Rural Studio Farm

Farmer Eric talks about food, land ethics, sustainable production, and rural living.

Illustration of Eric Ball
Illustration of Eric Ball by Courtney Windham

Eric Ball, our Farm developer and manager, makes his family home in Newbern within walking distance of Morrisette Campus. Eric does far more than toil in the soil: for ten years, he has been learning, adapting, and applying a range of sustainable farming practices to find solutions to the often-overlooked food needs of rural communities.

What is your educational and professional background, and how did it lead you to an interest in farming?

I studied continental philosophy and biology—especially evolution and ecology—when I was an undergrad at the University of Oregon, and I have a bachelor’s in both. Each of these is a lens through which I could better understand the world: biology, and science in general, to examine and understand the natural world, and philosophy to probe at deeper questions of human experience like existence, meaning, and ethics.

I see farming as being an intersection of both of these: it is the manipulation of the natural world toward human ends. My training as a scientist has been essential in thinking about growing crops, especially in the broader context of an ecosystem, how the soil microbiota, weeds, pollinators, and insect pests all interact together. It also prepared me for how to use experimentation to refine my practices and methods and to fine-tune which crops to grow when and under which conditions. But all of this is informed by big-picture philosophical questions about why we farm the way we do. Questions like, How should we relate to the land? Should we see it as a precious resource to be stewarded with gratitude and respect, or should we view it simply as a resource to be exploited and extracted from? 

I’m also currently working on a master’s through Auburn’s Master of Science in Crop, Soil & Environmental Sciences program.

Why did you choose organic farming? What challenges does it bring?

In the face of unchecked consumption, climate change, rapid population growth, and the destruction of prime arable farmland for urban expansion, I think it would be irresponsible to not question our impact on the planet. The choice to grow food using organic practices, such as not using synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides, has very real consequences for the long-term health of the soil, our waterways, and wildlife—especially honeybees and other pollinators—as well as human health. Choosing to grow the way we do is also taking a position on our relationship to the land and a position that challenges some of the drawbacks and harms of the conventional way of growing food in the US, which is predominately the industrial, large-scale production of a single crop (monoculture).

Of course, there are practical challenges, too, like the abundance of insect pests and weeds, and we can’t just spray away these difficulties. But there are solutions that we use successfully—and without the need to spend so much money on chemicals. For example, just planting many crops together (polyculture) and devoting a small portion of the Farm to aromatic herbs and flowers or trap crops eliminates a lot of the insect pressure. Reliance on chemicals also stifles innovation, discouraging farmers from seeking creative solutions.

What were the first successful crops at the farm?

I had to fail pretty hard for a few years in order to learn how to grow so many different things, let alone to grow them well. Some early successes for cool-season crops were lettuces, greens, and carrots. Many of the warm-season successes were crops often thought of as Southern staples like sweet potatoes, okra, and black-eyed peas. Sweet potatoes were probably my biggest early success. We harvested about 400 pounds all at once with a dozen 3rd-years. It was like a treasure hunt. Seeing so much food suddenly unearthed from out of the ground by a group of excited students was a really gratifying moment.

What new crops do you plan to plant in the next couple of years? In general, what future plans do you have for the farm?

At this point I’ve grown or tried to grow over 50 different fruits and vegetables. I would still like to grow Jerusalem artichokes and lemon grass, though. Most of the new things I anticipate coming out of the Farm in the coming years are from fruit trees and berry bushes that take several years to reach maturity and begin to bear. I plant a few new fruit trees each year. So far, we have apples, pomegranates, Asian pears, Japanese persimmons, mayhaw, crab apples, plums, elderberries, kiwiberries, blueberries, figs, and citrus.

What is your favorite fruit or vegetable, and why?

My favorite to grow is probably okra. It’s resilient, fast-growing, yields continuously for a long time, and beautiful. My favorite to eat is any of the alliums, particularly onions. They can be prepared so many different ways, and I include them in nearly all the foods I make.

What are your thoughts about food and health, especially in rural communities?

Food and health are directly linked. Sadly, even though rural America is where a lot of our food is grown, access to nutritious food is one other way in which rural communities are trailing urban ones. Rates of food insecurity are higher in rural areas as compared to urban ones. Food security means not just access to raw calories but access to nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables.

Research has shown that an increase in local food investments is directly related to better health outcomes, and Alabama, compared to other states, rates very low in both categories. Systemically, we need more robust, healthy, and just local food systems to improve people’s lives, especially in rural places like this one.

Describe the ways that Rural Studio Farm contributes to the larger Hale County community.

The Farm operation is right in our front yard next to the highway. I have met a lot of people in the community who are surprised that we can grow many of the crops that we do, so I think the Farm opens people’s eyes to the possibilities of how we can work with the land.

More importantly, however, we are beginning to look outward to ways we can directly connect with the community. The Farm has been so successful that we are producing more food than we can use, so last year we piloted a CSA program with students and staff here, which can hopefully reach a broader membership in the future. We started sharing our produce with the new nonprofit Black Belt Food Project that helps distribute this free food to pick-up points in Greensboro. We also had a group of students come this summer to tour the farm and pick produce as part of Project Horseshoe Farm’s Summer Youth Program.

What are your teaching duties at Rural Studio? What do you enjoy the most about teaching?

My role as a teacher is mostly informal, yet it is a central role for Rural Studio because I am the only person who works with each and every student who passes through here. On average, the students work about two hours every two weeks on the Farm. So students learn more about growing and gain confidence in cultivating their own plants by spending time on the Farm. But I try to connect specific farm tasks with larger issues having to do with America’s food system and culture of industrial farming. I give a series of mini-lectures during lunches that more directly confront some of these issues, as well as topics like food literacy and trying to give students the information to make more informed decisions about what kinds of food they are buying and the impact these decisions have.

What’s your favorite farming tool? Why?

A Japanese soil knife called a horihori, which has a wide blade that is slightly concave, making it good for digging. It’s an extremely versatile, durable, and multi-functional tool.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to grow a small organic crop in their backyard?

Mostly I would tell people that it is absolutely achievable and that you can grow a lot in a small amount of space. You only need about 200 square feet per person to have intermediate yields. It’s best to start small with modest goals and build incrementally. That way you aren’t overwhelmed or discouraged. It’s also important to plan what you want to grow because there is usually only a narrow window of time in which to grow it, and if you miss that window, you have to wait a year. Cultivating the land takes some planning too. If it’s a new plot, I would prepare the land or build out raised beds in the fall, let any organic matter break down over the winter, and then plant in the spring. The great thing about growing organically is that you can utilize a lot of inputs that are essentially waste products in your community. Given enough time to break down, things like grass clippings and dead leaves can provide a lot of organic material that builds long-term soil fertility.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you.

I have albinism, which many people humorously assume is merely a condition of being extremely pale. I cannot tan in the sun, only burn horribly. As a result, I dress heavily in the summer months. Being a farmer in our Southern summers is not ideal for me, but I love what I do. Not only does albinism change my appearance, but it has altered the anatomy of my eyes and given me high photosensitivity and low vision, such that I cannot, for example, drive a car. Although albinism undermines my sense of independence, it opens opportunities as well. I spend a lot of time walking through Newbern—a town that can be driven through in about 30 seconds—and being on foot has allowed me to know Newbern in a way that most people do not. I watch the stars and the seasons and the growing things. I get to walk to work with my kids and visit some of our favorite places in town on foot.

What do you like about living in Hale County?

I’ve never lived in a rural place before I moved to Newbern. I enjoy the open spaces, the relaxed air of solitude, the profusion of birdsong, and a night sky awash with stars and other celestial activity.

Rural Studio Farm Greenhouse, photo by Timothy Hursley

A Productive Year

An aerial shot of the farm taken from a drone that shows the many row crops growing and students working
Photo by Timothy Hursley

It has been quite an eventful year at Rural Studio Farm.

The morning sun in the summer greenhouse with workers busy tending crops
Photo by Timothy Hursley

With the start of the new academic year in the fall, we had to say goodbye to Jackie Rosborough, one of our student assistant managers.

An assistant manager stands with a shovel in front of the tool shed
Photo by Timothy Hursley

Jackie, along with our other assistant manager, Laurel Holloway, was an integral part of what made this year so successful. Though we are sad to see Jackie depart, we are thrilled to welcome a new student assistant manager, Ambar Ashraf from Atlanta, to our team!

In the spring, we began piloting our CSA program to students and staff, which delivered several hundred pounds of fresh seasonal produce, herbs, and flowers to members across 30 weeks.

The CSA allowed us to grow a wider variety of crops for the first time—many of which were very successful, like Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, fennel, and shallots. It’s our hope that we can broaden the scope of the CSA’s membership for next year’s growing season to include the broader community of Hale County.

This past year, we also began working with the Black Belt Food Project and Project Horseshoe Farm to donate several hundred pounds of extra food to their produce stand, which runs on a “take what you want, pay what you can” model.

To help harvest for and run the produce stand, and to help with the farm in general, we welcomed two new Project Horseshoe Farm fellows, Lauren Widmann and Sonja Lazovic, who have succeeded past fellows Maggie Rosenthal, Ellie Hough, and Bess Renjillian.

The Farm also hosted two events this year: a local food and sustainable agriculture summit and dinner in March and the Food for Thought event in October (with the Newbern Library and the Black Belt Food Project).

Finally, our Farm Manager, Eric, began graduate school in Auburn in the fall, pursuing a degree in crop, soil, and environmental science. The Farm continues to thrive and expand, and the next year is going to be even more productive!

Food for Thought: A Journey through Alabama’s Food History, Culture, and Taste

We had an invigorating weekend for our collaborative food event, Food for Thought: A Journey through Food History, Culture, and Taste.

The two-day event was a joint effort between Carolyn Walthall and Barbara Williams of the Newbern Library, Sarah Cole of Abadir’s and the Black Belt Food Project, and Rural Studio Farm. Food for Thought acknowledged our Southern food history and showcased the work of current organizations and people who are moving these traditions forward for future generations.

The public event started on Friday evening at the Newbern Library, where author Emily Blejwas spoke about her book The History of Alabama in Fourteen Foods. The Friends of Newbern Library provided some of the homemade foods featured in Ms. Blejwas’s book.

On Saturday morning, in beautiful fall weather, the event moved to Rural Studio where our Farm manager, Eric, gave tours of the Farm.

Project Horseshoe Farm, the Black Belt Food Project, and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System had tables set up around the Farm to share their work, as well as a table offering a seed exchange for visitors.

Finally, the event culminated in a lunch that featured North African food from Sarah and West African cuisine from farmer and chef Halima Salazar of Gimbia’s Kitchen out of Oxford, MS.

The two chefs stand smiling together next to their food

The meal, prepared as it was by the two young chefs with both Southern and African roots, encapsulated the theme of the event: as Ms. Salazar said, “Southern food is African food.”

Guest chef Halima Salazar smiles as she prepares stuffed peppers

Rural Studio Farm and the Black Belt Food Project

West Alabama has a new nonprofit working in Greensboro: the Black Belt Food Project (BBFP), started by our friend Sarah Cole of Abadir’s. The BBFP aims to build a stronger, more inclusive environment for children and adults through food-based educational opportunities. Eric Ball, Rural Studio’s Farm Manager, joined Sarah’s newly formed board, which includes Dr. John Dorsey, Director of Project Horseshoe Farm; Stephanie Nixon from Hale County Library and founder of Sacred Space, Inc.; and Amanda Storey, Executive Director of Jones Valley Teaching Farm.

Sarah Cole is standing smiling at a range, seasoning some dishes

Sarah has already collaborated with Rural Studio on several events, like preparing all the excellent food for the Moundville Pavilion Project celebration (made with produce and flowers from Rural Studio Farm).

But now Rural Studio is building a relationship with the BBFP to begin to offer Rural Studio Farm as an educational resource with the broader West Alabama community. Notably, in October, Rural Studio, Newbern Library, and the BBFP are putting together a food event called Food for Thought: A journey through food, history, culture & taste.

And since Rural Studio Farm is producing more food than we can use, this week we started sharing extra produce with the BBFP to be distributed to the public at pick-up points in Greensboro, like in Project Horseshoe Farm’s new “store” space at their headquarters in downtown. It’s a “take what you need, give what you can” market stand.

Meanwhile, on the Farm, we’re moving into Autumn. We are harvesting some of the last warm-season crops like pinkeye purple hull peas, okra, peppers, zucchini, and squash. Sweet potatoes are filling the greenhouse, and we are starting lots of cool-season crops: lettuce, arugula, carrots, kale, spinach, chard, turnips, radishes, broccoli, cabbage, rutabagas, and more.

The Closing Of Summer

Summer draws to an end just as new students begin their time at Rural Studio. But all through the summer swelter, it has been last year’s leftover students—now graduated—whose work has kept the farm running.

A smiling student holds up a large plastic bag full of ripe cherry tomatoes of varying colors

Summer is the most productive time of the year, and each week we spend three days harvesting such things as fresh corn, cherry tomatoes, an assortment of peppers, eggplants, cantaloupes and watermelons, okra, cucumbers, black-eyed peas, snap beans, blackberries and blueberries, apples, Asian pears, leeks, scallions, and shallots, as well as herbs and fresh flowers.

Summer is also the hardest time of the year in terms of insect pest pressure and fast-spreading weeds. Yet, for the first time it never felt like the insects and weeds grew beyond our control. Each year, we diligently hand-weed and turn over crops to minimize the spread of unwanted seeds, and we are now seeing the long-term cumulative efforts pay off.

A long shot of four students stooping down to pick pea pods

Also, we are growing a wider diversity of plants with more aromatic flowers and herbs that make it more difficult for harmful insects to zero in on any one crop. Despite all the hard work and the heat, it’s been a pretty chill summer on the farm.