Breaking Through Concrete: Birmingham, AL

| July 9, 2010

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Listen to Edwin Marty discuss the most important thing for a human to understand.


Sunflowers, along with Iron and Clay peas, first covered this empty downtown lot, laying the foundation for soil improvement, a common challenge for urban farms. Now the flowers, harvested here by farm manager Katie Davis, sell like hotcakes at the Saturday Pepper Place Farmer’s Market.

In fall of 2001, Edwin Marty and Page Allison drove across the country, back home, to start a farm. That might be when the Breaking Through Concrete idea began.

Edwin and Page had been living on the west coast, farming in Baja, Mexico and instructing youth at Washington’s Pacific Crest Outward Bound School. The young thirty-somethings belonged on the west coast, surfing and teaching among the burgeoning, youthful tribe of educated, worldly organic farmers. But Birmingham needed them more than any of the progressive, farm-friendly towns out west.

Jones Valley Urban Farm began on a skinny vacant lot in Birmingham’s Southside neighborhood. Abandoned houses surrounded the weed-and-rubble-strewn plot. A corner convenience store across the street sold everything but wholesome food. The afternoon ice-cream truck supplied the freshest food for miles.

That is to say, this food desert was not much different than most neighborhoods in downtown Birmingham and much of Southside. But, just up the street, Frank Stitt’s James Beard Award-winning restaurants were catching the first wave of the national Slow Food movement and tapping into the regional bounty of the Deep South, from Apalachicola Bay oysters to Black Belt, Alabama produce. And every Saturday in the summer, the Pepper Place Market, about twenty blocks away, sold produce and fruit from Alabama farms to a growing consumer pool.


JVUF’s largest farm is the 3.5 acre Gardens of Park Place, next to the highway and a HUD Hope VI housing development in downtown Birmingham, AL.

By the time I met Edwin in 2004, when we both worked as editors for Time Inc. magazines based in Birmingham, JVUF was a thriving production farm with a growing sphere of influence. The original Southside plot remained the hub with two other farms under way. I’d drop my compost off at the Southside farm in mornings and usually find Lewis Lewis hanging out on the picnic table bench, mending some irrigation line.

Edwin sold the produce at the farmer’s market and to the restaurants of Stitt, Chris Hastings, and an increasing number of others. It was more than just food production. Though Edwin and Page went their separate ways, a farm team was building in the form of a board of directors, volunteers, and interns. Edwin built on his education background and hired Rachel Reinhart as part-time program director (she’s now full-time). They expanded outreach to the YWCA, the Alabama School of Fine Arts, the YMCA, and other Birmingham youth projects with farm training, farm-to-plate, internships, and summer camps.

We had impromptu parties at the Southside plot, as well as farm-formal Sunday Suppers shared around a 60-foot-long train of folding tables resting atop mulch and covered in white tablecloth and bowls and platters full of salads and casseroles and baked dishes of ingredients pulled straight from the surrounding rows. The dinners raised awareness about food connections and the concept of “knowing your farmer, knowing your food” as much as they raised money for JVUF.

In 2006, JVUF went big-time under a sea of sunflowers. Thanks to the James Rushton One Foundation, a 3.5 acre city block on 7th Ave N and 25th St became available for Edwin and the crew. The sunflowers, a cover crop for the poor city soils, bloomed that summer, their yellow brilliance in the largely abandoned and lethargic downtown cityscape an obvious metaphor for JVUF’s impending impact via this Gardens of Park Place Farm.

Four years later, Edwin and JVUF have become the face of fresh food in Birmingham. The crowds at JVUF Sunday Suppers and gatherings have grown from the loyal “low-hanging fruit” of the early days to reaching people and communities who, ten years ago, would have laughed at the idea of a farm in downtown Birmingham. Now JVUF, a non-profit, sells over $100,000 a year in produce and flowers. It grows fresh food for 50 CSA members, 37 community garden-plotters, twenty-eight local restaurants, and provides farm and food programming to 5,000 youth and adults. JVUF manages a new 25-acre farm at the residential development, Mt. Laurel, and the growing is contagious – the West End Urban Garden project opened recently, inspired and instructed in many ways by Edwin and Jones Valley.

The Gardens of Park Place Farm is the calmest spot in downtown Birmingham. We hang out on the deck of the headquarters. Weddings happen here, including that of Edwin to his wife Andrea. People still gather at long white-tableclothed tables to eat off the land. We jump in the cistern when it’s full of roof-collected rainwater. Perhaps most importantly, this homecoming idea that originated on a Baja farm, now supports a crop of young Birmingham farmers who are eager and skillfully equipped to follow in Edwin and Page’s footsteps and dig into their hometown.

MARKET DAY: DAWN, SATURDAY MORNING

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