Video by Xandr Brown, The Daily Yonder

With her beads twinkling in the Alabama sun, an excited toddler bounced up and down as she waited for her cousin to place a freshly plucked pear in her small hands. Then she wandered over to her father, Christopher Joe, and showed him the fruit of her family’s labor.

“The next generation right there,” Joe said as his daughter scurried away giggling. “That’s what we did growing up…We can still maintain what we’re doing, still keep the land in the family, still keep Black-owned businesses.”

Over the past few years, the Joe family has stuck to its generational roots in farming, but they also ventured into supporting the community and their business with ecotourism on their 200-acre property.

The patriarch of the family, Cornelius Joe, oversees the farm’s daily operation just like his father did, and his father before. In between farm labor, Christopher is a district conservationist in Macon County, Alabama, but still helps out with farm labor. It started as selling vegetable produce such as squash and okra, but now focuses exclusively on raising black Angus. 

“The Joe Farm is a [multigenerational] Black Angus cattle farm located in Newbern, Alabama,” Joe said. “[W]e also diversified it by adding ecotourism to the property, and we do birding and nature tours.” The Farm has six miles of trails available for birders and naturalists to explore.

From left to right: Christopher Joe, Christian Cooper, Cornelius Joe, Alex Troutman, Corina Newsome. (Photo by Adilia Watson)

According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is a “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

In Hale County, home of the Joe Farm, 20.5% of residents live below the poverty line, and Alabama is the fifth poorest state in the country, according to the U.S. Census. Alabama’s most poverty-stricken counties are in the Black Belt rural region of the state. Eco-tourism could be one of the ways to bring more economic opportunities to the area.

Newbern is at the center of the Black Belt in Hale County, where the U.S. Census estimates 48.8% of the population to be African-American or Black. That stretch of land is known for its fertile, black soil that extends in a crescent from Virginia to Texas. Today, Alabama’s Black Belt region is also known as the site of landmark Civil Rights events and as a hub of Black culture.

The Alabama Audubon and its partners remained mindful of the Black Belt’s history and present circumstances while they organized the first annual Black Belt Birding Festival in Greensboro, Alabama. 

On August 7, 2021, the Joe Farm was one of two local farms that gave birders and naturalists a welcoming place to observe the Alabama Black Belt’s resident birds. The festival featured field trips to surrounding parks, lakes, and farms. 

According to the nonprofit’s executive director, Ansel Payne, the festival had 170 people registered. Local business owners reported that it brought some of their best days in sales.

“​​These rural communities already have wonderful resources for tourism, both in terms of the ecology and [the] warm and friendly people who live there,” Payne said. “Our Black Belt Birding Initiative is about getting those tourism resources more publicity, both in Alabama and throughout the country, and reaching wider and wider audiences.”

Sign marking the birding trail at Perry Lakes Park entrance. (Photo by Adilia Watson)

Perry County is another example of an economically struggling community that shared its natural areas with festival visitors. A field trip to Perry Lakes Park featured a birding trail that led to a 100-foot birding tower built by architects from the Rural Studio of Auburn University. 

Throughout the festival, visitors meandered through a vendor expo where partners and artists, like Tim Joe of the Joe family, shared their work. Some of his collections use oil pastels, gouache, and oil paint to depict rural life.

“My art can teach. It can educate. It can preserve history,” said Tim Joe . “All the things that we are trying to do, we’re trying to let people know that there are things going on in Central Alabama.”

Sharing what they love is a theme of the family’s work. Joe discussed how important it is to continue his family’s legacy of maintaining the family’s generational wealth while persevering against adversity.  

“[I]t’s like, ‘What am I doing?’ [If] my great grandparents looked today and saw what we were doing with the land today that they struggled to not give in to the intimidation of the [Klu Klux] Klan,” he said.“We created a space where people can come and not worry about being stopped [for birdwatching] or having people wondering, ‘Hey, what is that person doing?’”

Last year, the famous Black birder and board member for the New York Audubon, Christian Cooper, experienced the dangers of Black people birding in public spaces after a woman in Central Park called the police on him for addressing her unleashed dog and falsely accused him of “threatening her life.” Cooper also attended the festival.

Now, groups of ecotourists have a chance to watch Swallow-tailed Kites soar above the pastures and learn more about the Black Belt.

Swallow-tailed kites at The Joe Farm. (Photo by Christopher Joe)

A bird enthusiast named Rebecca came to visit the Black Belt for the first time for the festival. 

“I’ve been taking [Tim Joe’s] painting classes and then just heard about Joe Farm and how they turned this historical farm into both a working farm and a place for naturalists,” she said. “Here, in particular, the birding community is just so welcoming and joyful.”

Corina Newsome, also known as @HoodNaturalist on Instagram and a Grist 2020 Fixer, attended the event as well.

Newsome discussed the future of White-led organizations such as the Audubon Society continuing to establish partnerships with Black-owned businesses. 

“Positioning your resources and… drawing attention and business to this effort, to this family, to this business is exactly what White-led, white-dominated conservation organizations need to be doing,” she said. “Not co-opting the stories, not co-opting the wealth, but shifting the attention away from themselves.”

This article was made possible with funding from the Seattle Audubon Society.