Rural Studio Farm

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!

Spring Dinner Farm Event

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!

A wide shot of the long table with guests sat around it and the sun's striking horizontal light projecting spears of light over the heads of the attendees

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.

A close-up of the sumptuous salad of local ingredients: pears, lettuce, pecans, beets, radishes, and celery leaves

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.

One can see the varied expressions of those watching a pecha kucha style lecture given by a guest

We had a fantastic evening together and are looking forward to seeing how the farm can expand with these invaluable relationships!

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

Preparing the field for spring

Spring is just around the corner, and here on the Farm we are preparing our beds out in the field so that we can hit the ground running with crops once the weather warms.

A smiling student seems to enjoy shoveling mulch

Most organic and conventional farms till their soil in the Spring and Fall, mechanically turning the soil to mix in crop residues and weeds into the soil. Not only is this an effective weed control technique, but it brings carbon to the soil surface where fungi and bacteria feed on the carbon and release nutrients that help newly planted crops grow. However, the surface-level carbon also combines with the atmospheric oxygen, forming greenhouse gases and thereby contributing o climate change. Tilling also makes soil more vulnerable to weed seeds, and it destroys the structure of soil layers, which negatively impacts the delicate ecology of beneficial bacteria, fungi, and other organisms in the soil. Since Rural Studio Farm’s philosophy is rooted in moving toward sustainable systems and regenerative agriculture, we strictly practice a no-till system. This means that we must prepare the soil differently for the Spring.

This process began back in the Fall when we cleared out the old crop residue and sowed cover crops that would overwinter in the field.

Cover crops help build healthy soil and protect against erosion during the long rainy winter. Once students returned in January, we spread large silage tarps over the cover crops to begin to break them down without needing to turn them over with the tiller. Next, we used a tool called a broadfork, which has long tines that push deep into the soil and open it up for water, air, and organic matter to reach deeper down, allowing for root systems to develop more easily.

After broadforking, we added pine bark mulch and other soil amendments to the bed before tarping it again. The final step was to smooth out the soil surface and then transplant out the new seedlings.

While the bed preparations have been going on in the field, we have been busy in the seed house starting all sorts of new seedlings: lettuces, spinach, beets, kale, collards, cabbage, broccoli, chard, onions, leeks, shallots, herbs, fennel, celery, turnips, mustard, and more.

So stay tuned for when the soil warms up and we can begin moving the new crops outside!

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!