Rural Studio Farm

Onion and Garlic Harvest

One of our favorite events in late Spring here at the Rural Studio Farm is digging up all of the tasty onions and garlic. These alliums—along with shallots, leeks, chives, and scallions which we also grow—are versatile, easy to grow, and keep for a long time in storage.

Two students excavate mature garlic bulbs from a raised bed

Onions

Onions likely originated in the Middle East and Central Asia and have been cultivated for around 7,000 years. There are short-day and long-day onions, so named because of the number of daylight hours that signals the plant to start forming bulbs, which are modified stems that serve as a food reservoir for the plant. As Earth approach the Summer Solstice, daylight hours increase and days grow longer the farther from the equator one goes. So here in the South, short-day onions perform much better, while regions above about 37° latitude are more suitable for long-day onions because of the added day length.

For short-day onions, the earlier they are planted, the larger the bulbs. We plant our onions in February here at Rural Studio. This year we grew onions from both seed (started in January) and onion sets, which are small onion plants that were shipped to us. Both varieties are sweet onions: one is a Walla Walla-type that is suitable for growing in the South (Walla Walla is in Southeastern Washington), and the other is a Vidalia-type onion. These two regions are famous for their sweet onions because they boast volcanic soil that is low in sulfur. The low sulfur content means that onions grown there are mild. It is the sulfur-containing compounds that give onions their tear-inducing pungency and sharp flavor. Unfortunately, these same sulfur compounds, like allyl disulfide and allicin, are also responsible for many of the health benefits associated with eating onions (as well as garlic).

Once the tops begin to dry out and fall over it means that the onions are ready for harvest. After they are harvested, we then laid the onions out to cure with the tops and roots intact because any cuts can allow pathogens to reach the bulb and cause rot. During the curing process, the tops dry out and so does the outer skin, protecting the onions so that they can keep for months in storage.

Garlic

Garlic is one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world and most likely originated in Central Asia. In most regions, it is best to plant garlic in the Fall because you get larger yields than Spring-planted garlic. We typically plant ours in November, like we did for this year’s crop. It is important to mulch the garlic to suppress weeds, protect the plants during the winter, and retain moisture as the weather warms moving into Spring.

Just like onions, there are two types of garlic: soft-neck and hard-neck. Soft-neck garlics have smaller, more numerous cloves and generally keep in storage very well. Hard-neck garlics, on the other hand, are more winter-hardy, produce fewer cloves, often have stronger flavor, and produce a long edible flower stalk called a scape. We have grown both kinds of garlic here at the Rural Studio Farm; however, this year we only grew an unknown hard-neck garlic that we received from one of our neighbors.

The garlic will set scapes in mid-Spring. They are best harvested when they are young and tender, like asparagus, and they make for excellent eating. It is generally recommended to cut the scapes anyway, as they can draw nutrients away from the bulbs and reduce yields. If left, however, the garlic will produce a large globular light-purple inflorescence of flowers called bulbils. This year, we let the garlic flower and were rewarded by an abundance of butterflies and bees.

The time to harvest garlic is when the bottom two to four leaves begin to wilt and brown. Each leaf corresponds to an individual clove, and the browning indicates that the cloves are no longer actively growing. Like onions, the harvested garlic must cure for about two to three weeks to dry out and make suitable for long-term storage. The roots and necks of the garlic will only be trimmed once the heads have had time to fully cure. Most of them we will eat, but we will save some of the harvested bulbs to break apart and plant again this Fall.

This year we harvested 427 pounds of sweet onions and 67 pounds of garlic. We’ll be enjoying onions and garlic for many more meals to come!

Rural Studio Farm Pilots New CSA Program

Rural Studio Farm is piloting a new Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program for faculty, staff, and students!

The CSA model has been practiced for decades to support small-scale farmers, build community, and strengthen local food systems. In this model, participating members receive a share of whatever produce is available each week. Members experience the seasonal pulses and fluctuations of the Farm’s produce, a process that teaches members more about the natural cycles of food production, as well as potentially introducing new fruits and vegetables to members. Rural Studio Farm’s 30-week-long CSA is an opportunity for students, faculty, and staff to enjoy local, fresh, chemical-free vegetables, fruit, herbs, and cut flowers while directly supporting the operations of the Farm and the greater mission of Rural Studio.

Since students and participating staff have had a hand in growing all of our produce, the CSA initiative completes the experience of food production by directly placing the produce into the hands of the producers.

The Farm has been so successful, with no signs of slowing growth, that we are now producing more food than we can use ourselves. Participating in the CSA will also help reduce food waste, as well as provide extra support to Rural Studio Farm, allow for crop diversification—an important element of our polyculture model—and allow students and staff access to food that is difficult to find in this region.

We at Rural Studio practice farming methods that build a resilient and sustainable agricultural system. That means that we produce food without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides while supporting a more natural, holistic ecological system and stewarding natural and human resources. We utilize organic farming practices like being completely no-till, cover cropping, composting, companion planting, supporting beneficial insects, and crop rotation, all to help build and support a productive soil microbiome and to build back some of our depleted soil fertility.

Some of the new crops we are growing this year specifically for the CSA are kohlrabi, Swiss chard, shallots, lemon grass, fennel, leeks, tomatillos, specialty peppers, ground cherries, radicchio, artichokes, Chinese cabbage, microgreens, and French melons.

If our CSA pilot program proves successful, we plan on extending it to the broader community next year!

Spring Dinner Farm Event

We had an exciting weekend of excellent food and even better company as we gathered with some of our neighbors here in West Alabama for our first Rural Studio Farm Dinner and Lecture Event!

A wide shot of the long table with guests sat around it and the sun's striking horizontal light projecting spears of light over the heads of the attendees

Rural Studio Farm has grown immensely in the past four years, and we have reached the point where we are refining and improving our practices even as the farm continues to expand. Production has increased each year, and there is no sign of this letting up. By all accounts, we have been successful at achieving the goals we set for ourselves when the farm was reinvented in 2019. Now, we wish to expand the scope of the farm toward engaging more directly with our community, to further develop our productive food system as a resource.

In order to expand, we felt we needed to establish new relationships and cultivate current ones with others in our community who might benefit from our growth. So we created a small event to bring folks together with a tour of our farm, followed by some introductions to and celebrations of our guests’ work. Most importantly, the evening culminated in sharing a fine, locally sourced meal together, courtesy of Brad Hart who flew in from Santa Fe along with his partner, and Rural Studio consultant, Johanna Gilligan.

A close-up of the sumptuous salad of local ingredients: pears, lettuce, pecans, beets, radishes, and celery leaves

This was an intimate gathering with few students, and it was meant to emphasize smaller-scale efforts in sustainable agriculture and investments in our local food system.

The event unfolded outdoors on a beautiful Saturday evening. The sun shone with a gentle wind as Farm Manager Eric Ball guided our guests around the farm.

Then, several of our guests participated in mini presentations about themselves and their work: Sarah Cole from Abadir’s Pastry and the Back Belt Food Project in Greensboro, AL; Meg Ford from Alabama Audubon in Greensboro, AL; Nicole Dugat from Schoolyard Roots in Tuscaloosa, AL; Jamie-Lee Steenkamp from Bois D’Arc Farm in Uniontown, AL; John Dorsey, as well as fellows Maggie Rosenthal, Bess Renjilian, and Ellie Hough, from Project Horseshoe Farm in Greensboro, AL; Olivia Fuller, the commercial horticulture agent for West Alabama, from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System; and Johanna Gilligan, who founded Grow Dat Youth Farm in New Orleans, LA. We also heard from Emefa Butler from C.H.O.I.C.E. in Uniontown, AL and Jovita Lewis, the Hale County Cooperative Extension coordinator. Finally, we were happy to have our friends, and fellow growers, Chip and Laura Spencer from Marion Junction, AL in attendance.

One can see the varied expressions of those watching a pecha kucha style lecture given by a guest

We had a fantastic evening together and are looking forward to seeing how the farm can expand with these invaluable relationships!

All about carrots

One of our biggest crops at Rural Studio Farm is carrots.

A heap of freshly washed purple and orange carrots sits on the wash table

We can grow these tasty taproots in the field or the greenhouse during both spring and autumn. They are also cold-hardy, so they can be overwintered in the field for harvests throughout winter, just as we are doing right now.

Carrots are a member of the Umbelliferae family. Umbellula means umbrella in Latin, and many members of this family have umbrella-shaped flower clusters. This plant family also includes dill, parsley, caraway, cumin, fennel, parsnips, cilantro, celery, angelica, and Queen Anne’s lace. Carrots most likely originated in present-day Afghanistan, and the earliest records of their domestication are from Persia. Originally, all carrots were either white or purple until a mutation resulted in a chance yellow carrot. The yellow pigment—as well as reds and oranges—are from a class of chemicals called carotenoids, which are common in many of the fruits we eat, such as bell peppers, oranges, mangoes, melons, avocados and tomatoes. They also form the vibrant dark green of many leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, and broccoli. Nutritionally, carotenoids act as antioxidants, which neutralize free radicals, and are broken down in the body to form vitamin A.

Functionally, plants use carotenoids to aid in photosynthesis, so it is unusual that an underground plant part, like a carrot taproot, would express this color. The modern orange carrot emerged from cultivation of the chance yellow carrot strain. These new orange carrots were widely cultivated by the Dutch—supposedly as a tribute to William of Orange who led the fight for Dutch independence—and then popularized by the French. We still grow mostly orange carrots at RS Farm, but we also grow red, orange, purple, and yellow ones. They add a bright pop of color and each has their own differing flavor profiles.

Carrots are one of the few crops that we do not start as transplants because the taproots do not respond well to being disturbed. Instead, we spread the seed with a push seeder, which shallowly deposits seed at set intervals. Carrots can be planted close together and do not always have very even germination, so the seeder saves a lot of time. Keeping the soil moist is the best way to improve germination. It is also important to keep the soil moist as the roots grow, since uneven watering can cause the roots to split or crack.

While the tops of carrots are edible and can be used for making things like vegetable stock or pesto, we grow carrots for the roots. Farm-fresh carrots have much more flavor than supermarket carrots, and we love them fresh in our salads. Most carrots, however, will be frozen for future meals to be enjoyed even when they are not in season.  

A closeup of carrot foliage in the greenhouse

Preparing the field for spring

Spring is just around the corner, and here on the Farm we are preparing our beds out in the field so that we can hit the ground running with crops once the weather warms.

A smiling student seems to enjoy shoveling mulch

Most organic and conventional farms till their soil in the Spring and Fall, mechanically turning the soil to mix in crop residues and weeds into the soil. Not only is this an effective weed control technique, but it brings carbon to the soil surface where fungi and bacteria feed on the carbon and release nutrients that help newly planted crops grow. However, the surface-level carbon also combines with the atmospheric oxygen, forming greenhouse gases and thereby contributing o climate change. Tilling also makes soil more vulnerable to weed seeds, and it destroys the structure of soil layers, which negatively impacts the delicate ecology of beneficial bacteria, fungi, and other organisms in the soil. Since Rural Studio Farm’s philosophy is rooted in moving toward sustainable systems and regenerative agriculture, we strictly practice a no-till system. This means that we must prepare the soil differently for the Spring.

This process began back in the Fall when we cleared out the old crop residue and sowed cover crops that would overwinter in the field.

Cover crops help build healthy soil and protect against erosion during the long rainy winter. Once students returned in January, we spread large silage tarps over the cover crops to begin to break them down without needing to turn them over with the tiller. Next, we used a tool called a broadfork, which has long tines that push deep into the soil and open it up for water, air, and organic matter to reach deeper down, allowing for root systems to develop more easily.

After broadforking, we added pine bark mulch and other soil amendments to the bed before tarping it again. The final step was to smooth out the soil surface and then transplant out the new seedlings.

While the bed preparations have been going on in the field, we have been busy in the seed house starting all sorts of new seedlings: lettuces, spinach, beets, kale, collards, cabbage, broccoli, chard, onions, leeks, shallots, herbs, fennel, celery, turnips, mustard, and more.

So stay tuned for when the soil warms up and we can begin moving the new crops outside!