Jacksonville farm specializes in organic produce and medicinal herbs
by Brooke Nicholls Nelson
Special to The Star
Jul 29, 2012 | 3454 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Aliza Cummings shows off a large pod of Chinese okra. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
Aliza Cummings shows off a large pod of Chinese okra. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
slideshow
In the northeast corner of Calhoun County, off of Highway 21, down a gravel drive that weaves in and out of statuesque pines ribboned with wisteria, lies The Gathering Place, a farm that specializes in medicinal herbs as well as a wide array of traditional vegetables and fruits.

The farm is one of the only medicinal herb farms, as well as one of only a handful of Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) farms, in the area. Tim and Aliza Cummings have been farming the one-and-a-half acres for four seasons now.

“What certified means,” said Aliza, 51, “is we are held to pretty much the same standards as an organic farm — no pesticides, herbicides or chemicals.”

In order to be granted CNG certification, farmers cannot use any synthetic chemicals or genetically alter their crops or livestock. The standards are based on the same ones as the National Organic Program, but CNG certification is tailored to smaller farms selling in their local communities, and inspections are conducted by other farmers. It’s a system that, according to the CNG website, “promotes farmer-to-farmer knowledge-sharing about best practices, and fosters local networks that strengthen the farming community.”

The Cummingses live that model every day. It is part of their mission, a mission that has evolved from West Africa to their own backyard.

Tim and Aliza say they have a heart for mission work and have traveled the world to encourage and edify the body of Christ by teaching others about farming.

“It’s our ministry to provide for others, and to provide a higher quality of life,” said Aliza. Part of that ministry is focused on teaching communities to be sustainable, to be able to support themselves through farming.

Two years ago, after hitting a “brick wall” with their goal to provide heirloom seeds to the West Africa villages they had visited, they realized Jacksonville itself was a mission field.

Jacksonville did not have a farmers’ market. Tim said several churches, the local farmers and the community as a whole wanted a market, but the market needed a spokesperson.

“Our vision started changing, and I felt like the Lord was saying I would be offered a position and I should take it,” said Aliza.

Two days later, the farmers voted, and Aliza was offered the job of manager for the Jacksonville Farmers’ Market. “Our mission has taken on a larger vision than we ever imagined,” she said.

A network of 30 farms

Aliza is in her second year as manager of the Jacksonville Farmers Market, overseeing a network of 30 farms in and around Calhoun County. She says her background in management and working with groups as an alcohol and drug counselor has helped her in the new role.

“We have every type of farmer you can think of,” she said. “It’s been good for the whole region. Even if a farm is not part of our market, we take responsibility for trying to network for them, too.”

She said there is a great deal of support for the market, and she and other farmers have seen their incomes double. “More customers are coming,” she said. “And we’ve tried to involve the community more this year. We’ve always had so much support from the city.”

The Future Farmers of America (FFA) from Pleasant Valley High School are also part of the market. They assist with the market and sell plants, swings and birdhouses to raise funds for their program.

Farmers’ market participants also allow leftovers to be “gleaned” and donated to the Piedmont Benevolence Center, which in turn distributes them to the needy in Calhoun County.

The manager position is not the only part of Aliza’s life that has evolved into something larger. Tim and Aliza have seen interest in their medicinal and wildcraft herbs grow, too. Wildcraft herbs are ones harvested from a natural or “wild” habitat. The Cummings sell herbs from their home and online.

According to Aliza, some local farms grow culinary herbs, but The Gathering Place is one of two that grows and harvests wildcraft herbs. She describes the herbs as “another venue of natural, healthy living.”

They grow 50 different herbs and collect many more in the wild. They order conventional herbs they do not yet have the ability to grow from other suppliers.

“A life spent partaking in living foods with nutriental value brings healing to our minds, body and soul,” said Aliza. “We do go a step beyond by growing medicinal herbs that go beyond just nutriental supplements, into dealing with medical issues such as chronic pain, high blood pressure, blood sugar imbalances, anxiety, etc.”

She began selling herbs because of her own experiences using them. “I could’ve been put on disability a few times if I had left it up to medical doctors,” she said. “We do this as a lifestyle, not just a business.”

Porcupine eggs and herbal remedies

The primary burden of the work at the Gathering Place now falls on Tim, 43, a quiet, athletically built man. He was a math major in college, but says he has really taken to farming.

The Cummings plant a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs and companion plants. Row after row rise up out of the tilled soil, some on trellises, some undulating across the dusty ground in search of space and water.

“We plant anything that will grow, but we’re sort of known for our gherkin cucumbers,” Tim said, holding up a small, green, prickly, oblong-shaped sample. “We call them porcupine eggs.”

“It was actually an accident that we chose them in the first place,” said Tim. “After they had been growing awhile, Aliza said ‘I don’t think they are going to get any bigger.’”

Besides the diminutive gherkins, Tim says their specialties are herbs, huge beets and heirloom tomatoes.

The Cummings are a compatible pair, comfortable with each other, comfortable with their life on the farm. Aliza was born in California, but moved as a toddler with her family to Gadsden and still has relatives in the area. Tim is a transplant from Pittsburgh.

“We were best friends for five years, so it shocked our friends when we decided to get married,” said Aliza, laughing, crinkles forming around her eyes. They have grown children who live out of town, but who will come back when called to help on the farm.

The neighbor’s dog, Oni, a Catahoula cur, sashays lazily out of a shed near the cow pasture, tongue exposed as he pants loudly in the July sun. Oni seems as much at home as the Cummings’ calves, which crowd the fence to peer hopefully in Aliza’s feed bucket.

Aliza scratches a calf on the forehead as she sprays vinegar on its belly. “Trying to knock down some of these flies,” she says.

A rooster crows, erroneously announcing the break of dawn at 3 p.m. Chickens chatter in their coops. More flies buzz, loudly dancing from pile to pile of cow dung. Such are the sights and sounds of the simple life.

The Cummings plan to move their simple life to a larger piece of property. “We’ve done about all we can do on an acre-and-a-half,” said Tim. “We envision doing more herbs, and hope to employ some other workers.” They plan to have a greenhouse equipped with solar heating, which would enable them to grow herbs year-round, as well as a processing and drying house, and a factory for formulating the herbs.

“We feel like we’re where we’re supposed to be,” said Aliza.

Added Tim: “If God moves us to leave, we’re pliable. But right now, Jacksonville is our mission.”

Medicinal herbs: A Q&A with Aliza Cummings

Q: What herbs do you sell?

A: We have wildcraft and conventional herbs. We specialize in silver solution with aloe gel for topical application and with tea tree oil for sinus conditions or diluted with distilled water for fighting viral and bacterial infections. We make our own cold formula with nine all-natural herbs with no preservatives, and a cayenne super tonic for heart, immune system and circulation health. We have teas for anxiety, cleansing, appetite, pain, inflammation and blood purification. We have a new comfrey salve for external skin conditions and some essential oils such as lavender, peppermint and oregano.

Q: How do you harvest the herbs?

A: We cut foliage and blooms of many, dig roots of other and draw barks from many of the trees. We hang them, dehydrate and lay others out on screens to dry. We make essential oil, salves, teas, formulas and ointments after processing them.

Q: What are the most popular herbs you sell?

A: Silver solutions for infections, coconut oil for skin and cooking, teas and herbs for anxiety and pain and vitamins for energy.

Q: What are the price ranges?

A: Oils and good vitamins with sufficient greens are expensive. The price range is $5-$45.

Q: Who buys your herbs?

A: We have parents who buy for children all the way to 95-year-olds who want to live life to the fullest. Women and men alike look for ways to live better and healthier.

Q: Do you sell the herbs all year?

A: We sell them all year as we process most of our herbs and dry them, which intensifies their potency, and we can use them throughout the year.

The Gathering Place

• 885 Roy Webb Road, Jacksonville, 205-393-3510, www.thegatheringplace7.com, gatheringherbs@gmail.com

• At the Jacksonville Farmers Market, in the pocket park behind Roma’s off the Jacksonville square, from 7-11 a.m. Saturdays (through November) and 4-8 p.m. Mondays (through August).

• The farm also has a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program; participants pay $20 a week, for 30 weeks, and receive a box of fresh produce from the farm each week.
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Jacksonville farm specializes in organic produce and medicinal herbs by Brooke Nicholls Nelson
Special to The Star

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