harvest

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!

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

The new RS Farm turns four

January means a new year, and it also marks the beginning of the fourth year of production on the redesigned Rural Studio Farm.

Two students start seeds in 72-cell seedling trays

With each successive year, we refine our techniques and continue to add more to the farm. In 2021, we raised our total production from 5,701 pounds to 6,352 pounds. But we didn’t just produce more, we produced smarter by growing more of what we needed and thereby reduced waste.

We also added several crops to our rotation, most notably sweet corn and sweet potatoes—both of which made it to our top ten list for the year.

Top ten crop list for 2021 (pounds)

  1. summer squash and zucchini           654.1
  2. Asian and Italian eggplant                 519.2
  3. tomatoes and cherry tomatoes         492.9
  4. lettuces                                             485.6
  5. kale                                                   415
  6. mustard greens                                 403.9
  7. sweet potatoes                                 374.8
  8. turnips                                               369.5
  9. sweet corn                                        264.2
  10. carrots                                              257.3

In 2021, we also expanded our growing space by adding new permanent raised beds in an area of campus that was previously difficult to manage.

Finally, we planted numerous fruit trees and berry bushes: blueberries, kiwiberries, Asian pears, crabapples, figs, elderberries, and mayhaw.

Looking ahead to this year, we want to further diversify the crops that we grow to increase resilience and biodiversity on the farm. We also want to continue to add more long-term crops—like fruit trees—which will have big payoffs in the future. Speaking of which, this will be the first year when we can begin to harvest asparagus, so stay tuned!

Leaf, Stem, Root

The crisp, cool fall mornings are some of the best times of the year to be working at Rural Studio Farm.

Two students take a moment in the field to talk with one another as the dawn casts spectral light across the morning clouds

With the fruits of Summer harvested, the Fall crops of leaves, roots, and stems have become the farm’s focus.

Students and staff can now enjoy fresh green salads from the farm every lunch until the weather becomes hot again.

Full heads of salanova lettuce, both red and green, look beautiful in their neat arrangements within raised beds in the greenhouse in the morning light

In addition to a variety of fresh lettuces, the farm is also producing spinach, baby greens, kale, collard greens, beets, hakurei turnips, radishes, peanuts, turnips, scallions, carrots, mustard greens, sugar snap peas, and snow peas.

Two rows of carrot foliage in the foreground with trellised sugar snap peas in the background

With the next freeze right around the corner, most of the field production is halting for the Winter. To maintain and promote healthy soils, as well as to protect against erosion, the students broadcast a cover crop mix into the beds and winter rye grass into the aisles. It is also a good time to tidy and clean things on the farm so that it looks good while it rests in the cold.

Morrisette house with rows of bright green cover crops planted out in the farm

Sweet potato harvest

Students harvested the first sweet potato crop since the Rural Studio’s farm reboot in 2019.

But unlike previous sweet potato crops, these were grown in the greenhouse. The Farm’s passive solar greenhouse gets so hot and still during the long Alabama summers that it can be difficult to grow many crops in the peak of summer, and sweet potatoes take up so much space that they are difficult to grow in our small, intensively managed outdoor cultivated areas. Growing the potatoes this way solved both difficulties at once!

Sweet potatoes are most often grown from slips, which are small shoots cut from mature sweet potato tubers and rooted. The farm team planted 200 sweet potato slips into the raised beds in the greenhouse on June 7.

In only a matter of weeks the vines from the growing slips swallowed up the greenhouse: filling the aisles, climbing the barrel wall, and bursting through the windows. It was a beautiful transformation of the space that required almost no maintenance all summer long.

After four months, students dug up the new tubers and cleared out all of the vines.

Once dug up, the tubers then needed to be placed in a warm, humid environment in which to cure for about two weeks. During the curing process, the sweet potatoes’ skin thickens somewhat, any wounds or nicks heal over, and the sweet flavor of the flesh concentrates. Not only does this improve the flavor, but it significantly lengthens their storage potential, so students and staff can enjoy sweet potatoes all throughout the winter.