken its toll.

“They’re kind of on the hook. They [have to] rely on savings or hope for a good season the next go round,” Timmerman said. “[Urban growers] get the same kind of short end of the stick with hurricane losses, flood losses, all of that.”

All of this loss and uncertainty has affected New Orleans residents who get their produce from local farms. Nunes said River Queen Greens has delayed communicating about this season’s subscription service because of the uncertainty brought on by the drought. Leo Gorman, farm manager at Grow Dat Youth Farm, said they have had to push back going to market with crops because of excessive heat and dryness from the drought. Timmerman said the the prices on produce will likely go up at local farmers markets.

But low-income and unhoused New Orleans residents, those who chronically experience food insecurity, will likely feel the brunt of the decreased yield at local farms. In addition to supporting local farms, Sprout NOLA typically harvests thousands of pounds of produce each year through its own farm that is accessible to residents throughout the city. Residents can harvest from the organization’s garden, and produce harvested from Sprout NOLA’s garden goes into community fridges.

Seck said the drought will affect how much local farms can assist with food insecurity in the city.

“I am sadly going to assume that this is just something that we’re going to have to get used to dealing with unfortunately,” she said. “I don’t know what next summer is going to be like, but fewer and fewer things are being grown and harvested and able to get directly into the hands of the people.”

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Veteran journalist Drew Costley (they/them/theirs) is joining Verite News to cover a variety of topics with a focus on health, climate and environmental inequity. Before coming to Verite, they reported...