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New Orleans-based Recirculating Farms Coalition Seeks Solution to Food Deserts in Sustainable Production Systems

January 17, 2012 |

Marianne Cufone says she was drawn to New Orleans because of its incredible heart and resilience. Cufone is the executive director of New Orleans-based Recirculating Farms Coalition (RFC), a non-profit organization comprised of a collaborative group of farmers, educators and various organizations committed to building eco-friendly farms that use clean recycled water to grow local, accessible, fresh food and create stable green jobs.

A native of Tampa, she explains that she also chose New Orleans as the coalition headquarters because “one of the things that is noticeably absent in the area is the availability of healthy food. We are all about growing healthy fresh food in places where it is needed.” She says that the need for a way to bring healthy food to New Orleans was starkly illustrated in the fall of 2011 when the city earned two seemingly contradictory titles: 1. Best place for foodies; and 2. Worst food desert. “I found that sort of unbelievable that in a matter of weeks that dichotomy could come to light.”

Around the nation, more and more food deserts have been identified, places where, if fresh produce, meat, and fish are available at all, they are offered at prohibitive prices. RFC believes the promotion of recirculating farming models that establish healthy, natural, and community-based food production can help solve this problem.

For 2012, Cufone has set her sights on developing a training and research facility in New Orleans. She hopes to build a model farm where the coalition can house training sessions on recirculating farming systems, including hydroponics, aquaculture, and the latest hybrid trend—aquaponics.

Aquaponics combines hydroponics with aquaculture to create a more optimized and sustainable food production system. In aquaponics, the fish effluent in the water provides an organic nutrient source, or natural fertilizer, for the plants being grown in the system. The plants in turn consume the natural fertilizer and in the process filter and purify the water, which is subsequently recirculated back to the fish.

As a former environmental attorney who began her work in oceans management, Cufone developed an intimate understanding of the connection and purpose of fish in the human world. Her efforts to develop ocean aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico met with concerns from virtually every stakeholder involved from fishermen and environmentalists to divers and boaters. Faced with the question of how to supplement wild caught fish without hurting the fishermen and the environment, she turned to the idea of aquaponics and recirculating farms.

“I realized that [recirculating farms] could be employed anywhere—in a warm climate and a cold climate, in an urban setting and a rural setting.” The capability of setting up the soilless, container based systems indoors removes environment-based limitations. Artificial lights can supplement or replace natural lighting. Hydroponic systems can be structured in towers allowing for efficient use of vertical space.

In 2009, Cufone set out to determine why what seemed to her to be the future of farming had not really gained much momentum in the agricultural market in the United States. To find answers, she convened a meeting of leading recirculating farming experts that included scientists, farmers and government representatives. The consensus of the group was that recirculating farmers and related professionals lacked an organized network to build a voice in the larger agricultural market.

Thus, Recirculating Farms Coalition (RFC) was born.

In addition to being a networking hub for recirculating farmers all over the country, RFC focuses its efforts on outreach and education in order to improve public awareness and support for recirculating farms, a vital step in establishing a new market. The organization also seeks to influence public policy by pushing for federal funding, national standards and official labeling specific to products grown in recirculating farms.

Funding and Growth

Cufone’s previous work in ocean and fisheries management provided her with a valuable network of contacts that she was able to tap into when raising money for RFC. She secured initial funds from her former employer Food and Water Watch—a non-profit advocacy organization that works to ensure the food, water and fish we consume is safe, accessible and sustainably produced. As the RFC is a non-profit, Cufone spends much of her time applying for grants and notes that the coalition has a grant pending with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The number of participants in the Recirculating Farms Coalition has grown from 30 in 2009 to number in the hundreds today, and includes organizations, farms, farmers, scientists, chefs and fishermen. Establishing a connection with fishermen is important to Cufone as the intent of the RFC is not to threaten the livelihood of fishermen, but rather to offer a means of supplementing wild caught fish with U.S. production.

While much of this coming year will focus on making the physical facility in New Orleans a reality, Cufone hopes to continue building an active network of partners, including some international partners. When asked about the next 5-10 years she says, “I hope that we will have a network of recirculating farms throughout the U.S. cooperating and introducing quality sustainable and healthy food in communities throughout the country.”


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