Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Marcus Descant brings urban farming to Lafayette. By Nancy DeVille

livingind
                                                                                       Photo by Robin May

It’s early Monday morning and Marcus Descant is standing proudly over his griddle. I’m sitting in the corner, secretly salivating in anticipation. Marcus is scrambling several eggs procured from his heirloom hens, right in his own backyard from which I could likely throw a rock and hit the downtown public library. He sets down my plate, and I marvel at their vibrant yellow hue; I’m instantly transported back 15 years to my Papaw’s farm. Marcus is also a farmer, by definition — he raises livestock and crops — but his farm is situated in the periphery of downtown, hardly the rural landscape one might envision when the word “farmer” is mentioned. The Avoyelles Parish native is The Urban Naturalist, a business that he hopes will soon personify urban farming in Lafayette. 

And he’s a one-man operation whose mission is to minimize waste and close the “gaps in our backyard ecosystems” by encouraging residents to establish urban farms all across Acadiana. While many consumers cringe at the notion of going green not because they disagree with the tenets but simply for fear of perceived costs and difficulty, Marcus strives to create products that make the transition easy and economical.

Growing your own produce and raising a few chickens can truly be simple steps toward a greener lifestyle. Marcus offers several products that fit into this vision of “a more balanced, eco-friendly urban existence,” and he relishes the opportunity to share his philosophy and educate others.

Marcus laments the amount of arable land that we, in a state that boasts a 12-month growing season, simply “give to grass.” Did you know that we use more nitrogen fertilizers on our grass in the U.S. than we do for crops? And all of these synthetic ammonia nitrate fertilizers end up in our shared backyard — the Gulf of Mexico, home to the largest ecological dead zone in the world. Our seafood industry suffers so that lawns and agribusiness can flourish. To reduce our dependence on commercial agriculture, consumers can make use of their otherwise bare fence lines for growing produce: homegrown tomatoes will save you 50 percent versus store-bought, plus they haven’t been tarnished by refrigeration.

To prepare your soil, Marcus suggests his all-natural alternative fertilizer, a byproduct of local sugarcane production — Sweet Relief Horticultural Molasses. “Chemical companies are brilliant,” Marcus explains. “They tell you to apply high nitrogen that stimulates fast growth, which makes [the plants] weak and less disease tolerant.” This prompts the need for fungicides and herbicides. “So by selling you a ‘beneficial’ product at the beginning of the season,” he continues, “they’ve sold you two more later.” Because the molasses provides nutrients in their natural state, your soil is better able to absorb them, saving you money and yielding superior results than their chemical counterparts, and you won’t be contributing to the toxic run-off that threatens an element of our shared cultural heritage.

Marcus also sources cane mulch from the same sugar cane processors in New Iberia. This alternative to cypress mulch makes great compost for your new garden, and also serves to “green up” the sugar cane industry, rescuing the fibrous material that would otherwise be hauled off and incinerated, releasing evermore carbon into the atmosphere. Oh, and it costs you about half as much as cypress.

Another application for his cane mulch fits in with the final component of Marcus’s vision for sustainable urban living — heritage chickens. These docile breeds date back more than 100 years, making them accustomed to human interaction, and they make great use of the average household’s 122 pounds of weekly food waste. Rather than pay to have this mass hauled off to Jennings, dumped into a landfill where food comprises roughly 19 percent of the volume and is converted into methane gas, Marcus recommends tossing those scraps out back and feeding your family of chickens, who will in turn feed your family with two to three dozen fresh yard eggs a week (and meat, if you’re up for it).

You can build your coop for free if you salvage landfill-destined building materials like Marcus did, then line the coop with cane mulch. In addition to the eggs, the chickens will provide you with an endless free supply of natural fertilizer. Just scoop out the “enhanced” mulch, combine with your remaining compostable kitchen waste, and spray it once a week with Sweet Relief. Marcus guarantees you’ve got the most potent pile of gardening gold around.

Marcus and his wife Cristy both grew up in farming environments, like many of our ancestors, and realize the industrialization of food production and distribution threatens our Cajun tradition of living off the land and letting nothing go to waste. Marcus strives to facilitate our return to a more natural way of life, helping to turn each of our yards into sustainable ecosystems. Sure, you could just buy organic from the grocery store, but studies suggest that the distance those foods must travel often causes environmental damage that outweighs the benefit of buying organic in the first place. We know local food is better for the environment, and how much more local can we get than our own backyards? Look for his products at Chastant Brothers on Pinhook, visit his website, theurbannaturalists.com, find him on Facebook or stop by the farm at 216 Madison St.

If you show up early enough, you just might get to sample a few of those amazing yard eggs.

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