Rural Studio is a complex combination of architectural, social, and environmental responsibilities, including designing and building, place and community, creativity and experimentation, culture and education, and service and citizenship. Nowhere is this complexity more evident than in the Rural Studio Farm. When we designed the “Farm,” as it is known, we imagined a holistic system in which eating, building, and living are intended as parallel activities, signaling an intentional shift toward creating a more sustainable food ecosystem and culture. We wanted to challenge ourselves to imagine living off of the land while creatively using it as a precious resource.
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In part, this transformation
addresses the Studio’s need for nutritious food that is often unavailable in
Hale County’s isolated and economically depressed rural community. Most locally
available produce does not originate in the region or in small-scale food
systems, and the transportation of food imparts a significant financial and
ecological cost. Food quality is poor, and most of it is kept fresh using
preservatives and chemicals.
Beyond the practical need to
feed our students, faculty, and staff, the Farm’s mission recognizes social and
economic challenges in rural communities. Highly processed, starch- and
sugar-intensive food contributes to a high risk of obesity. Such chronic health
conditions are yet another tragic form of poverty, leading to lower life
expectancy and higher health care costs. Moreover, industrially produced food
has contributed to the disappearance of southern cuisine, with its emphasis on
locally grown produce. Southern cuisine is an important part of southern
identity—a reflection of the South’s climate and soil. We believe that those
agricultural qualities can be put to use responsibly; we re-envision rural
communities as productive rather than as passive “bedroom communities” that are
in service to more productive urban areas.
The Farm also places emphasis
on the food culture of the Studio and the community we inhabit. By growing,
harvesting, preparing, and eating food produced on site, the Studio is able to
make better use of its land while testing a local food sourcing system for
rural living. Commodities that we are unable to produce, like meat and eggs,
are bought from other farmers in our community, giving them support and keeping
the supply chain as local as possible.
The Farm’s infrastructure has
also served as an educational tool in the students’ design education, as
students designed and constructed most elements through multiphase projects.
Several of these projects—the passive solar greenhouse, seed house, and water
collection system—were cohesively designed as a laboratory to explore passive
architecture strategies. Other infrastructure elements, like the storehouse and
the kitchen, support the storage and processing of harvested commodities.
Food production on the Farm has
become an important cultural element of Rural Studio, with every student
assisting in the daily growth and harvesting processes. Students learn to be
critical consumers and begin to understand the social, cultural, and
environmental implications of sustainable agriculture.
Everyone’s efforts are then
celebrated by eating the harvested food together.
Rural Studio is located in
Newbern, Alabama, part of the narrow crescent of land called the Black Belt
prairie. The region was so named because of its rich black topsoil that first
attracted prospective farmers in the early 1800s. Newbern developed into a
cotton economy fueled by slave labor, and because of the unsustainable agricultural
practices employed by that model, most of the area’s topsoil has washed away
over the years. As a result, the majority of the region’s agriculture today is
restricted to certain cash crops that can tolerate the poor soil and that can
be grown by farmers wealthy enough to afford the necessary heavy farm
machinery. The often overlooked intergenerational legacy of slave agriculture
has also had severe social and economic consequences in the Black Belt, as
Newbern today is a food desert where access to local high-quality food is
limited and obesity and chronic health conditions are commonplace. In response
to this, the primary goal for the Farm is to sustainably produce fresh, local
organic food by and for our students and staff.
The Farm’s management
philosophy is more about farming the soil than the vegetable crops—good healthy
soil produces good healthy vegetables. No pesticides or synthetic fertilizers
are ever used on the farm, and much of the work is done by hand. All of the
production area is no-till, and cover crops are used to build soil and maintain
a healthy soil ecosystem. The aim is to have something growing in the beds at
all times, which means we can circulate through multiple crops throughout the
year. We produce about 25 main crops, ranging from salad greens to watermelons
to garlic, from fresh culinary herbs to blackberries. Some crops, like lettuces
and tomatoes, are commodities that not everyone has had success growing in our
humid subtropical climate. Though small in scale, this intensive model is
highly productive, making good use of Rural Studio land while promoting good
The Farm also enhances students’ design education because they are confronted with the realities of what it means to live in a rural community. Every student at Rural Studio rotates through a work schedule so that they are involved in every aspect of vegetable crop production, from seed-starting to harvesting to washing and processing the crops. The students’ shared work on the Farm fosters a sense of community, and the we celebrate the harvested food at shared meals with all the staff and students.
Read our Rural Studio Farm blog.