Cucumbers as green as jade, squash the color of a golden sunrise and okra in hues that rival an amethyst bring squeals of delight from shoppers at Lovelight Farm’s market stand.
The owner of the Wilsonville farm, Jennifer Dunbar, is on a mission to prove good eating is synonymous with good health. Her satisfaction comes from knowing every vegetable from Lovelight Farm is nutritious and organically grown without pesticides or herbicides.
The owners of Pizza Grace and Bettola restaurants in Birmingham see the difference between organic and regular produce. Pizza Grace sprinkles in Lovelight Farm’s cherry tomatoes, radishes and carrots into seasonal salads, while the farm’s kale and mushrooms have featured heavily on chef Ryan Westover’s delicious veggie pizza. Recently, Lovelight Farm-produced zinnias and huge, gold sunflowers added a splash of brilliant color at Pizza Grace, brightening the wood tables of the Morris Avenue restaurant.
Dunbar sells vegetables at the Market at Pepper Place in Birmingham in spring and summer. She and her three children, ages 17, 16 and 11, serve customers most Saturdays through noon. Dunbar rises at 3 a.m., before her 30-plus chickens, to prepare for the day.
“We work hard to bring our customers the most nutrient-dense food through sustainable growing practices,” said Dunbar, who bought her 12-acre farm during the pandemic, in December 2020. “We look at our soil as this delicious, micronutrient organism that we feed, in order for it to feed us.”
Lovelight Farm offers a cornucopia of organic produce, picked the day before it goes to market, along with farm-fresh eggs. Carrots, cucumbers, Daikon radishes (a tubular root known as winter radishes), jalapeño peppers, squash, green beans, onions and even green herbs, such as dill and eucalyptus, are among recent offerings.
From April to October, Lovelight Farm offers community-supported agriculture (CSA) memberships. Currently, 40 CSA members pay up front for fresh produce, receiving a box of vegetables each week. Members pick up produce at five locations. New CSA members may join during fall 2023.
“The farm operation depends on these members for the cash flow to work where we can start the season with the supplies we need, rather than a deficit,” Dunbar said.
Painstaking, time-consuming organic produce is worth it
Certified through a grassroots organization, Certified Naturally Grown, Lovelight Farm uses the same criteria for organic produce as the USDA. CNG standards raise the bar higher by emphasizing the conservation of both soil and water, enhancing pollinator habitats and committing to farmer education.
CNG uses a peer-review system, in which another organic farmer from the surrounding area or a local extension office oversees a farm’s operations. The peer system allows owners to spend time with a peer farmer, who conducts interviews and onsite inspections. Dunbar said the process is “invaluable” because she can present ideas, ask questions and troubleshoot with other farmers.
“They’re always available and CNG gives online classes, as well,” Dunbar said.
Lovelight Farm’s major focus is on soil health and sustainability. Growing organic produce doesn’t just happen overnight. She never uses plastic row cover, which contains lots of chemicals.
“If your soil is healthy, you don’t really need a lot of outputs coming in for disease and flood control,” Dunbar pointed out. “The other aspect is we don’t use any row cover. Lots of organic farms in Alabama and the U.S. use plastic row cover. … I’m not really sure what’s in that plastic. They can’t guarantee it’s BPA free. So, they’re covering the ground with these row covers and there’s really not a way to dispose of them in a way that’s healthy for our planet.”
However, that means Dunbar hand-weeds the plant beds once a week.
“It takes a full day,” she said. “Sometimes, we’ll weed throughout the week, too.”
The farm is nearly “no till,” meaning that Dunbar and her farming partner, Keith Caton, only occasionally use small tillers on the rows of vegetables. Caton, who trained at The Farm School in Athol, Massachusetts, tries not to till the soil too deeply, while creating permanent beds, in zones. The duo cover crop and rotate what’s growing in each zone.
“Keith has 20 years’ experience as an organic farmer and is the talent behind the farm,” Dunbar said. “I could not do this without him. We are a team.
“He is deeply connected to the rhythm and cycles of nature,” she added. “I trust him completely to make the best decisions on the farm – his experience is priceless.”
Forging a relationship with the land
Preparing the soil for organic crops is an intensive process.
Dunbar’s acreage had never been farmed. Starting from scratch, she and Caton ran irrigation lines, built a barn and created a wash station for cleaning vegetables, the farm’s only area that uses city water. Water from a pond on the property is used to water the plants.
This past year, they unearthed the ancient practice of horn growing, which has become an icon of biodiversity. In a technique originated by early Native Americans, steer horns are filled with fresh manure, then buried in the ground, where they receive rainwater and naturally fertilize the soil.
Preparing the horns is a unique art: The manure must have a good range of moisture – not too wet, not too dry – which depends on the cow’s diet and how long the manure has been on the ground.
In partnership through the CSA, Dunbar bought several steer horns, which she and Oten filled with manure from a lactating cow, similar to Native Americans. A woman-owned farm in Montevallo supplied the manure.
“That made it really feel as though our friends are a part of our community, which was pretty neat,” she said.
“Through the mother Earth, we are creating nourishment for the soil … it’s a spiritual concept,” Dunbar said. “You bury the horns in the ground on the winter solstice, and you dig them up at the spring equinox. The idea is that, because they’re buried, they go through a whole cycle of winter. It takes that manure and transforms it through a process underground.
“It’s really wild. When we dug them up, they were so full of worms, it was amazing. It was beautiful, beautiful stuff,” she said, with a laugh.
After several months underground, the manure in the horns hardens and can be crumbled into a powder. Throughout the growing season, Dunbar and Caton add a cup of the manure to 5 gallons of water, then apply the treated water, or “tea,” to the fields four times during the growing season.
“We will go through various types of compost ‘teas,’” she said. Caton uses a bucket and an aquarium filter to aerate the water. They allow the mixture to sit for a couple of days until the liquid starts to ferment.
Healthy soil is necessary to grow the healthiest plants.
“I think of soil in the same way as my gut: When you have a healthy gut, it’s the same thing as having healthy soil,” Dunbar said. “It’s the soil allowing the plant to thrive through that sort of digestion process.”
In conventional farming, farmers apply a fertilizer to help plants grow. In biodynamic farming, however, a living organism – “tea” from the steer horn fertilizer – is applied, instead of chemicals.
“I often refer to those kinds of ‘fast fertilizers’ to eating candy. … It might taste good, you might get a little energy boost, but it’s not really nourishing you. It’s the same with those kinds of fertilizers,” she said.
Dunbar plans to add more horns this year and may sell the product to other biodynamic farmers.
“This is our third year, so we’re really starting to see where everything we did in the beginning with biodynamics really is working,” she said.
Teaching youngsters about farming
Dunbar is adding an educational component to Lovelight Farm by partnering with two Montessori schools. In July, schoolchildren will visit the farm so they can learn about the importance of clean water and how it relates to the health of the food that is grown.
Dunbar created a “Seeds to Market” curriculum for Hillsboro School: Montessori for Preschool in Helena.
“The kids will make several visits to the farm and take the produce all the way from seed to the farmer’s market,” she said.
One Saturday in October, children from Hillsboro School will run Dunbar’s Pepper Place stand: “They’ll have a full experience of what it’s like to run a farm: They get to interact with adults; make eye contact; and have conversations and explain to customers about the difference between bitter greens and the salad greens.”
Dunbar is thrilled to work with the children.
“It’s exciting. This will be our first season with them to do that,” she said.
Adding magic to Lovelight Farm
Lovelight Farm’s mystique is an extension of its owner: Dunbar has taught ballet, yoga and pilates, and has worked as a chef.
She seems an unlikely farmer. Dunbar majored in dance at Birmingham-Southern College, where she graduated in 1998 and served as a faculty member of the children’s program at the Dance Foundation for 10 years. She also taught at Birmingham Yoga for more than 10 years.
Dunbar’s life revolves around caring for her family and tending her farm. She is an avid believer in living healthily and eating an organic diet.
“I’ve always been into health and wellness,” she said. “I cook vegan, alkaline food. My family is not sick. No one is on prescription medications. To me, food is medicine.”
As she considers expanding the footprint of Lovelight Farm, the future excites her.
“I feel that I’ve come full circle, because I’m now able to tie back in with the education component that I love so much,” Dunbar said, “like I was able to do at the Dance Foundation, working with children, and bringing that in with healthy food, healthy farming and soil practices.”
5562 Co. Road 55
Wilsonville, Alabama 35186
Email: [email protected]
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)