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.
One of our favorite events in late Spring here at the Rural Studio Farm is digging up all of the tasty onions and garlic. These alliums—along with shallots, leeks, chives, and scallions which we also grow—are versatile, easy to grow, and keep for a long time in storage.
Onions likely originated in the Middle East and Central Asia and have been cultivated for around 7,000 years. There are short-day and long-day onions, so named because of the number of daylight hours that signals the plant to start forming bulbs, which are modified stems that serve as a food reservoir for the plant. As Earth approach the Summer Solstice, daylight hours increase and days grow longer the farther from the equator one goes. So here in the South, short-day onions perform much better, while regions above about 37° latitude are more suitable for long-day onions because of the added day length.
For short-day onions, the earlier they are planted, the larger the bulbs. We plant our onions in February here at Rural Studio. This year we grew onions from both seed (started in January) and onion sets, which are small onion plants that were shipped to us. Both varieties are sweet onions: one is a Walla Walla-type that is suitable for growing in the South (Walla Walla is in Southeastern Washington), and the other is a Vidalia-type onion. These two regions are famous for their sweet onions because they boast volcanic soil that is low in sulfur. The low sulfur content means that onions grown there are mild. It is the sulfur-containing compounds that give onions their tear-inducing pungency and sharp flavor. Unfortunately, these same sulfur compounds, like allyl disulfide and allicin, are also responsible for many of the health benefits associated with eating onions (as well as garlic).
Once the tops begin to dry out and fall over it means that the onions are ready for harvest. After they are harvested, we then laid the onions out to cure with the tops and roots intact because any cuts can allow pathogens to reach the bulb and cause rot. During the curing process, the tops dry out and so does the outer skin, protecting the onions so that they can keep for months in storage.
Garlic is one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world and most likely originated in Central Asia. In most regions, it is best to plant garlic in the Fall because you get larger yields than Spring-planted garlic. We typically plant ours in November, like we did for this year’s crop. It is important to mulch the garlic to suppress weeds, protect the plants during the winter, and retain moisture as the weather warms moving into Spring.
Just like onions, there are two types of garlic: soft-neck and hard-neck. Soft-neck garlics have smaller, more numerous cloves and generally keep in storage very well. Hard-neck garlics, on the other hand, are more winter-hardy, produce fewer cloves, often have stronger flavor, and produce a long edible flower stalk called a scape. We have grown both kinds of garlic here at the Rural Studio Farm; however, this year we only grew an unknown hard-neck garlic that we received from one of our neighbors.
The garlic will set scapes in mid-Spring. They are best harvested when they are young and tender, like asparagus, and they make for excellent eating. It is generally recommended to cut the scapes anyway, as they can draw nutrients away from the bulbs and reduce yields. If left, however, the garlic will produce a large globular light-purple inflorescence of flowers called bulbils. This year, we let the garlic flower and were rewarded by an abundance of butterflies and bees.
The time to harvest garlic is when the bottom two to four leaves begin to wilt and brown. Each leaf corresponds to an individual clove, and the browning indicates that the cloves are no longer actively growing. Like onions, the harvested garlic must cure for about two to three weeks to dry out and make suitable for long-term storage. The roots and necks of the garlic will only be trimmed once the heads have had time to fully cure. Most of them we will eat, but we will save some of the harvested bulbs to break apart and plant again this Fall.
This year we harvested 427 pounds of sweet onions and 67 pounds of garlic. We’ll be enjoying onions and garlic for many more meals to come!
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!
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!