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.
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 earth stewardship.
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.