Foley's Cooper Farm shares self-taught love for gardening with all who want to grow

By Allison Marlow
Managing Editor
allisonm@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 1/11/23

FOLEY — There is no heartwarming tale of Kitti Cooper's journey into farming.No grandparent took her out into the garden for a lesson each summer. She didn't save the family farm from the …

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Foley's Cooper Farm shares self-taught love for gardening with all who want to grow

Posted

FOLEY — There is no heartwarming tale of Kitti Cooper's journey into farming.

No grandparent took her out into the garden for a lesson each summer. She didn't save the family farm from the auction block.

Rather, she taught herself how to grow food because she was hungry.

As a child, her family struggled on one income. They rarely had fresh fruits and vegetables.

"If I wanted tomatoes and peppers, I had to grow them," she said.

And she did.

Now, as the co-owner of the ever-expanding Cooper Farm with her husband, Chase Cooper, she not only feeds her three daughters but is committed to making sure everyone is able to feed their children, too.

"When you grow up without food, you have food PTSD. You fear not having food," she said. "The way I took control was learning to grow my own food and continually grow my own food.

"This is all about food accessibility."

That mantra has fed her children. It's become her therapy. It's become her income. Most importantly, it has become a way to pull an entire community forward.

Every week, she teaches classes in a tricked out former school bus the couple gutted and reimagined as a moving classroom.

There, she has hosted people of all ages and gardening skill levels. She teaches them how to grow, nourish and harvest fruits and vegetables in their own backyards — no farmland required.

She tells them how she started gardening in a one-bedroom apartment with her seedlings set up on the dining room table and moved up to a townhouse with a postage-stamp sized yard.

"You can grow a lot of stuff in a small amount of space," she said.

She tells them how at 19 she gave birth to her first daughter while still a college student and decided immediately that her daughter would not be hungry.

"We're not doing this again," she said she told herself. "We're going to grow our own food and never going to be without."

As she talks, her students take notes. They watch. They giggle at her stories. They learn.

Cooper emphasizes native plants over transplants. She explains how the red clay soil in Baldwin County is different than anything they may have worked with at points flung northward, a lesson she learned after spending two years growing in Birmingham.

"I learned a lot about how much different it is growing anywhere but Baldwin County," she said. "A lot of people who come to my classes just moved here from up North. The soil is black there. You throw a seed over your shoulder and it's going to grow. Here it takes work."

She teaches her students about pesticides, the importance of pollinators, harvesting and preserving.

She begs them to look at their plants every single day.

"It's one of the biggest mistakes. You have to look at your garden every day to assess what it needs," she tells them.

And she assures them: she kills plants all the time, too.

In the audience are beginners and advanced gardeners. There are a lot of parents of young children. The draw is fueled in part, she said, by empty store shelves during the pandemic and the excitement generated by young farmers on social media platforms.

"The younger generation on places like Tik Tok are really starting to show the world how cool it is to homestead," she says. "I love this so much. People are so excited."

If the swiftness with which her classes sell out is any indication, people are excited. They gather at Cooper Farm on Saturdays, too, to peruse the plants and visit with the family's emus that eye visitors suspiciously from the fence line. Pro tip: rub the underside of the emu's neck to make a friend for life.

Each season, the farm has expanded. The emus have grown taller, and Cooper said her students have become more proficient.

"I want people to be able to grow their own food. It's a great hobby. It's therapeutic," she said.

It's also the key, she said, to making sure there is enough to go around.

The family has created the nonprofit Coopers' Table. Their goal is to visit low-income areas and teach basic vegetable growing and help build raised garden beds. They donate seed packets, instructions and citrus trees wherever they can.

"We want to get kids excited about growing their own food. That's how you crush poverty and crush the generational curse," she said.

If you rolled by Cooper Farm on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day, you would have seen their family gathered with a lot of other families. The bounty of their year flowed out onto the table, which they extended each time a new person arrived.

Cooper has also grown a South Alabama homesteading group just for women that is 3,000 members strong. They swap hints for butchering their own meat, convincing hens to lay and perfecting the timing of placing spring veggies in the dirt.

"I got really tired of men telling me how to do things," Cooper said of the group that is home to beginners and homesteading pros alike. "If you surround yourself with the kind of people you want to be, you learn."

For Cooper, that means in the dirt with her three growing girls and everyone who is willing to join them. Every day, all day.

"This," she said, "is girl power."

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