Alabama Farm Tour Sprouts Ideas

by Jim Pathfinder Ewing

Just got back from an incredibly packed two-day tour of farms in Alabama conducted by the Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network. The farm tour was videoed in collaboration with the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network. Clips will appear in the future on both MSAN’s and ASAN’s websites. We’ll keep you posted on that.

The tour included seven farms of various types in two days that spanned a couple of hundred miles across Alabama north to south, from Jasper to Montgomery, including: Camp McDowell, Jones Valley Teaching Farm, Petals From the Past, Downtown Farm (EAT South, Montgomery), Hampstead Insitute, Oakview Farms, and Druid City School Farm (Tuscaloosa).

Here’s a photo essay.

Let me say that I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to meet the farmers, handing out info for the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). Some of these initiatives are squarely in NCAT’s mission to help people by championing small-scale, local and sustainable solutions to reduce poverty, promote healthy communities and protect natural resources. And, of course, a big part of that is the ATTRA program – The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service!

Camp McDowell (Nauvoo, Ala.)

We started the Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network Farm Tour of Alabama Farms at the conference center for the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Alabama at Nauvoo, Ala. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

We started out at the conference center for the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Alabama at Nauvoo, Ala.

As Jon Nee, director of the McDowell Farm School at Camp McDowell explains, the diocese has big plans to expand its farming operations (to include the field shown behind him). (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Camp McDowell hosts the McDowell Farm School which currently has several farmers growing food for the camp. But the big message at this farm is its expansion plans, which includes the addition of eco sensitive buildings to be constructed that will be using geothermal energy. Pipes will be laid in an adjacent lake which will allow heat transfer units to heat and cool the complex. The farm currently allows local farms to grow on the fields and the camp buys the local food from the farmers. Plans are to make the camp self-sustaining.

Jones Valley Teaching Farm (Birmingham, Ala.)

At Jones Valley Teaching Farm, it’s noteworthy that its farm stand has an honor system for paying for produce! Even in downtown north Birmingham, shoppers pick their produce and pay according to what’s posted. It’s a delightful place to be! (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Katherine Davis of Jones Valley Teaching Farm in downtown north Birmingham, Ala., welcomes farm tour visitors to the center. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Jones Valley Teaching Farm in downtown north Birmingham, Ala., was a surprise. Here in an utterly urban area, the 3-acre farm has hoop houses, food plots, chickens, compost, a farm stand, and collects its own rainwater for use in the gardens. It’s a fascinating place to spend a couple of hours.

One of the funnier aspects of it is where it gets its manure for compost: from elephants! Farm director Katie Davis said that the elephant doo is traded by the local zoo for garden consultation work. There seems to be plenty of it!

Prices change according to market conditions at Jones Valley Teaching Farm. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The chore board at Jones Valley Teaching Farm. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Every farm needs a “chore board” in order for everyone to know what everybody’s doing and what’s getting done and needs doing. I love this one at Jones Valley Teaching Farm: get, got, finished!

However, I know via personal experience from our little ShooFly Farm that chores are never finished. Nor can they all get done, certainly not in a day. You just do the ones you can and must and get to the rest when you can.

Rows are freshly tilled for a fall garden at the Jones Valley Teaching Farm in north downtown Birmingham, Ala. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Skyscrapers seem dwarfed in the background as a high tunnel for urban agriculture is erected at the downtown north Birmingham, Ala., Jones Valley Teaching Farm. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

These urban chickens seem content at their shady roost in the downtown north Birmingham, Ala., Jones Valley Teaching Farm. The wires overhead are to deter hawks – though operator Katie Davis says that they only seem to deter the larger hawks, like red tails. Smaller hawks, like Cooper Hawks are more maneuverable and can zip between the wires, she said. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

This bottle tree offers a colorful addition at the Jones Valley Teaching Farm in north Birmingham, Ala. Bottle trees are considered folk art, often found in rural areas of the South. The theory is that having a bottle tree near a home offers good luck. Bad spirits are drawn to the colorful bottles rather than entering a house. Because the necks are narrow, the bad spirits can enter the bottle, but then expand inside and can’t get out! (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Good idea! I LOVE this portable wash stand for produce at the north Birmingham, Ala., Jones Valley Teaching Farm. It’s a real chore to haul buckets of produce around to be washed. This allows the picker to wash where he/she is working. The produce can then be bundled in the field and taken to a cooler for greater freshness — and healthful harvesting! (Photo by Jim Ewing)

I love this rainwater catcher at the north Birmingham, Ala., Jones Valley Teaching Farm. The roof of the structure is ridged inward, rather than upward. Called at “butterfly roof,” it channels rainwater into this cistern. The funnels keep the water from splashing out. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Here’s another view of the butterfly roof and cistern at the north Birmingham, Ala., Jones Valley Teaching Farm. It’s a nice cistern system. (Try saying that rapidly a few times! :-)(Photo by Jim Ewing)

Petals From The Past (Jemison, Ala.)

Our next stop on the Alabama Farm Tour was Petals From the Past at Jemison, Ala. I thought as we pulled up, “Why are we stopping at a garden center?” The answer was in what owner Jason Howell had to offer! (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The answer to my question why we’re stopping at Petals From the Past, a garden center in Jemison, Ala., was quickly answered by the fact that owner/operator Jason Howell is a bonafide plant guru. He’s sustainable through and through. He tests all the plants he grows and sells for hardiness in local conditions and can wax forth for hours on minute details about any plant anyone might want plant! He’s incredible! I could have spent a couple of days asking him questions and still had a lot to learn. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The little ones on the Alabama Farm Tour found a little one to play with at Petals From the Past. The kitty’s name is Ghost. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Jason’s greenhouse is really cool! And a large part of that is the evaporative cooling system. Notice the brown wall in the back. That’s actually corrugated cardboard that looks — and acts — like a radiator. The wet wall, or wet pad or swamp cooler as they are variously called, is located on one wall while fans on the opposite wall pull air through it into the room. If you garden in the South, it’s just about imperative to have some type of cooling system in the summer. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Petals From the Past was a great stop on our farm tour. Owner Jason Howell explained that he chooses to offer plants based on their ability to survive. His garden shop is a demonstration farm of sustainable plant varieties. Many are heirloom varieties more than 150 years old, many from the early 1800s. He grows about 75 percent from stems, 20 percent from seed and 5 percent from grafting, he says. Of that, about 70 percent are heirlooms and the rest are modern.

Eat South Downtown Farm (Montgomery, Ala.)

EAT South Executive Director Edwin Marty explains why they use cinder raised beds rather than wooden, as EAT South Education and Community Outreach Director Mark Bowen takes a photo in the background. The reason for cinder over wood is that although it has a higher initial cost, it lasts longer. The beds have a wider than needed space between them so that visitors may move freely through them, as well as equipment, and to accommodate those with special needs. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

EAT South encourages healthy lifestyles through education and sustainable food production in urban areas throughout the Southeast. EAT stands for Educate, Act, Transform.

EAT South Downtown Farm Manager Jetson Brown explains his abundant growing techniques to the Alabama Four Tour participants (and Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network Outreach Coordinator Shaundi Wall, center) during the group’s tour of Alabama farms on Aug. 10, 2013. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

EAT South has a state of the art greenhouse with its wet wall, lightweight growing tables, and hydroponic features. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

While not a major component of the EAT South Downtown Farm, hydroponics is on display. Here’s a small vertical unit. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

EAT South is largely a teaching tool. About 5,000 school children pass through it annually.

EAT South Hampstead Farm

The EAT South Hampstead Farm outside Montgomery, Ala., is part of a “new urbanist” community as its ag component. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The other campus of EAT South is the Hampstead Farm, located a few miles away at the Hampstead Community, a planned, “new urbanist” community. The campus provides greenspace, acts as a community garden, provides food for the communities restaurants and has a 40-member CSA or “shares” in a community supported agriculture operation.

EAT South Farm Manager Catherine Doe shows off the farm’s healthy produce. The facility has raised beds with various types of produce, plus chickens. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Oakview Farms (Wetumpka, Ala.)

Next, stop…. Wetumpka!

Druid City Garden Project Director Lindsey Turner explains how a school garden in Tuscaloosa, Ala., provided an oasis of beauty after the horrendous 2011 tornado destroyed much of the city and countryside. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Many people outside of Tuscaloosa, Ala., may not remember how an April 27, 2011 tornado left the city in shambles. The E4 tornado flattened houses and leveled the landscape, including the tiny garden of University Place elementary school. A Title I school, where over 90 percent of the student population is minority and 83 percent of the students receive a free or reduced lunch, students replanted their garden in the days after the devastation and it became a place of beauty while the community sought to recover from the storm.

Now part of the EAT South “A Garden at Every School” project, the Druid City Project has 2,500 square feet of growing space that soon will double in size. As we were visiting, a new greenhouse had just been completed, and water was about to be installed in it. The school system had also installed lines for a 1,700-gallon cistern with rainwater catchment from the school gymnasium, and plans are to add more rainwater catchment and a tank so the garden can be self-sufficient for water at 3,000 gallons.

While a few people on the Mississippi Sustainable Ag Network’s Alabama Farm Tour managed to slip away before this photo was taken, it’s a safe bet that everyone went away from it with some useful information on sustainable farming. (Photo by Mike Stanton)

While those who attended the tour may go their separate ways, they had the opportunity to see some top notch farming operations. Special thanks are due to Daniel Doyle, executive director of the Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network for designing and orchestrating the tour, and to MSAN Outreach Coordinator Shaundi Wall, Ole Miss Associate Professor Greg Johnson and videographer Mike Stanton for sharing transportation.

For more information, see the MSAN webpage:

Or, MSAN Facebook:

Alabama Sustainable Ag Network:

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit