Growing Plants and People
By Verna Gates | Photography courtesy of Jones Valley Teaching Farm
Students connect with nature while learning how to grow food and understand core subjects at Jones Valley Teaching Farm in Birmingham.
The pungent scent of earth and peppers fill the air as Mohamed Jalloh leads a small group of apprentices as they prepare the soil for a crop more suited to the winter blasts. The harvest was bountiful, with students sharing their largess by delivering their school-grown vegetables, fruits, and flowers to first responders and food pantries. In an ordinary year, they would sell the food they grew in a small fruit stand, designed by the students themselves. Still, the goal was met — to connect the soil to food and food to life.
Jones Valley Teaching Farm (JVTF) was founded in 2001 by a young pair who wanted to bring California holistic farming home to Birmingham, Ala. Edwin Marty and Allison Page started with a small, littered, ragged patch of ground in a once grand, but crumbling neighborhood. They partnered with the Birmingham YMCA to provide job training and to test the viability of small, urban farms. Soon, their organic produce found its way into restaurant kitchens like Highlands Bar and Grill, named the most outstanding restaurant by the James Beard Foundation in 2018.
Two changes revolutionized the new non-profit. One, they were given a 3.5-acre site in downtown Birmingham. Two, an innovative inner-city school asked to partner. It did not take long for the underserved children at Glen Iris Elementary School to prove the long-term impact of focusing on the next generation.
“When we started to see kids grab a scuppernong or a blackberry at recess as a normal thing, and not something weird, we knew we had successfully changed school culture,” says Amanda Storey, executive director of Jones Valley Teaching Farm. “We had shifted the dynamic. It was working.”
A curriculum was written based on state school standards to teach everything from science to English to engineering for K-12 students. Lessons such as Fraction Chili and the Silk Road Spices Game cross cultural and subject lines using food for math, history, culture, and educating taste buds.
Today, JVTF operates in six schools in the Birmingham area. They work to create a continuum from kindergarten through high school by working with pipeline elementary and middle schools who send freshmen to Woodlawn High School. Each school has its own educator who works with all classes, plus “farmers,” student volunteers, and apprentices who work in the garden plot.
“We are an integral part of the schools,” says Storey. “The kids will call out to Farmer Mohamed in the halls, just like he was a celebrity. They trust the farmers in a different way than a teacher.”
Jalloh has been involved in JVTF since 10th grade. He moved up through the volunteer and apprentice system, and now works as farm and apprentice manager for Woodlawn High School, where he graduated four years ago. Students must apply to be a paid apprentice and it is competitive. Twenty-five percent of the JVFT staff came through the program.
“Students in the neighborhood need jobs,” Storey says. “Some of them have to help their families, others want to buy cell phones or other things. They all benefit from job training.”
The program runs year-round, serving 3,500 students. In addition to the school day programs, JVTF provides an afterschool program and summer camps. School systems in other areas and other states are consulting with them to replicate their success, such as the spin-off EatSouth in Montgomery, started by JVTF founder Marty.
The plot of garden behind Woodlawn High School is ripe with figs, apples, pears, collards, carrots, peanuts, head lettuce, beets, and sweet potatoes. A pond filled with colorful fish forms a swale to absorb heavy rains. Behind it are native plants known for their ability to absorb pollutants and toxins — phytoremediation, which is common in wetlands that serve as nature’s strainer. Inside the shed stands a tractor in front of neatly hanging tools. A greenhouse stands ready to nurture seeds into plants.
While farming may appear simple on the surface, it teaches a complex web of life lessons. Among these are cycles of the earth, hard work, problem-solving, conservation, culinary skills, soil ecology, finance, and resilience. And survival. Students watch seeds develop into food, learning that a $1 pack of seeds can feed a family.
“They learn that it doesn’t matter if a grocery store refuses to open in their neighborhood. They can grow their own food,” says Storey.
Literally getting to the root of problems such as hunger, obesity, poverty, and so many other ills reverts back to the soil. The source of healthy food, independence, and exercise, farming digs deep into the core of humanity. As apprentice Destiny Nelson-Miles demonstrates the use of a specialized tool that scrapes out the weeds, her face glows with confidence. All of teaching is hands-on, so students connect with the abundant earth in a transformative way.
This year, the Center for Food Education is slated to be completed and opened at the downtown site. The Center will feature a demonstration kitchen where cooking classes, workshops, family dinner nights, and other programs can pair the farm with the table. While growing produce grows people, as JVTF proclaims, the ultimate homerun stops at the plate.