HAMPSTEAD - BUSINESS IN THE FRONT, GARDEN IN THE BACK
The son of a landscape architect, Hampstead Farm Manager Jetson Brown has a passion for farming -- one that is deeply rooted in the soil of Montgomery's newest urban renewal project. But despite his growing success as a farmer, tending to the land was far from his first career choice.
"I went to California for art school ... sculpture, specifically" said Brown, 28. "I grew up gardening, but I didn't get into agriculture until after college. I started going to farmers markets a lot and talking to the farmers, hearing their stories. After I visited several farms, I became very interested in the growing process and in local produce. The University of California in Santa Cruz offered an extension program to study agroecology and sustainable food systems and after I checked it out, I signed right up. I've been farming ever since."
With an interest in food and food politics, Brown's hobby of gardening quickly evolved into a passion for farming that led him from a farm on the West Coast to the Hampstead Institute Downtown Farm in Montgomery's Overlook Park between Maxwell Boulevard and the Alabama River.
"I was in Petaluma managing an urban, educational farm, but I really wanted to move back to the South," recalls Brown. "As much as I enjoyed farming there, I enjoy the South much more. When I heard about this position, it sounded like a really neat opportunity, so I sent in my application right away."
A collaboration between the City of Montgomery and the Town of Hampstead in east Montgomery, the downtown farm location allows residents a chance to buy healthy, local produce in an area close to the heart of the city.
Construction and infrastructure were largely funded by the City of Montgomery, but funding for the $100,000 budget has come from private entities and grants. Of this total, the Montgomery County Farmers Federation gave $7,500, and the Alabama Farmers Federation matched its $7,500 donation. The Federations' $15,000 donation sponsors the farm's office -- a vintage, red caboose that's been relocated to the site and fully restored.
"We just felt like it was an opportunity we needed to be a part of," said Bill Cook, president of the Montgomery County Farmers Federation. "It was a unanimous decision."
Also a decision of the Montgomery County Farmers Federation was the nomination of Amy Belcher to the Hampstead Institute Board of Directors. Belcher, who also serves as the Communications Director with the Department of Agriculture, was more than pleased to become a part of this new venture.
"With my family's rich heritage in agriculture, I have a sincere interest in this project," Belcher said. "The Hampstead Institute Downtown Farm provides a wonderful opportunity to reconnect children and adults with agriculture. Farmers have a natural love of the land, but those who no longer have a direct connection to a family farm have lost the chance to have that experience. In a day and time when people are sometimes as many as four generations removed from the farm, it is vital to educate them about where their food comes from."
Though construction is still underway at Hampstead, for now, the view from the caboose looks out across 24 raised beds, an area of rampant kudzu overgrowth, a functioning water tank and an Aermotor windmill.
"Attached in the front [of the caboose] will be a porch, which will act as the wash station and the place people can come and buy vegetables in the future," Brown said. "It'll also have a butterfly roof to collect rainwater, mostly for demonstrative purposes. And, of course, the covered porch will be a place for people to come and get out of that hot summer sun!"
The twinkle in Brown's eye as he gazes out across the developing area isn't a reflection of the sun off the river, but rather his vision of the future of Hampstead Institute Downtown Farm -- from the raised beds with new soil and irrigation systems, to the bustling crowds of River Region residents searching for the freshest of fruits, vegetables and innovative growing techniques.
"I'm planning to have a big variety of vegetables and fruits, but not corn, melons or gourds because of space restrictions," explained Brown. "There's also a great potential for some flowers in the future." Though he wants the downtown farm to offer a great selection as a health benefit to area residents, that isn't his only intention.
"I'm really trying to educate the public and get them more interested in local food. I also want to work with local farms and educators and really try to make a good farm community here, bringing in the public as much as possible."
While Brown and the construction crews have made great progress in the urban farm's development, achieving the vision of the triangular 2.7-acre facility hasn't been without its share of obstacles. From the heavy rains in the early part of the year that delayed construction to the old, contaminated soil that had to be trucked out and replaced with toxin-and-lead-free soil, Hampstead Institute has proven to be more than just a little digging and planting. In spite of the troubles, the brightest spot of this country-meets-city project is shared among Brown and Montgomery residents - unfailing interest in its success.
"I want to give the community of Montgomery a place to come and learn about growing food, to show them how they're able to work with limited spaces and get them excited about what their state is growing," said Brown. "But another part of this is the revitalization of the Riverfront. We want to get more people downtown, get more people visiting Montgomery, and revive this area of downtown."
Brown isn't the only one who wants to see the area of downtown near the Montgomery Advertiser building expand. Montgomery Deputy Mayor Jeff Downes sees the downtown farm as an amenity for the future development of the Maxwell Boulevard area, including the city-owned area across the street from Overlook Park. The farm will also likely be used as a connection for the Riverwalk, which will continue on toward Maxwell Air Force Base.
Open to the public, even the most inexperienced of growers can learn how to raise and harvest their own food from Brown, volunteers and veteran gardeners. Features of the farm also include u-pick fruits; a shared compost area; garden beds with herbs, flowers, seasonal and decorative crops; an orchard with walking paths; and a hill perfectly suited for star gazing.
"The community garden will have raised beds that are similar to the ones we're using for production," explains Brown. "But instead of growing the vegetables, harvesting the vegetables and selling them to the public ourselves, residents who . . . live in the city and do not have access to a yard . . . can come here, rent a bed and grow their own food."
Because rental bed space is limited at the downtown farm, community members also have the option to come out, learn from others and buy any leftover produce that isn't sold to area restaurants or markets. While prices at grocery stores may be cheaper overall than prices at Hampstead, farmers like Brown know that sometimes paying a little extra for good food is worth every penny.
"There are different factors driving down prices at grocery stores, mostly because small farms can't compete with the efficiency of having large machines," he said. "But I think people want to know where their food comes from, and they really want to be able to trust the food they're eating. Buying local is the solution to that -- it cuts down on shipping so it cuts down on the carbon footprint, but buying local also reduces the risk consumers face from contamination that could arise during the factory process."
The Hampstead Institute Downtown Farm will host weekly farmers markets on-site. Produce grown at the downtown location will also be sold to Earth Fare and area restaurants on availability.