Belle Meadow Farm, Tuscaloosa
The Makers: Andrew and Laurie Beth Kesterson
Andrew and Laurie Beth Kesterson both grew up near farms, but neither seriously considered tilling the soil for a living.
“I’m originally from Texas,” Andrew says. “My mother always planted a small garden and we had some relatives in Iowa that owned a farm, but I wasn’t especially interested in it.” And although Laurie Beth’s grandfather lived on a farm a few miles south of Tuscaloosa, “I grew up in town,” she says.
Now, as owners and operators of Belle Meadow Farm, the former city kids tend rows of okra, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, watermelons and more – and sell their organically grown produce, herbs, fruits and flowers to customers and restaurants in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.
The future farmers met while attending the University of Alabama. “I graduated with a history degree in 2011,” Andrew says. “At first I thought about going after my master’s and eventually a Ph.D., but that wasn’t a good time to try to get a job with a liberal arts degree. And I had always been interested in organic gardening, growing vegetables while going to school.”
Meanwhile, Laurie Beth, who had earned a degree in psychology, worked at a baby clothing boutique in Northport. “I was still going down to my family’s farm,” she says. “My grandfather, Daddy Bo, died in 1995, but my uncle, Al, lived there and kept up the property.”
So a year after college, Andrew and Laurie Beth left academia for agriculture, joining her uncle on the farm. “He showed us how to work the tractor and the other implements,” Andrew says. “We put in some watermelons, green beans and a bunch of okra. Anything we could plant for seed. That crop was pretty successful, and then things really started coming together for us.”
As the couple were harvesting their first crops, the Tuscaloosa River Market opened a farmers’ market on the banks of the Black Warrior River. “A lot of the older farmers didn’t like the new place, so they moved to a market in Northport,” Andrew says. “That was lucky for us, because when we arrived, we offered some of the only organically grown produce in the place.”
Word got out about the young couple with the fresh produce, and soon their Belle Meadow booth was a popular spot at the farmers’ market, with folks from around the area stopping by to check out the latest seasonal offerings. That success prompted Andrew to contact Birmingham restaurateur and chef Frank Stitt about Belle Meadow’s products.
“Chef Stitt is very passionate about growing using organic methods, and graciously accepted us as a vendor,” Andrew says. “His restaurants – Highlands, Bottega and Chez Fonfon – were the first places that we sold to in Birmingham,” Andrew says. “Now we work with about 10 restaurants in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa.”
As Andrew cultivates the crops on about a dozen acres and in a greenhouse, Laurie Beth runs the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. “CSA participants become members in the farm for portions of a growing season, and get a weekly share of the fresh produce, fruits and more,” she says. “They can pick up there at the River Market or Cravings Grocery store in Tuscaloosa.”
The program helps bring customers closer to the cultivators, while also giving the farm a financial cushion when it’s time to plant new crops, Andrew explains. “It helps when we go through crop transitions from one season to another,” he says. “Farming is more than just planting and picking. It can be pretty challenging, but it’s also very rewarding – even if you didn’t grow up doing it.”
The Product: Organically grown produce including potatoes, corn, squash, okra, eggplant and tomatoes, as well as herbs such as dill, and sunflowers.
Take Home: A weekly CSA “full share” box of the farm’s seasonal produce grown from Aug. 2 to Oct. 4 (about 10 weeks), $250.
Belle Meadow Farm, 1085 Belle Meadow Loop Road, Tuscaloosa, AL 35405
Tuscaloosa River Market Farmers’ Market, 1900 Jack Warner Parkway
Tuscaloosa, AL 35401 (Tuesday and Saturday from 7 a.m. to noon)