Shoppers at Iberia Parish farmers markets soon will be able to purchase fresh produce year round, all grown through a new hydroponic community garden project.

The project, spearheaded by Iberia Industrial Development Foundation’s BestLife Iberia initiative, will include two garden cooperatives that will be using some of the newest farming techniques, said Marti Harrell, BestLife Iberia initiative manager.

The cooperative gardens will feature high-density, vertical hydroponic gardening Verti-Gro systems. The systems are designed for high quality and productivity in the least amount of space while using less water and energy than many other hydroponic systems, according to a BestLife Iberia prepared statement.

Harrell, who organized the Delcambre Seafood and Farmers Market and the Creole Market, said people often question why there may be only a little produce. She said unfortunately farmers often are at the mercy of Mother Nature.

“There is a real need for year-round produce. It’s been brought out by the farmers markets,” she said. “We know that when these gardens start producing people will be interested in buying.”

The project will be divided into two separate cooperatives: the Iberia Community Garden Co-Op and the Heirloom Produce Co-Op. The Iberia Community Garden Co-Op will be a single garden located on Hopkins Street, but the other project will entail 10 smaller gardens, Harrell said.

Phanat Xanamane, project coordinator for the Iberia Community Garden Co-Op, said the operation is being installed and should start producing vegetables this spring. The steering committee in charge of starting the project is expects to have 2,500 plants, he said.

The garden will be located on a quarter-acre lot on his family’s property along Hopkins Street, Xanamane said, and it will begin with a variety of greens, such as lettuce and bok choy, also known as Chinese cabbage.

“We’re trying to reflect the diversity of the West End neighborhood,” he said.

Xanamane said the garden will evolve and change with the needs of the shoppers at the farmers markets. He said members of the cooperative will be able to speak to customers to see what they are interested in purchasing.

“We’re excited about getting healthy, fresh vegetables in the West End. It’s all about eating and buying food that is locally grown,” the coordinator said.

Starting about mid-January the steering committee will be able to put out applications to let people join the cooperative, Xanamane said. Those who join the cooperative would be expected to participate in physical labor in the gardens and sell produce at local farmers markets, he said.

“We want to just sort of start off small, maybe taking in eight to 10 people in January, and see how things go and how our produce sells,” he said.

The project has been a goal of several people in New Iberia, Xanamane said. Xanamane also serves as the creative director for Envision da BERRY, a West End-based organization that listed locally grown produce as one of its goal during its inception in 2011.

“It’s something that the community has been talking about for a long time, and there have been several other initiatives to get this rolling,” he said. “The energy has definitely been behind it, so it’s great to see it all come together now.”

Mary Himel, project coordinator for the Heirloom Produce Co-Op, said she has been involved in local gardening and farmers markets for several years. She said the project is something the community will be eager to enjoy.

“We’re on the cusp of something great here in regard to local food. It’s exciting to be able to participate in this,” she said.

This co-op will consist of up to 10 smaller “backyard” Verti-Gro Hydroponic Growing Systems located at homes around the parish, each with their own tower and greenhouse, Himel said. Currently, seven people are scheduled to participate, she said.

The Heirloom Produce Co-Op will specialize in using heirloom seeds that will produce non-GMO varieties of produce. Himel said the growers will plant eggplants, tomatoes, lettuce and other heirloom items customers may request.

An heirloom variety, she said, is one that has been around for generations and is not a hybrid. An heirloom is one that can reseed itself, she said. Most of what is found in grocery stores now are hybrids, she said.

“In the long run, with hybrids your seeds are not viable. When you have heirlooms you can have seeds, trade seeds and share with other people,” Himel said.

Some growers in the cooperative will be planting Green Zebra Tomatoes, which are the result of four heirlooms bred together, she said. The sizes, shapes and colors are different from tomatoes available in markets, Himel said.

“We’re going to be able to offer people something different that they have never seen or tasted before,” she said.

The project is funded through a grant from the Community Foundation of Acadiana’s Fund for Gulf Communities, which was meant to help people affected the by 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Xanamane said. The project will be used to address the benefits of healthy living, he said, which other local organizations already are working to do.

“I think this will make a nice addition a movement that already is happening,” he said.

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