Looking Back and Moving Forward

A student sits calmly in the rows of strawberry plants

As the weather grows cooler and the days shorten, Rural Studio Farm is preparing for the cold wet winter when most of the field operation will rest as cover crops replace food crops. It has been a busy year of growing and expanding what we do.

In the spring, we hosted our 2nd Annual Spring Farm Dinner along with friends and consultants Brad Hart and Johanna Gilligan. It was a beautiful outdoor evening of sharing an excellent meal—prepared by Brad using farm produce—with our neighbors and friends.

Now that Patriece’s Home has been completed, Laurel Holloway has left Hale County and her two-year role as assistant farm manager. While we are sorry to see Laurel go, she has been replaced by Jake Buell from Austin, Texas, who is part of the team designing and building the 18×18 House. Jake has joined Ambar Ashraf (Rural Studio Bathhouse), and now they are scheming to bring chickens back to Rural Studio Farm. We also welcomed our Project Horseshoe Farm volunteer fellow, Jenna, to the team.

We introduced two new crops to our regular rotation: strawberries and microgreens. Over the course of the summer, we produced around 200 pounds of fresh delicious strawberries—so good that many berries were eaten in the field. The microgreens are our first hydroponically produced crop, and they have been a welcome addition to the salad bar.

Several students and volunteers are gathering and spreading handfuls of microgreen seeds across wetted burlap in a large PVC tray this part of the hydroponic system for growing microgreens

During the summer, Rural Studio Farm hosted kids who were participating in Project Horseshoe Farm’s Summer Youth Program. The students had fun picking cherry tomatoes, digging up potatoes, and pulling cabbages.

Looking ahead to 2024, we are planning on introducing ginger, turmeric, and Jerusalem artichokes to the Farm. We are also changing some of our accessory flower and herb growing spaces to specifically support pollinators, as well as developing a sensory garden which will be filled with plants of varied textures, colors, aromas, and growth habits. Finally, we are planning on reintroducing both honeybees and chickens back to Rural Studio Farm. It’s going to be a great year!

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!

Heads up! “Neckdown” Week is complete!

Last week was a busy one out in Newbern. We kicked off the semester with the time-honored tradition of “Neckdown” Week. “Neckdown” is a week where the thinking caps come off and the gloves go on for a week of physical tasks working in the community and on the Rural Studio campus. It’s also a time for current 5th-years to meet the Spring 3rd-year crew.

The week started with some housekeeping around home base where teams worked to replace boards on the Great Hall, tidy up the pods, and help out on the farm.

We also took some time to spruce up past projects like Lions Park, which was started in the early 2000s. The baseball fields at Lions Park have some brand new bleacher seats, the bathrooms are back in working order, and to everyone’s delight, the concession stand opens as well as ever!

Additionally, a small group ventured out to Perry Lakes Park—Rural Studio’s first large-scale, multi-phase landscape project—to do some work on the bathrooms (still the best loo view in Alabama!). The park is open again after a brief hiatus due to storm damage, so go check out the view for yourself!

We rounded out the week with a helping hand over at the Newbern Library, the town’s main social center and source of technological amenities, thus ending a long week of hard, but worthwhile work.

P.S. Next time you speed into Morrisette House’s driveway, send a thank you to our fearless leader, Andrew Freear, who took to tamping the driveway like a champ. (We hear his bones are still rattling as we write this.)

Welcome to the Rural Studio Farm blog!

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.

Learn more about the mission and history of the Rural Studio Farm here.