Down a dirt road in Autauga County, Freedom Farm Azul sprawls across 15 acres of land — rolling hills, wooded cabins, plots for crops and all. There aren’t any signs notifying drivers of the farm’s entrance or the 35 mile-per-hour speed limit on the county road.
If you were accidentally driving a little too fast, you could miss it, but founder Jasmyn Story said that’s likely to change soon.
Story has a vision to transform the site into a hub for education, healing and nourishment.
“The purpose of the farm is to provide a space not only for agriculture, but for growth,” Story said. “We also want to support and feed our community members.”
In Alabama, where there is a deep history of racial violence and discrimination, Story sees a need for people to gather in nature, discuss generational and personal trauma and leave it behind. Story plans for the nonprofit to help people across the state meet their physical, mental and emotional needs.
Finding an affordable, enriching space to host events can be challenging for groups in rural Alabama, and Story wants Freedom Farm Azul to be the solution.
Once Freedom Farm Azul officially opens later this month, the venue will host field trips for kids to learn about the land and its history, retreats for companies, gatherings for meals and volunteer farming opportunities.
“There’s different levels of events happening at different times for different stakeholders, of course. It’s not all operating at the same time. That’s not what we’re going for,” Story said. “We want this to feel like something that can be in partnership with community organizations throughout the state, so every Boys and Girls Club, every YMCA.”
Story’s life has been building to the creation of this organization. After previously working as a doula, a restorative justice facilitator and a human rights advocate, Story said Freedom Farm Azul is the culmination of all of those issues and skills.
Story spent some time abroad studying at the University College London and speaking at different restorative justice forums, but when the pandemic hit, they returned to Alabama. They saw people hurting, especially Black communities and people in rural areas.
“I realized that there’s really a lack of resources in the state, and the things that are taking place are in places like Birmingham or Huntsville or larger cities. It didn’t really sit right with me,” Story said.
So, Story decided to do something. They bought the 15-acre farm, moved onto the rural land with their two dogs and started developing the nonprofit as a partial resolution to the greater problem.
Immediately, harsh realities hit: There was no nearby hospital in case of an emergency, grocery stores were at least a 30-minute drive away, and they had no internet.
“Living on the farm for this time, it really made me understand more so why we’re doing what we’re doing here,” Story said. “It’s for the people that came before me.”
Story’s grandfather grew up on a farm, and their father grew up in poverty in another part of Alabama. Story sees the work Freedom Farm Azul is doing now as an homage to their ancestors “near and far.”
At the beginning of the nonprofit’s development, though, Story realized that this work wasn’t something that could be done alone.
That’s when Story met Callie and Alfonza Greer, a married couple that is devoted to rural Alabama in every way.
A family friend who worked with Story in the Mayor of Birmingham’s office introduced them, and Callie Greer said it was like kismet. Story had the restorative vision, and Alfonza Greer had the manpower to make it happen.
“They were looking for each other, never even knowing the other existed, and they found each other,” Callie Greer said. “She lets him do what he feels needs to be done to the land, and he does it. It's just been beautiful.”
Right now, the farm hosts vines of muscadines and a lively pear tree, but Alfonza Greer is hard at work whenever he can, clearing the land for new crops. In the coming months, he plans to plant collards, beans, turnips, a pear orchard and other vegetables.
The couple has worked with other farming initiatives in the past, trying to feed rural Alabama with less success.
“You can't farm on a board’s schedule,” Callie Greer said. “You have to farm on the Earth's schedule. You have to plant when it's time to plant, and you have to harvest when it's time to harvest, and then you have to maintain in between. You have to let the Earth rest.”
She sees herself as a farmer’s wife, a chef and an advocate for justice.
Greer grew up in Montgomery and began her community advocacy work at the Jubilee Community Center after her son Mercury died of a gunshot wound. When her daughter Venus died of breast cancer, her vigor for community work only intensified. She lives in Selma now, and she is excited for Freedom Farm Azul to help others work through their pain.
“I'm a boots-on-the-ground type of person. I live in the community that I organize in,” she said. “I like feeding people’s hearts and minds and souls first and going through those traumatic events within and trying to share our pain and turn it into something terribly beautiful.”
As she sat under a white tent at the front of the farm, talking about her hopes, her husband worked behind her. He was sweating, piling fallen tree limbs into the back of his truck.
“Mr. Greer is a man of very few words,” she said. “He’s a man of action, as you can see.”
Alfonza Greer dropped the branch he was holding and sauntered over when his wife called him to talk about the crops he has planned.
“I really want to grow food, but I want clean food,” he said. “I love the farm.”
Then, he went back to work.
“There’s lots to do,” Story said. “And we’re going to do it.”
The nonprofit’s Opening Day Festival will be on Aug. 21. With music, home-cooked food, arts and crafts, poetry performances and a live reptile show, Story hopes that Alabamians will come and see the dream they have for the space. Entry and all activities will be free, though parking tickets cost $10 and donations are welcome.
In addition to commemorating the farm’s opening, the festival will be a celebration of Black August, a tradition that began in the 1970s to honor freedom fighters and Black resistance against oppression. Freedom Farm Azul is encouraging people to read Marlon Peterson’s book, “Bird Uncaged,” a memoir about his incarceration and journey toward restorative justice, in observation of the month.
Story and the Greers see the need in rural Alabama. They have identified the solutions they can bring, and they have hundreds of goals they want to accomplish.
The best place to start, Story said, is right where they are.
Hadley Hitson covers the rural South for the Montgomery Advertiser and Report for America. She can be reached at email@example.com. To support her work, subscribe to the Advertiser or donate to Report for America.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Black, queer-owned farm in rural Alabama plans to make space for healing