Three years ago, Tara Sanchez and Eddie Cortez bought an abandoned trailer park outside New Orleans.
The weed-choked shells of old mobile homes remained on the overgrown acreage, a 100-foot-wide parcel that stretched more than a mile to a bayou.
When they saw the overgrown property in northern Plaquemines Parish, they envisioned a farm with beehives, berry bushes, olive trees and a greenhouse full of cucumbers.
“We’re trying to be balanced out here,” Sanchez said. “We can’t just do one thing because we work with the land, not against the land.”
After buying the land, they removed the old trailers and built an office and additional structures. They also fought pests and rebuilt after the floods and winds of tropical storms and hurricanes. Now named Z Farm and Orchard, the farm produces several crops, but there were times when Sanchez was unsure their gamble would pay off.
She gained confidence after joining the first cohort of the Grow Louisiana program from the LSU AgCenter in 2019. Based in nearby New Orleans, the program’s seminars, classes, farm tours and mentoring sessions helped convince her that their dreams could succeed.
Cortez and Sanchez have varied backgrounds. She earned a doctorate in sociolinguistics from the University Pennsylvania and has taught at five universities. She now teaches Spanish and Japanese at Chalmette High School. Cortez, her partner in business and life, had been a carpenter and woodworker, but he was confident he could learn to farm.
Grow Louisiana contributed to Sanchez’s understanding of the business of agriculture, she said. She met like-minded growers from south Louisiana who had made the small-farm model work, so she knew it was possible.
“I’ve done a lot of different things in my life,” Sanchez said. “I’ve had a lot of jobs, but a business understanding was not a part of them, so that aspect really helped. I think people who like to grow things like to go into farming, but not all the people who like to grow things know how to actually do that as a business.”
At the end of the program, Sanchez developed a business plan and presented it to her class. Their main goal for the farm was to produce olive oil from trees they planted on their property. Knowing the trees needed years to mature, they chose to sell honey at farmers markets, cut firewood from the trees they had to cut from the overgrown property and grow cucumbers to make pickles. This past year they also raised garlic. By braiding the garlic stems in an aesthetically pleasing manner, they added value to the crop.
While they have not followed it exactly, the business plan provided a road map for their young farm.“That really helped me pull all the pieces together,” she said. “I knew this is how it’s going to work.”
This article appeared in the summer 2022 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.
Tara Sanchez and Eddie Cortez produce honey, garlic and other items while waiting for their olive trees to reach maturity. The plan to market a locally produced olive oil. Photo by Kyle Peveto