CULLMAN – Cullman is a place with a rich history with many tales of origin passed down through the generations. The beginnings of the North Alabama Agriplex, an unfunded state agency providing agricultural education and opportunities to children and adults in the area, is no different. It’s a story of a dream come to fruition to be told for years to come.
Two local legends, who are no longer with us, were sitting outside of the Cullman County Fair one September evening appreciating the wealth of agricultural exhibits on display. The men, James Hutchinson and Chester Freeman, both members of the Cullman Lions Club, decided that, since Cullman was number one in agriculture in the state, they should do something to recognize its heritage. The dream of an agriculture museum and hall of fame was born.
Freeman’s granddaughter, and Agriplex Director, Rachel Dawsey said, “They shared the dream with Jimmy Gilly and Mike Roden, who then began to tour agriculture museums throughout the country. They then took their idea to the state legislature, and we started with our Farm Kids program in 2011.”
The Farm Kids Club is still going strong with its next class, “Natural Egg Dying” scheduled for March 5; after that, on April 2, the club will learn about wool production at the Agriplex Heritage Center.
By 2012, the Heritage Center’s construction was completed and they saw their first Garden Camp and Sewing Day Camp for elementary school kids that summer. Both of those summer camps, along with a Touring Farms for Kids camp, will be offered again this summer with spots expected to fill quickly.
The Little Farmers, a new preschool program, provides hands on activities for children ages 2-5. Its popularity has already warranted additional class times to accommodate the little ones who are eager to learn.
It’s the same case with the Heritage Homeschool Program, whose classes include photosynthesis, insects, pollinators and next month’s class, “Water Cycles and Terrariums.” Attendance is often waitlisted for the classes, so participants are encouraged to sign up as early as possible.
“There’s a niche there that we’re filling, not just for Cullman, but for the surrounding areas. We’re located close to the interstate and centrally-located which makes access easy. Plus, we’re a draw for local tourism,” explained Dawsey.
With the increased popularity of backyard home gardens, the Agriplex provides an indispensable resource for Cullman and north Alabama counties. In 2013, the monthly Living Landscapes program for adults was formed. Next month’s Living Landscapes class, “Growing Apple Trees,” will be taught by Linda Steele of Steele Orchards, who is just one of many experts teaching at the Agriplex.
Farmer 101, presented by the Cullman County Extension Office, is a series of classes for farmers who are just beginning or established farmers looking for new knowledge. The series will be taught by some of the state’s leading agricultural experts. The classes may be taken individually or for the entire course.
The next class in the Farmer 101 series, “Farm Management,” will be held on Feb. 23. Tony Glover, the Extension Office’s coordinator, is a familiar face around the Heritage Center, teaching many classes and lending his expert advice to many new gardeners.
Along with the classes, Dawsey and her volunteers have the answers or can point a fledging gardener in the right direction for information on topics as broad as soil amendments or as specific as the best variety of blueberries to plant in Cullman.
Dawsey noted that “now is the time for gardeners to clean their beds to ready for planting. They can begin seedlings indoors and even directly sow early crops such as cabbage, collards, Irish potatoes and turnips. Spring will be here before we know it!”
A program of note and source of pride for Dawsey is Food for Life, which aims to provide healthy, local food options to the community. The program is supported by AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a program first introduced to Congress by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and founded in 1965 to help combat the nation’s poverty.
Rachel Wiser, a VISTA and Maryland native, chose to take the position at the Agriplex while looking at other positions because of Dawsey, who “was the nicest person I interviewed with by far!” Working at the Agriplex since last July, Wiser notes the amount of camaraderie within the Cullman farming community.
“Everybody wants to help everyone else and it’s not competitive in our local agriculture community. Our farmers want to educate each other. It’s not just about me and mine, but about the community as a whole,” echoed VISTA Nicole Willoughby.
Dawsey is quick to point out that many of the programs would not be possible without the VISTAs. Integral in establishing gardens in many city and county schools, the Agriplex’s VISTAS provide many other services including grant writing and crop gleaning.
Crop gleaning is one of many needed volunteer positions available at the Agriplex. In gleaning, crops that are leftover in the fields after harvest are picked and distributed to those in need. Volunteers are asked to gather the crops at the participating farms when the time comes, “an activity which can be shared by many generations,” noted Dawsey.
The Cullman Farmer’s Market at Festhalle Market Platz provides another gleaning opportunity where farmers can donate their unsellable, leftover produce to the Food for Life program. This provides a tax write-off for the farmers and creates a win/win situation for all involved.
Last year over 2,800 pounds of produce was gathered and donated through the Agriplex’s Food for Life program. Agencies receiving the fresh produce last year included Cullman Caring for Kids, Victim Services, The Care Center and The Crossing.
Volunteers are always needed and opportunities are available onsite at the Agriplex, at the local school gardens and in the Food for Life program. Teenagers, as well as adults, are encouraged to take advantage of the volunteer opportunities.
Growth continues on the Agriplex property with a new pavilion under construction behind the Heritage Center. Expected to be completed this spring, its construction was made possible through a partnership with the Cullman Poultry and Egg Association.
Partnerships and sponsors make the programming possible at the Agriplex. Fall 2015 supporters included the City of Cullman, Cullman County Commission, City of Good Hope, Nature’s Best Egg Company, J and R Feed Services, Apel Steel and many individual donors. Sponsors are still needed for 2016 and all donations are tax-deductible.
In her Letter from the Director in the 2016 literature, Dawsey writes that she hopes the programs offered by the Agriplex will help you “by being better gardeners, living more sustainably, and eating more locally grown produce.” She ends her letter wishing all “Happy growing in 2016!”
Dawsey, her VISTAs and volunteers have grown her grandfather’s and his friend’s dreams of telling the story of Cullman’s abundant agricultural history and, most importantly, continuing to grow that history into the future.
For more information on the Agriplex, volunteer opportunities or to sign up for programs, visit http://agriplex.org/ or call 256-297-1044. The North Alabama Agriplex is located at 1714 Tally Ho St. SW in Cullman. Find them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/NorthAlabamaAgriplex.