Rural Studio Farm

Potatoes, Potahtoes

A wide view of potato plants, collards, and cover crops

Most potatoes are not grown from seed, but rather by planting out “seed potatoes,” which are just high-quality whole potatoes, or pieces of potatoes, that were saved from a previous season. Here in Alabama, February is the best month to plant them, which is what Eric and the students did, despite all the rain. There are many ways to plant out potatoes, but at Rural Studio Farm the students set them out along shallow trenches in the newly built in-ground raised beds.

Then, students covered the potatoes with several inches of hay (many growers hill up soil around the seed potatoes). The hay protects the potatoes, modulates temperatures, suppresses weeds, and helps to retain moisture.

After a few weeks, the potatoes pushed their way through the hay and continued to grow.

Once the sprouts reached about 8 – 12 inches, Eric then hilled up even more hay around the plants until only the growing tips were left exposed. As the potatoes grow, the tubers will form in the hilled-up hay, increasing yields. This also eliminates the need to do any digging to harvest the potatoes—just open up the hay.

Asparagus Crowns and Social Distancing

A closer view of asparagus crowns set in a row

Coming off spring break, Auburn University changed all of their classes to be taught from a distance in order to facilitate social distancing. As such, Rural Studio Farm’s farm manager, Eric, suddenly found himself without his usual work force, meaning there was more work than a single person could realistically do for normal operations. Most of the food out in the field can still be harvested and frozen for later use, but Eric has shifted his focus away from such heavy production toward work that is more sustainable, as it will probably be August at the earliest that Eric will have student workers again.

Planting cover crops and building soil has become a major focus, as has planting more perennials, like scallions and artichokes, which will produce more in the future and require less maintenance overall. One of these is asparagus. Eric planted 100 asparagus crowns (which look like spaghetti or deep-sea squids), working the soil down to a depth of at least a foot and planting them about five inches deep in trenches. On average one can figure that four crowns will produce enough for one person, and each crown can produce for 15 to 20 years.

After only a single week, the new shoots are over 20 inches tall—that’s about four inches per day.

A newly emerged asparagus shoot

It is all about ingredients

Each week we celebrate one ingredient from the Rural Studio Farm during a special lunch and discussion (led by Elena Barthel). The ultimate goal of the these Thursday lunches together is to learn about healthier eating habits. We suggest using fewer ingredients and higher quality, organic produce in our meals. Our own farm salad is always part of our celebration with a good dose of Tuscan olive oil.

The first ingredient we celebrated this year is tomato. Tomatoes can be grown in our greenhouse in early March and in the field garden in May. They can be eaten fresh in the hot summer months and easily preserved to be consumed during both the fall and the spring semester as tomato sauce.

Ode To Tomatoes by  Pablo  Neruda

The street
filled with tomatoes,
summer, light is halved
like a tomato,
its juice runs
through the streets.
In December,
the tomato invades
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
takes its ease on countertops,
among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately, we must
murder it:
the knife sinks
into living flesh,
red viscera a cool sun,
profound, inexhaustible,
populates the salads
of Chile, happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
we pour oil,
essential child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
pepper adds its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding of the day, parsley
hoists its flag,
potatoes bubble vigorously,
the aroma of the roast knocks
at the door, it’s time!
come on! and, on the table, at the midpoint
of summer, the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile star,
displays its convolutions,
its canals, its remarkable amplitude
and abundance, no pit,
no husk, no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers its gift
of fiery color and cool completeness.

“Alla faccia della pioggia”

Major progress was made at the Solar Passive Greenhouse this week, despite the rainy weather.

The top of the thermal mass wall was enclosed with metal plates (that resemble the shape of shark’s eggs). The barrels were covered with gravel to maximize the wall’s heat absorption.

We fabricated a new table for the produce weighing station using pieces from the scrap pile.

We also welded handrails to help us climb the barrel steps at the back of the building. These new handrails give better access to the operable windows at the top of the thermal mass wall.

It’s Beginning to Feel Like Spring

A thunderstorm drenches the farm

It’s official: 2019-20 has been the wettest winter in Alabama’s recorded history. Our region got around 27 inches, with over 12 inches in February alone. It’s pretty tough for Eric and the students to work in those conditions, even so, they finished the new beds and got them all planted out with food and cover crops.

On rainy days, however, there is still plenty to work on in the seed house and the greenhouse. Despite all the cold and rain, this week really felt like the beginning of spring, as students have started some warm-season crops. They transplanted tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, which were started in the seed house in mid-January, into the greenhouse right around March 1. As they grow, the students will prune and train these tomatoes to grow on string lines suspended from the greenhouse.

Students and Eric talk about greenhouse plans

They also began some cucumber and zucchini seeds to be transplanted into the greenhouse (statistically, there is likely to be another freeze, so the field will need to wait). Like the tomatoes, the cucumbers will grow vertically, so students suspended a trellis for the vines to climb up.