Love Thy Farmer: The Farmer’s Daughters

Love Thy Farmer: The Farmer’s Daughters

Living the Farm Life at Camp Desoto

Words by Jennifer Kornegay

Photos by Haley Bouffard, Eloise Cotten, Mary Deaton Heldman

It’s a gray and blustery winter day in the mountain village of Mentone, Alabama, yet Brent Halderman beams a sunshiny smile as he shows off spinach and carrots peeking through the dirt, greets Winston, the shaggy Great Pyrenees-Anatolian Shepherd mix guarding the free-range laying hens, and points to some cows lazing amid trees in the distance. As farm manager, he oversees almost every aspect of The Farm at Windy Hill, an agricultural endeavor that’s equal parts working farm and outdoor classroom for hundreds of girls who spend part of their summer at nearby Camp Desoto. “Camp is at the core of what we’re doing here,” says Halderman. 

Sitting atop the brow of Lookout Mountain where there always seems to be a breeze blowing—hence the Windy Hill name—the land has been farmed for decades. It became The Farm at Windy Hill when Camp Desoto owners Phil and Marsha Hurt realized their dream of connecting the all-girls camp with a farm by purchasing 200 acres in 2014 from a couple who were ready to retire from farm life. They hired Halderman and began transitioning what was primarily a hay farm into the diverse operation it is today.

“I like to say our offerings are mainly veggies, grass-fed beef, eggs, cut flowers, and education,” Halderman says. It’s that last piece that makes Windy Hill a little different from a lot of farms. Since 2015, Camp Desoto campers spend some of their camp time at Windy Hill, starting in a classroom, where they get some basics and slip on mud boots before heading out to learn about the rigors, rhythms, and rewards of farm life by working alongside farm staff. They care for baby chicks, water fledgling plants, pick ripe produce, and perform other day-to-day chores.

The farm is a hands-on outlet for passing along the love the Hurt family—and Halderman and his team—have for the farm’s fields and forests. “When you understand something more, you start to appreciate it,” Halderman says. “We don’t expect all the campers who come to the farm to end up becoming farmers, but I bet they’ll be more supportive of farmers in their future.” 

Tying the farm to camp has a practical purpose as well. “Teaching campers about farming was part of the vision, but the other part was feeding the campers,” Halderman says. Windy Hill isn’t able to fill all the camp kitchen’s needs—it feeds 360 mouths three meals a day for two months, but it has increased the amount and variety of fresh, healthy foods on the tables.

“We’re still figuring out what works for camp,” Halderman says. “We provide them with produce and eggs and some ground beef, but we know the camp doesn’t need our steaks.” The farm has learned that while it grows large tomatoes, cherry tomatoes are better for camp. “The same is true for peppers; they want the little ones. Smaller veggies mean less prep for camp cooks.” And Windy Hill’s relationship with other area farmers means that even if Windy Hill isn’t supplying camp with an item, it still likely came from an Alabama farm. 

Windy Hill is distinct in other ways too. It relies on regenerative and organic practices with no man-made or synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides used. And while Halderman enjoys all elements of the farm, the self-described “plant nerd” is focused on the farm’s foundations. “We’re working to bring back the soil here, to get it healthier,” he says. It’s why Windy Hill does minimal machine tilling and instead, passively prepares plots of earth for planting. “Keeping soil covered is one of the principles of soil health we live by, so we use cover crops and tarps. This breaks the soil down better than driving a tractor over it,” Halderman says.

Allowing its chickens to roam—under the watchful eye of Winston and his companion Willow—contributes to better soil too. As they strut and scratch and peck, they mix and aerate the dirt. 

Windy Hill’s adherence to silvopasture—the practice of putting grazing animals among trees for the benefit of both—for its cattle is also revitalizing depleted soil. Almost 120 of the farm’s 200 acres were once blanketed in such thick woods, scant sunlight made it through, leading to dead and dying undergrowth and little natural activity. “We left the large, healthy trees but thinned out the small stuff and turned it into mulch on the forest floor,” Halderman says. “That brought in light, and then we brought the cows into the woods, where we feed them hay.” They eat some of it, but also trample some of it, pushing it and its seeds into the soil to be later nourished by their waste. “Then, all this stagnant ground begins to change, and grass and other forage start sprouting up,” Halderman says.

All this careful cultivation pays off for campers, who find fresh, wholesome, and tasty meals every day in Camp Desoto’s dining hall. “Fifty percent of everything we grow goes to camp when campers are there,” Halderman says. But that leaves another 50 percent unspoken for during the summer, and 100 percent of the farm’s output in other months is up for grabs. 

Lucky locals can snag tomatoes, beets, strawberries, carrots—“We can’t ever seem to grow enough carrots,” Halderman says—more than 20 varieties of lettuces, grass-fed beef, eggs, and more at Windy Hill’s onsite market, held every Friday afternoon March through Thanksgiving. “We realized quickly that we are really rooted to this place, so traveling to bigger city markets didn’t make sense,” he says. “Our heart is in serving camp and nourishing this community, so we did our own market.”

While Halderman and the farm team initially weren’t sure of the response, they now advise anybody interested in scoring Windy Hill products to show up early. “On any given Friday, there will be a line 10 to 20 people deep before we even open at 2 p.m.,” he says. “And in the first hour, we often have 40 or 50 people come through, and they buy us out of some things. This community has been so supportive.”

The enthusiasm of Mentone residents and visitors—the city’s stunning mountain scenery draws plenty of tourists, and vacation homes dot its streets—thrills Halderman and fuels his and the farm team’s commitment to keep good things growing at Windy Hill. “I love seeing locals excited about what we’re doing and about our food,” he says. But the harvest that means most to all those at Windy Hill will always be the campers, who’ve been planted with a deeper appreciation for the nature it sends out into the world.