Since 2007, Jones Valley Teaching Farm has grown produce on Birmingham-area school campuses, teaching student apprentices all about the growing process — intermingled with lessons in math, English and an array of other traditional high school course work.
When Covid-19 came to town, all the carefully planned methods were scrapped, while staffers created an entire new set of protocols to save the crops, save the students’ apprenticeships and — as long as they were at it — get food to those who needed it.
The sudden changes needed quick response, says Executive Director Amanda Storey. While the pandemic stopped normal human routines, the plants just kept on growing. And they needed care to achieve their potential.
“We would normally use the raised beds at the teaching farms for teaching,” Storey says. “Instead we turned them into production farms.” You can read about normal JVTF operations in this story from November 2019 Business Alabama.
The board’s target: “Let’s just grow as much food as we possibly can.”
But all the volunteers and students were suddenly unavailable.
How to cope? “All 24 full-time staff are now farmers, no matter what we used to do.” Moreover, the staffers-turned-farmers work in small, specific groups so they don’t cross farms — among the many elements of the new protocol that the board took to the Jefferson County Health Department for approval.
“We can grow food, harvest it, and we have begun partnering with agencies that are delivering food around our schools we work in,” Storey says. “Since April we have been distributing 98 percent of what we grow to agencies, with the other 2 percent going to staff. It’s a major change for us.”
Normally JVTF produce is sold at Pepper Place Market. Now it’s going for free to people who needs it — helping the recipients and freeing market space for other farmers who probably need the money.
“This is a very hard time for everyone,” Storey says, “doing this work across seven sites with fewer hands.”
And the high school apprentices, who are paid for their farm work, stood to lose income they counted on.
“We didn’t want to take their funding; it’s not their fault,” Storey says. “And we wanted to maintain connection with them.”
Quickly they discovered the students didn’t want to miss out either. So instruction has continued via Zoom.
And the students all wanted to keep farming, even if they couldn’t get to the farms. One senior dug up the backyard at home and put in a garden; another built raised beds with his grandfather. Others have started container plants.
And JVTF is keeping in touch, planning a virtual summer camp where kids can learn how to grow plants, how to harvest and how to prepare the produce for the table.
“The pandemic of poverty and food insecurity is nothing new,” Storey says. But the Covid-19 pandemic has added many more people to that group. “But JVTF says, if you give young people the skills so you can feed your family yourself, that’s a whole new level of security.
“We know it’s a broken food system, but when your personal pandemic hits,” says Storey, if young people know how to grow food, “this translates to giving that skill to young people, so they own it, they can control just that bit of it. Controlling even just a piece of something right now feels good.”