Summer draws to an end just as new students begin their time at Rural Studio. But all through the summer swelter, it has been last year’s leftover students—now graduated—whose work has kept the farm running.
Summer is the most productive time of the year, and each week we spend three days harvesting such things as fresh corn, cherry tomatoes, an assortment of peppers, eggplants, cantaloupes and watermelons, okra, cucumbers, black-eyed peas, snap beans, blackberries and blueberries, apples, Asian pears, leeks, scallions, and shallots, as well as herbs and fresh flowers.
Summer is also the hardest time of the year in terms of insect pest pressure and fast-spreading weeds. Yet, for the first time it never felt like the insects and weeds grew beyond our control. Each year, we diligently hand-weed and turn over crops to minimize the spread of unwanted seeds, and we are now seeing the long-term cumulative efforts pay off.
Also, we are growing a wider diversity of plants with more aromatic flowers and herbs that make it more difficult for harmful insects to zero in on any one crop. Despite all the hard work and the heat, it’s been a pretty chill summer on the farm.
Few things signal Summer like fresh-dug potatoes and red, ripe tomatoes and both of these are favorite crops at Rural Studio Farm! After starting them in mid-Winter, we have been harvesting them in abundance.
Tomatoes and peppers are both members of the solanum genus (along with eggplants), which is part of the bigger Solanaceae, or nightshade, family. Their close relatedness is one of the reasons you should practice good crop rotation and avoid planting one of these crops in the same location in successive years. Many of the same pests and diseases will afflict both tomatoes and potatoes, for example, so always planting in the same spot makes the pests’ jobs easier.
Wild potatoes are quite small and originated in the Andes. True to their inclusion in the nightshade family, wild potatoes are also poisonous, containing an alkaloid called solanine. Domesticated potatoes can also express solanine when left in direct sunlight, which is evident by the skins turning green.
Potatoes are not typically grown from seed but rather from seed potatoes. These are quality potatoes saved from a previous harvest and replanted. The highest quality seed potatoes, which have been inspected and controlled for spoilage and disease, are available from seed catalogs, but these are often quite expensive—especially organic seed potatoes.
Buying them from a catalog also ensures that the potatoes are of a given variety. As an alternative, you can grow potatoes from those bought at a grocery. Even though the quality is less determinate, and you don’t always know exactly which cultivar you have, we have had great results growing supermarket potatoes at Rural Studio Farm. If you want to buy supermarket potatoes be sure to get organic ones, as the conventional potatoes are often sprayed with a chemical that inhibits sprouting. Big seed potatoes can be cut into smaller pieces and planted individually for bigger yields. Each piece should be no smaller than about three ounces, and each piece should have at least one eye on it, which is where the tubers sprout.
For every pound of seed potatoes planted, you want to try and see a return of about 10 pounds, though under ideal conditions this can be much higher. Any return under six pounds probably means there were insect problems or the plants were not getting enough water. We started harvesting ours early for new potatoes, but we still got 8.8 pounds of potatoes back for every pound of seed potatoes we planted for a total harvest of 268 pounds.
Tomatoes are actually berries, and cherry tomatoes are closer to wild tomatoes than the huge beefsteaks we often think of.
The Spanish were the first to encounter them and bring them back to Europe, but tomatoes had a rocky start before becoming so closely associated with Spanish and Italian food. In the 1700s, some aristocrats became sick and died after eating tomatoes, and the fruit even earned the nickname “poison apples.” But it was the pewter plates the tomato dishes were served on that caused illness: the acidic tomato juice leeched lead from the plates and poisoned those who ate from them.
Tomatoes can be hard to grow in the South, especially in large numbers. The high heat means it can be difficult to keep them well watered, and the high humidity and heavy rain storms promote fungal and other soil-borne diseases. And then there is the huge amount of insect pressure and the need to support the sprawling vines. In general, we prefer to grow cherry tomatoes, which tend to be hardier and more productive. If a few cherry tomatoes get damaged then it’s no big deal, but if you lose several big tomatoes then the loss is more significant.
Over the years, we have been fine-tuning which support methods work best, and which varieties hold up best in the field. This season we are growing two kinds of indeterminate (vining), three kinds of determinate (bush), and six kinds of cherry tomatoes to compare how they perform and how they taste. It is especially important given our new CSA, since tomatoes are beloved by so many. And they are a Summer staple in our salad bar.
So whether its potato salad or a tomato sandwich, our solanum crops provide some of the best eating of the year.
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!
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.
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.
We had a fantastic evening together and are looking forward to seeing how the farm can expand with these invaluable relationships!
One of our biggest crops at Rural Studio Farm is carrots.
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.
January means a new year, and it also marks the beginning of the fourth year of production on the redesigned Rural Studio Farm.
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)
summer squash and zucchini 654.1
Asian and Italian eggplant 519.2
tomatoes and cherry tomatoes 492.9
mustard greens 403.9
sweet potatoes 374.8
sweet corn 264.2
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!