Photos by Cary Norton
The Jones Valley Teaching Farm sits on two acres of cultivated soil on a city block in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. The JVTF’s small, devoted staff grows over 200 varieties of organic fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers, and educates students from Birmingham City Schools on food and nutrition. The nonprofit organization launched a new program in the spring of 2013 with the first Farm Lab at Oliver Elementary School, effectively moving the farm onto school grounds and establishing an outdoor classroom where core subjects like math and science are taught through hands-on experiences. The Fatback Collective, led by Nick Pihakis of Jim ‘N Nicks BBQ, is hosting a Twilight Supper for JVTF friends and supporters this week. Billy Reid’s music guru, Shelly Colvin, arranged for Nashville-based singer-songwriter Langhorne Slim to play the special event.
The Journal toured the farm and caught up with JVTF executive director Grant Brigham to learn a little more about how Jones Valley is affecting Birmingham’s next generation, both on and off farm grounds.
The Journal: Who are the faces behind Jones Valley Teaching Farm?
Grant Brigham: We are one staff with two components. The core staff includes me, farm director Katie Davis, curriculum & content specialist Zoe Burgess, farm lab manager Stephanie Munkachy, Good School Food coordinator Meghan Ford, and farm manager Ben Marshall. The other side are four fellows, three of whom are in their second year with Jones Valley. Conrad works on the farm and also runs the onsite student programs. Last year we had 5,084 kindergarten through 8th grade students come through the grounds. Lucy is a Good School Food lead at Oliver Elementary. A second group of fellows are learning how to farm and teach before they go into schools to help run the Farm Labs. Our second year fellows were previously a Chicago public school system educator, a London-based investment banker, and an Agricultural Science major from Maryland. They’re getting a crash course in small scale farming and education.
J: Jones Valley is a teaching farm with a clear focus to educate kids on where food comes from and the importance of healthy, whole foods, but there’s much more happening there. What are the kids learning?
GB: We design our curriculum around the four C’s: critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration. Employers today are seeking people with problem solving abilities and we want to cultivate that in young kids. We teach them about food and nutrition, but also core standards like math and science. We focus a lot on the social and emotional development of kids. We want them to know there are other adults, outside their immediate family, who love them and support them and want to see them succeed.
J: What is a Farm Lab and how does it function?
GB: A Farm Lab is an outdoor classroom and garden on school campus. We put a team together to think about what the space needs to be, how it needs to look, how it needs to function, what materials to use and why. We work with architects, landscape designers, industrial designers, education and curriculum designers, and graphic designers. Then we bring in teachers, parents and the community to review what we’ve come up with and give us feedback. Once we get to a place where everyone thinks, this is the best model, this is the best approach, we go forward. We build in an actual infrastructure. For example, at Oliver Elementary, we raised the earth and created a big mound so it’s a separated space from the rest of the playground so students can focus when they’re inside learning. Inside the raised earth are steel stadium seating and sheds with enormous boards on them for the teachers to use for teaching. The kids are seated with their Farm Lab notebooks and clipboards, ready for class.
J: What role do you see JVTF playing in the future of Birmingham’s students?
GB: We ask ourselves, can we become a part of the community in such a genuine way that we become family? Can we become exchange agents for instruction? Can we empower kids through the way we teach them and treat them, to become problem-solvers and change makers in their community? After a single successful pilot year at Oliver Elementary, we have expanded into five schools. All of the schools are feeder schools into a single high school. Our goal is to work with the same kids from kindergarten through the 12th grade, and to focus on active learning versus passive learning.
J: The Twilight Supper sounds like a party not to be missed; whole heritage breed hog prepared by the Fatback Collective and Langhorne Slim on stage must draw a good crowd. What does it mean for the future of the Jones Valley Teaching Farm?
GB: It’s not about the chefs or the music or the beautiful farm, it’s about a group of individuals coming together annually and collectively to make a large investment in a nonprofit with ambitious goals. If year after year people keep coming to the dinner and like what we are doing for the community, see the change we are affecting, our hope is that people will continue to invest in us. It’s a social investment with tremendous potential for huge returns.
Birmingham photographer Cary Norton made these images with an 8×10 camera and an early 1900s antique lens using sheet film. He develops his own negatives through a process that invites “imperfections” and serendipitous results that lend a unique effect to each photograph.