Urban farming expands to rural countryside

Bursts of rich gold sunflowers line Shelby County 41 near the town of Mt Laurel.

The 25 acres of fields lying behind them announce the expansion of Jones Valley Urban Farms from vacant lots in downtown Birmingham to a more rural setting.

“It’s fun for us to be down here,” said Executive Director Edwin Marty. “What we love about this site is the potential for so many things.”

JVUF just celebrated the summer solstice at their downtown location with their annual “Sunflowers and Shakespeare” event, with acting troupe Muse of Fire. Marty said the Mt Laurel location offers another picturesque spot to entice people with mouthwatering organic food.

“I imagine a long table for about 100 people stretching all the way past these rows,” Marty said motioning past the long strips of crops still in the ground. “We see this as a place for events and envision it as an educational site as well.”

Marty said he, unfortunately, sees even kids in rural Shelby County have limited knowledge of where their food comes from. JVUF wants to see this change.

The first of those ventures in Mt Laurel will be a foodie camp for fifth- through seventh-graders.

Camp planners want to teach kids the basics of gardening, harvesting and cooking. Somewhere in the mix, they hope to also teach them the importance of nutrition.

“Then, when they eat the food they’ve planted, they will really experience what fresh food should taste like,” said Marty.

Pulling all these events and camps together takes a multitude of hands.

Mt Laurel Farm Manager Glenn Bates offers one pair.

“Organic farming always comes down to your hands,” Bates said. “Either you’re working a hoe or a watering hose. That’s where the people come in. It’s invaluable to us to have that extra pair of hands at the right time, whether it’s planting or harvesting.”

JVUF dug in deep in February.

With what Bates called a tremendous amount of help from EBSCO, which owns the farmland, they began plans for a covered workspace and cooler. They then laid out plans for their first crop.

“We are building a farm while we’re farming a farm,” Bates said. “It wasn’t mandatory for us to get going this fast, but it’s given us a good feel for the yield.”

Workers just pulled a full run of radishes, turnips, beets and leafy greens from the earth. They replaced them with towering rows of sunflowers, tomatoes and eggplant. No matter how quickly they work, demand is high.

Chefs from across central Alabama call JVUF seeking the freshest seasonal produce. But a few acres in an urban setting can’t quite meet the demand.

“One of the hardest things has been telling chefs no,” Marty said. “It’s a good problem to have, but we’re looking to provide fresh, organic food whenever it’s sought out.”

Marty said having people diligently seeking the produce could never be bad.

After all, the work JVUF does isn’t done cheaply. They’ve assisted with the creation of at least 20 community gardens and partner with countless schools.

Marty said JVUF looks to become more self-sufficient by increasing food sales. He said the new farm puts them several rows closer to their goal.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a weekly series of stories about local food producers. Next’s week story will focus on the Fertile Mind project at Indian Springs School.