At age 11, Breon Hardy-Turner had her first experience with Jones Valley Teaching Farm this summer during the Farm Studio program.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Breon, entering the 7th grade at Phillips Academy. “We got to build wash stations. My group’s wash station was tilted so that the water would go down into the wash station, [which would] filter it and then wash the vegetables.”
Along with nurturing fresh summer produce, the staff of Jones Valley Teaching Farm has also been growing the skills of Birmingham youth through their newly formed two-week Farm Studio summer learning initiative.
The program gives Birmingham kids a wider perspective about food and where it comes from – and more. Breon’s learning opportunities, for instance, included a trip to the Birmingham Water Works and Sewer Board plant. But her favorite field trip was to the Cahaba River.
“The Cahaba River was my favorite part because I love water and I love to go swimming,” Breon says. “That was fun because we actually went in the river and no one knew that we were doing that and we caught fish, and we learned about fish like the bottom feeder. I didn’t know what that was. They look like goldfish, but they lie at the bottom of the river.”
The program had a lasting impact on Breon. “They said they are having [Farm Studio] again next year and I’m coming back because I had so much fun,” she says. It also had a positive impression with her mother, Brittney Hardy, who keeps an eye out for opportunities to keep her daughter constantly involved in learning activities.
“I love the programs at Jones Valley,” Hardy says. “I learned gardening from my grandparents. My grandfather had 44 acres of land in Selma and I learned about picking peas and agriculture. … I respect the work of farming and laboring. I’ve learned a lot about water filtering from Breon, and I’m glad that the community can come here and learn as well from the kids to the elderly.”
Jones Valley Teaching Farm has made strides within the educational community of Birmingham with programs such as Farm Studio, but education wasn’t always their focus, says Jones Valley Farm Director Katie Davis, now in the middle of her sixth year at the farm.
“We’re really different,” Davis says, “mostly on a cultural scale. On a size scale we’ve made strides over the years to slowly expand on this site as well as in Woodlawn, so that’s different. But I would say that more of what’s changed is our focus on education as opposed to what we used to do. Before we were more focused on production, with education, but they were very separate. Now teaching is the focus and the farm is the platform for delivering all kinds of education — not just nutrition education, but also using the farm to teach all kinds of core subjects.
“Historically, we’ve always run Seed to Plate, which is our onsite education program where field trips come to our site. They go out into the field and are here for two-and-a-half hours. They get a lesson in science, harvest a crop, snack and they get a lesson in nutrition. We still deliver our Seed to Plate, which is what we’ve done always. But we really wanted to get a lot more in depth with a particular school district. We designed a program called Good School Food, which is our in-school program. We piloted that at Glen Iris and people started taking notice.
“The results were looking really good, and we were invited to be a part of the Woodlawn district, which was so different, if you think about the history of things,” Davis says.
“When we started we were like, look at us, the farm is really valid, it’s a great place to bring your students. You know, really trying to convince teachers, parents and the whole community that agriculture is a really great thing to talk about and a great thing to teach from. So over time we went from just a few Seed to Plates to 5,000 students…on the site last year representing 75 different schools. We’re on the mind of a lot of teachers, and we have a lot of repeat classes. People really want this; that shift in the whole dialogue of food in our community is different.”
Davis says that two-and-a-half hours is not a lot of time to have significant impact on a student’s health or achievement. “But, when you’re working with school populations from kindergarten ideally through graduation at the high school level, the impact that we can have is, number one, huge, and number two, able to be assessed and measured, honed to be a much more effective product.”
She says that Seed to Plate “is a great conversation starter across the community. The kids will hopefully go home and start conversations about where they’ve been during the day and where their food comes from and why that’s important. But with Good School Food we want to change the way an entire community, not just the students, looks at and thinks about food. We can do that now and that’s way different from where we started. But we couldn’t have ever started with that in mind because we had to start by knocking at the door and saying, ‘Look at us.’”
Davis’ understands why food knowledge is limited in the community from personal experience. “I grew up in Birmingham City Schools,” she says. “I lived on 19th Street and I passed this block every single day on my way to high school. There was nothing here and I didn’t know anything about food. I got a scholarship and went away to college, and when I was away at college in California at UC Santa Cruz…I got really exposed to fresh food for the first time — as well as people who thought about the ethical impacts of what they ate and what it did to their health and the health of the environment.
“Those things had never been brought up to me as a child in Birmingham, and I had never had pulled a vegetable,” Davis says. “For me, going there and seeing that and coming back here and seeing the difference made it really important to me that this type of education is available to our students and our community. You know, they don’t have to go across the country to get this type of education.”
The farm is located downtown close to Phillips, as well as the Park Place development, whose population includes a number of low-income families. “One of the best things for me that we get to do isn’t even the programs,” Davis says. “It’s the interactions with the kids that live across the street and in the neighborhood who get to grow up literally next to a farm. They come over and want to feed the chickens, eat loads of blackberries and mulberries, or eat lunch with the staff on the porch and have the chance to eat egg sandwiches with eggs that they just took out of the coop. That’s wild for a kid in Birmingham.”
Dr. Michael Wilson, the principal of Glen Iris Elementary School, which was the pilot site for the Jones Valley farm in the Good School Food initiative, supports the perspective of hands-on learning that the Jones Valley staff brought to his students.
“This type of learning is the most exciting thing that is happening in education right now,” Wilson says. “Our kids are getting the chance to solve problems and think critically. JVTF is such a great partner for us because we created the Good School Food program with them and we took our first steps into project-based learning along with them.”
The method of teaching the farm program encourages changes the way children gain knowledge, he notes. “You aren’t giving them the answers. We present them with problems and they are able to find solutions. Our teachers are able to see this type of program succeed. It helps our teachers move into that direction as well. It’s really powerful learning.
“The creation of our outdoor learning space was a huge learning curve for the adults as well as the students. There’s something new every day. When I go outside and see the children working with project-based learning and see the awe in their eyes, that’s the greatest thing.”
Glen Iris continues working on new goals with the JVTF team, Wilson says. “We are currently working with Jones Valley to build a kitchen in the garden, and working to raise money in order to build it. Until we raise the money I’ve told the kids that I’m not going to shave or cut my hair. Every student has a goal of raising $20 dollars. If each student reaches that goal, we will raise $20,000. We are also holding an event called Back to the Roof on the 10th and 11th of October. It will be a rooftop community event…in order to raise money for the kitchen.”
Wilson says that the new outdoor kitchen “will bring our projects full circle. It will take the kids into a seed-to-plate learning experience. They will get into the kitchen and see how much science, math and social studies that they can incorporate into projects within the kitchen. This will take our outdoor classroom to the next level, which is really exciting.”
Glen Iris is one example of how Jones Valley Teaching Farm’s philosophy — balancing theoretical learning with practical applications – has changed the dynamics of education between teachers, students and parents.