Anyone driving on South Carrollton Avenue past Ye Olde College Inn is probably familiar with Matthew Myers' work. Myers, an urban farmer, tends to the half-acre plot of land that surrounds the restaurant and neighboring Rock 'n' Bowl. It's where he grows the produce served at both establishments, including tomatoes, lettuces, herbs, wild peppers and berries. Myers spoke with Gambit about what farming for a restaurant entails and the importance of educating people about urban farming.
Why garden exclusively for a restaurant?
Myers: I worked in kitchens for 10 years, so the connection is pretty important to me. My culinary background is mostly Creole and Cajun (cooking), so it aligns nicely with that of the College Inn. It definitely helps to know where the food is coming from that you're cooking. It helps with the flavors, too. The more local it is, the better it tastes. If you cut something the same day, it's just going to taste better. I think farming is only one side of the equation. The cycle really goes all the way from the seed to the plate, and I feel that it's more beneficial to understand, not just the process before I harvest the vegetables, but also after, once I leave them (for the chef). It's much easier to coordinate with (the chef) when I understand both the demands of the kitchen and the supply of the farm. (It tells me) for instance, when to harvest, and how much — how long (the) herbs and vegetables will stay optimally fresh post-harvest.
Our main focus here is on lettuces and salad mixes and herbs. But we pretty much do everything. ... We had chickens at one point and we've got bees, too. When farming on such a small scale, it's almost impossible to grow everything for a restaurant. So we try to focus on things that are harder to get, things you can't always find at the produce stand or grocery market.
Growing in (Southeast Louisiana) is easier in ... that you can grow all winter long. On the other hand, it's so wet here and as soon as May comes, all the diseases start hitting. If you're trying to be organic, it's almost impossible to control that.
How did you get into gardening?
M: When I grew up, I never had a garden. All through my twenties the only thing I ever grew were maybe a couple of cactus plants. One summer, I was up in the mountains in Virginia, and my buddy had a little minifarm up there and we would do farmers markets every week and I found that I just naturally loved it.
I got my bachelor's (degree) in English, but I have a lot of friends who are horticulturalists, and during the summers when I was off from college I'd go help them out and work at farmers markets. When I started here, I just went to the library and got a bunch of books. In gardening, there's exhaustive knowledge; you'll never stop learning. There's definitely a small network of urban farmers in the city, but there could always be more.
How would you like to see the urban farming movement in the city take off?
M: Education is the best thing. The more people know about gardens the more people are going to plant gardens. I live in Bywater and you see little plots popping up everywhere now, which is great. We have a relationship with Xavier University, so we help out at a few of the freshman seminar classes. I'll go there and talk to them and then they'll come here and do their service hours and I'll try to teach them as much as I can about permaculture.
The best thing about this garden is there are no fences around it, like in a lot of other places; it sort of just makes people implicitly curious about it. People are constantly walking by and they always have gardening questions.