Two years ago, when the Second Harvest Food Bank in New Orleans announced it was facing a food shortage, one of the first to answer the call for help was 84-year-old Jim Boulet, a retired shrimp boat captain, sugar cane grower, and crawfish farmer from Larose, La. Boulet had experience growing turnips in his small family garden and decided to convert the fields behind his house into a giant turnip farm to help feed the hungry. He planted more than 4 million turnip seeds in 2012. By March of 2013—the end of the growing season—Boulet and his family had harvested and donated 15,000 pounds of turnips to Second Harvest for use in soups and other meals.
That first year, Boulet also gave 3,300 pounds of turnips to the local sheriff to aid a food program for shut-ins and 1,300 pounds to a community center in Larose.
In 2014, Boulet, his family and volunteers—including girls from a local high school and former Peace Corps members—have already picked 35,000 pounds of turnips, and Boulet expects the total harvest to reach more than 50,000 pounds.
“You don’t harvest turnips all at once,” explains Boulet. “You pick them three times, about a month apart, starting in December. Our first year was an experiment. We’ll exceed it this year by more than 50 percent, and I think we’ll have another 50-percent increase next year.”
The farm’s output has been so great that Boulet can no longer deliver all the turnips in the family pick-up truck. Instead, Second Harvest sends a 16-wheeler after each picking to collect the crop. The quantity is much appreciated, as Second Harvest provides about 90 million meals each year to 250,000 people in southern Louisiana.
Boulet personally works four-hour days throughout the six-month season of tilling, planting, and harvesting. If it seems like an extraordinary feat for someone of his age, consider this: Three years ago, Boulet was nearly killed in a car accident. His recovery was long and painful, and he still walks with pins in his legs. He says that when his health and vitality returned, he was inspired to give back.
“Many people helped me to recover,” says Boulet. “When I heard that Second Harvest needed food, the turnip project was a way to show my appreciation, and the work helps my body to get stronger. It’s exercise, it’s medicinally good for the mind and it’s special because it’s helping others.”
Boulet and his wife have six children and 12 grandchildren, and he emphasizes that they have been essential to the success of the turnip farm.
“My family has helped with everything I’ve done, on the shrimp boat and the crawdad farm,” says Boulet. “Now, with the turnips, there are even more people helping—grandchildren and in-laws. Any number of them show up whenever they have the time, and it’s a very rewarding feeling. They join in because they understand the problems facing the weak members of society, and I think that they’re very rich people for doing it.”