Statistically, February is our wettest month with a 30-year average of just over 5.5 inches, but we have already exceeded that number in the first two weeks, making this a very wet and warm winter thus far.
Nevertheless, our last frost date is typically mid to late March, so we are planning accordingly. In the seed house we are starting cold-hardy crops for transplant soon: collard greens, kale, mustard greens, turnips, beets, lettuce, and spinach. Other crops like carrots, arugula, and parsnips will be direct-sown in the next few weeks. We also started early tomatoes for transplant into the greenhouse in early March.
Meanwhile, with things in danger of washing away, the students are doing some landscape work to help improve the campus and make areas ready for planting flowers and perennial herbs—many of which are culinary or medicinal. In addition to being more beautiful, these accessory plants support the farm in other ways like attracting beneficial insects and pollinators and deterring other pest insects. They also make better use of different parts of the campus, turning more of the land into an active and productive resource rather than just a passive lawn that requires so much maintenance without returning much material benefit.
We began cultivating additional land for crop production last fall, which will add about 33% more growing area. Using the walking tractor, Eric and the students first shaped the new in-ground raised beds before adding soil amendments and compost. Since we are promoting soil health, it is best to have something growing in the beds at all times, so it is important to start growing as soon as possible.
Students planted seed potatoes, which we covered in a layer of hay, and transplanted out collard greens. In some beds they also sowed a cover crop mix for early spring—hairy vetch, field peas, and oats—all to improve soil health and to keep the ground growing before crops are added later in the spring.
We are no-till, but we just tested out a new tool, the tilther. Run by a cordless drill, the tilther is like a baby rototiller, only working the soil to a depth of about two inches. This improves the tilth of the soil by fluffing and smoothing out the soil surface, making it ready to be transplanted into. It also mixes in any amendments, fertilizers, and minor crop residues.
In the greenhouse meanwhile, more seedlings are being started, and the early crop of tomatoes are being moved to larger quarters to allow their roots to expand and grow before they are transplanted to the greenhouse once March arrives.
Even though the final freeze is still a month or two off, we are beginning to prepare for the spring growing season. In the seed house we have started seedling trays of cold-hardy crops (and sorting potatoes) to be transplanted out into the field in the latter half of February. Meanwhile in the field, cover crops that were sowed last autumn were mowed down to improve the soil structure and add nitrogen and organic matter.
In organic farming, it’s more about farming the soil than the crops. In order to support a natural soil structure, reduce erosion, and promote a healthy ecosystem, Rural Studio Farm is completely no-till once the beds are established. Cycling cover crops through the beds in summer and winter is a vital step in building and amending the damaged soil we are left with here in the Black Belt, as most of the rich topsoil, from which the area got its name, was washed away from unsustainable agricultural practices. Since the field is mostly cover crops, all the Studio’s salads and greens are grown and harvested in the passive solar greenhouse.
The Rural Studio Farm is all-organic, small-scale, and intensively managed, making use of sustainable agricultural practices. In addition to providing fresh, organic produce for students and staff, the farm has become an integrated part of all the architecture students’ experience coming through Rural Studio.
Bright and early each morning, a group of students works with our farm manager, Eric Ball, in all aspects of crop production, from seed-starting, to transplanting, to harvesting—and finally enjoying the fruits of their labors during shared meals prepared at the Studio. We feel this is important way to better understand the realities of living in a rural place, especially in Alabama’s Black Belt region where the historical and social legacy is etched into the very landscape.
This is the beginning of the second year of food production since the farm has undergone a major reboot, and you can catch all the updates on what is happening right here every week.
We’re feeling all the feels over here in Newbern this week. It’s Pig Roast week!!! Come out THIS SATURDAY and help us celebrate 25 YEARS IN HALE!!! We’re incredibly proud and truly honored to still be here working with this extraordinary community. Thanks to Sambo Mockbee and D.K. Ruth for having the vision to make this happen and Andrew Freear for continuing to be our champion. Our Rural Studio family is larger and stronger than ever. #WarEagle