In Woodlawn, an underserved neighborhood in east Birmingham, a group of local teens are growing and harvesting bushels of crops, knowledge and opportunity.
The teens are all students or recent graduates from Woodlawn High School, the site of a two-acre urban farm where they and their instructors are growing banana peppers, turnips, collards, okra, sorghum and other produce, along with sunflowers and gomphrena and more than 40 apple, pear, plumb, fig and persimmon trees.
Destiny Nelson-Miles, 16, a soft-spoken 11th grader at Woodlawn, says she has already learned how to harvest, pull weeds around tender plants and build raised garden beds.
“I love how, if I plant something, I’m able to watch it grow and turn into this beautiful thing,” says Nelson-Miles. “It’s so amazing.”
Woodlawn High’s urban farm is the creation of the Jones Valley Teaching Farm (JVTF). Established in 2002, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit builds teaching farms and provides food-based, hands-on, preK-12 education programs that provide academic enrichment.
One of the programs is Good School Food, which uses food to teach concepts as diverse as environmental science, biology, math and humanities. Unlike most school-based teaching farms, JVTF promotes a continuing approach to learning instead of a brief farm experience that lasts only a few days, says JVTF Executive Director Amanda Storey.
“We implement the teaching farm and the food-based education and experiential learning across a 12-year school career,” says Storey. “We’re actually more interested in how it can impact students for the long term perspective instead of just where you happen to have an interested science teacher and a great garden.”
With Good School Food, JVTF appoints full-time instructors to each partner school that, besides Woodlawn High, includes Glen Iris, Avondale and Henry J. Oliver elementary schools, C.W. Hayes K-8, W.E. Putnam Middle School and John Herbert Phillips Academy. The instructors work with teachers to develop lesson plans that incorporate the use of food, while meeting prescribed academic standards.
“My job is to collaborate with the teachers in the school building,” JVTF instructor Kelly Baker says. “So that could be a science teacher, a math teacher, English or social studies. I brainstorm with them on how we can bring their classes out to the farm.”
The day Business Alabama visited the Woodlawn farm, Baker co-taught a ninth grade biology class about macro- and micromolecules. During the session, held on the farm’s outdoor classroom that resembles a picnic shelter, Baker showed students samples of protein-rich vegetables and how the lipid-based outer layer of peppers makes water droplets slide off of their waxy surfaces.
“I believe students retain information, understand it better and are able to apply it better in life if they’ve had an actual interaction with whatever they’re learning,” she says.
JVTF instructors obtain seedlings from the 1,500-square-foot greenhouse located on Woodlawn’s farm to plant and to use at their appointed schools. Storey says the greenhouse produces and distributes more than 35,000 seedlings every year.
But besides Good School Food, JVTF offers after-school enrichment activities such as Farm Club, where students learn how to grow and harvest produce on their schools’ teaching farms. Afterward, through the JVTF Market Club, they gain experience selling their farms’ produce at the Pepper Place market in downtown Birmingham or at the student-run farm stand at Woodlawn High School that is open to customers three days a week from 3 to 5:30 p.m.
JVTF Education Programs Manager Leah Hillman says the Market Club teaches students several skills.
“One is being comfortable making change,” says Hillman, “understanding what a profit is, inventory and being able to assess what you have, what you’ve sold and how much you might need the next week. Marketing is another big one. Our students love making flyers to bring people into their market. The other skills are knowing what you’re selling, being familiar with the vegetables, knowing what they taste like when someone asks or being able to identify them on the table.”
Another program, the JVTF Culinary Club, gives youngsters the chance to taste fresh fruits and vegetables and try their hands at cooking recipes.
JVTF also has a jobs component through its competitive, paid internship program for course credit. Interns gain a deeper understanding of farming as a trade by helping to manage the farm and selling produce at the farm stand under the guidance of the JVTF farm manager at Woodlawn, Mohamed Jalloh. Woodlawn students can apply in their junior year to fill between seven to nine open slots, Storey says.
On the day BA visited, Woodlawn senior and intern Avant Claiborne, 18, had pulled weeds on the farm under an afternoon sun for two hours and said he planned to stay two more.
“The farm manager has us teaching the new people how to weed,” says Claiborne, who says he is considering owning a farm some day or getting an HVAC degree. “He works us hard and keeps us on track.”
Nelson-Miles says working on the farm has also influenced her career plans.
“My initial career interest was business management,” she says. “But when I started coming out here to the farm, I started wanting to do agriculture. So right now, I want to major in finance, but agriculture is competing.”
Former intern and 2018 Woodlawn High graduate Jerick Hamilton credits the internship program for making him career-ready.
“As an intern, I got to watch the organization develop,” says Hamilton. “I had leaders who were above me, and I got to work under them and learn how to farm. It gave me the foundation and the skills I needed to go out into the real world and see what I want to do for myself.”
Hamilton says that one of his goals is to own land and farm.
JVTF also has an apprenticeship program and recently hired Hamilton along with Telvin Caples, another former intern and 2018 Woodlawn High graduate. Apprentices are full-time JVTF employees whose duties include assisting the instructors and running the after-school programs.
Caples says the farming experience has inspired him to want to teach others how to farm and to be a role model for younger generations.
“I want to be able to give back to as many people as I can,” Caples says.
For now, however, Caples says he is thinking about attending Auburn University to major in horticulture and minor in business.
“One of the success measures that we’ve seen here is the vision of the organization,” says Jerone Wiggins, JVTF’s director of educational programs and partnerships. “We eventually want to see this organization run by the very people who come through it.”
Wiggins says one former intern and apprentice has earned a culinary arts degree and is now a full-time JVTF instructor at one of the elementary schools.
In addition, JVTF conducts assessments tied to standards-based lessons and has students in the farm and market clubs complete surveys asking what skills they feel they have gained, says Hillman. Participating students also earn merit badges whenever they demonstrate having learned new skills.
Meanwhile, Storey says plans are in the works to further develop JVTF’s three-acre downtown urban community farm, built in 2007, so more Birmingham city school children will have the chance to participate in JVTF programming. She says Good School Food and other JVTF programs are impactful for education, career development, job creation and preparing students for whatever they want to do in life.
“And it’s hard to find programs that have the ability to do that,” she says. “So, it’s instilling so much more than we can even see on the surface of how you can carry this with you for the rest of your life.”
Harvesting Community Support
Support for JVTF’s programs comes from federal and state grants, as well as from corporate sponsors and other nonprofits. But another source of support comes from JVTF’s annual Twilight Supper, a charity event that raises monies for Good School Food. Now in its 14th year, the Twilight Supper, held every September, is a formal dinner where donors, for $1,000 a plate, can enjoy a catered meal prepared by a renowned chef at JVTF’s community farm in downtown Birmingham. Some 350 people were expected to attend this year, Storey says.
But another more grassroots fundraising effort is The Gather, where anyone can host a dinner party on their own — from a formal sit-down dinner to a potluck supper or pizza — and invite guests for a donation. To help, JVTF provides the produce and an online platform that hosts can use to collect reservations and donations.
Gail Allyn Short and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.