Ex-auto mechanic and military man Brian Gotreaux never made the conscious decision to become an organic farmer. For Brian and his wife Dawn, growing organic produce and poultry was simply a matter of getting healthy, but the path to becoming an organic farmer was hardly a smooth one. In Scott, Louisiana (his hometown in the southern part of the state), “organic” was a four letter word, and going against the grain of industrial agriculture was practically unheard of. In addition, financial concerns were always present and hurricanes Katrina and Rita all but destroyed the burgeoning farm.
Brian admits that he has beaten the odds — Gotreaux Family Farms is a fully sustainable organic farm, producing tilapia, chicken, beef, eggs and produce. Together with their 10 children, Brian and Dawn run the farm, a CSA and a farmer’s market and work tirelessly on projects aimed at educating their community about the benefits of organic farming.
Needless to say, Brian is a very busy man, but he was kind enough to take some time out of his day to speak with me. When I spoke to Brian he was driving to pick up chicken feed, the only outside input his farm requires.
Q: How did you go from being an auto mechanic to being a full-time, organic farmer?
A: A series of events all came together at the same time to get me where I am now.
I was an auto mechanic and ended up with chemical toxicity from what I believe to be the result of years in the military and working on cars with chemicals like cadmium and arsenic. Coincidentally, a lot of the toxic chemicals found in my body, that I acquired in auto industry and the military are also used in food. I knew that I had some choices to make, and I knew I needed to begin eating food free from chemicals so my body could continue to clean itself up. I also had to get out of the auto trade. However, at the time that wasn’t an option because I needed to keep an income and pay the mortgage. My wife and I started growing our own food because organic foods just weren’t available in southern Louisiana. There was absolutely none to purchase in our area. Even talking about organic food got us called “treehuggers.”
We started out with the chickens and just started growing more and more. After a short period of time, people at our church started asking about purchasing our chickens and produce. I actually over committed one season! I'm such a man of my word that I committed almost all of my chickens to people, but we had some losses to predators, so me and my wife were left without chickens because I had orders to fill. As time went on I ran out of time to work on cars and it became such a full-time deal that farming took over. I never made a conscious decision that I would farm for a living.
Q: How did you train yourself to farm organically?
A: Joel Salatin was the most exciting influence that got me going because he proved the fact that you could do it. It’s very difficult financially to make a living farming. As far as training goes, Joel’s methods didn’t work down here, not even close. Down here it’s the school of hard knocks. When I realized that his methods wouldn’t work, I just applied some common sense to it. We do pastured-poultry, pastured-egg layers, I do tilapia in a green, water-recirculating system, with some aquaponic vegetables growing around it, and acres of organic vegetables, two greenhouses so we can grow things off-season, milking goats, cows, a herd of sheep and a beef-cattle herd. All of this happens on our 22 acres—although we're currently working on getting some more acreage.
Q: How did Katrina affect both your farm and you personally?
A: We were right in the heart of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Right after Katrina we had the most gorgeous crop we've ever seen—and I still think it was. It was going to be our first CSA. We were hit immediately by Rita right after. It didn’t make the news because it didn’t hit New Orleans and it didn’t leave people stranded in the city, but it had just as big of a financial effect on us. When Rita ripped through and tore the leaves off all of the crops, we just wanted to pick up and leave, but we didn’t. It’s five years later and our first CSA since then is this year. It’s taken about that long to get back to where we were. We're just starting to feel like we're back at that place we were five years ago.
Q: Tell me about your “no energy input” system.
A: I have gotten the farm to a point where we aren’t producing any byproduct. Every farm within our farm benefits every other farm on the farm. The tilapia benefits the pasture because I take the nutrients from the fish waste and I broadcast that on the pasture—and it also goes into compost that goes out to the garden. The chickens being portable the way they are fertilize the pasture for grass. The only two inputs on our farm are chicken feed and fish feed.
Q: What is your average day like?
A: Every day I wake up at 6 am and go until 11 pm, and with very few breaks. Some people who are used to a typical 9-5 might think we're crazy but we're used to it and we're enjoying it. I don’t think of it as a burden because I don’t have time for breaks and I have so much to do that I keep busy. We've got things to do and we just do it.
Q: How are you creating a community around your farm?
A: I didn’t have time to work as a full-time an auto mechanic any more and I wasn’t making enough money as a farmer because there wasn’t really a market for it. So I read up about farmer’s markets and started one, and pretty soon it grew. To be honest, the farmer’s market was one of the largest growing pains we've gone through, but it was worth it. Right now we have mostly local [organic] farmers, although a few are conventional. We also have handmade, local crafts.
Q: What do think are the biggest challenges to small, organic farmers today?
The truth, and we see it down here all the time, is that a lot of people don’t know what it’s all about. There was this couple that always frequented our farmer’s market but never spoke a word to us. Then one day my wife started talking to them about sustainability and they were really interested. It went against most of what they'd heard, but they were open to learning. So many people don’t have the facts right about organic farming and are skeptical. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. By spending personal time, one-on-one with people, we try to get the word out.
Q: Do you use social media? How do you connect to other farmers?
A: We just got on Facebook, so that’s been helpful. I also speak at local events and at premieres of films like Fresh and Food, Inc, so those bigger events put me in touch with people interested in sustainable food. The small, free newsletters that our community produces have done stories on us, and that has really helped people come and recognize us and has helped to spread the word.
Q: What’s in store for the future of Gotreaux Farm?
A: We want to expand the aquaponics but it’s a gentle ecosystem-- everything is in a balance. If we increase the chicken output we have to increase the tilapia output.
I also currently do volunteer work at Our School at Blair Groceryin New Orleans, in the Lower Ninth Ward. We provide them with the CSAs that they can’t provide.