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