Then the rise of the food service distribution industry made it more economical for camp officials to buy what they needed than to produce it locally.
Now Camp McDowell is returning to its roots with a planned expansion that will house a new farm education program.
Bethany Village will be built on 30 acres, which will almost double the amount of Camp McDowell’s more than 1,100 acres that has been developed for educational purposes.
The name of the new facility was inspired by the village where Jesus visited with friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
“Bethany will be a place where Jesus’ friends come to learn, play and build community,” said the Rev. Mark Johnston, executive director of Camp McDowell.
The capital campaign of the project is already underway. Construction could begin by this winter and is expected to ramp up next spring. Johnston said the facility should be operational by 2014.
Bethany Village will include new lodges and an accessible complex that can be used for the farm program as well as a summer camp for individuals with special needs.
Bethany Village will also provide a home for the Alabama Folk School, which was established in 2007 and currently has to schedule classes around the camp’s other popular programs because they use the same space.
Farm education director Jon Nee said the new farm school will operate similarly to the McDowell Environmental Center, which turns nature into an outdoor classroom for area schoolchildren.
“School groups can spend three days and two nights in our cabins and get a true farm experience that will also meet their Alabama course of study needs for things like science, social studies, health and physical education,” Nee said.
Examples of activities at the farm school will include milking goats, collecting eggs and picking fruit from the orchard that Camp McDowell recently won through a national Communities Take Root contest.
The students will also be required to plant, maintain and harvest a garden as well as prepare a meal in order for them to learn where their favorite foods come from before they appear on a grocery store shelf.
“We really want to empower them to realize that they can grow food,” Nee said.
Another part of the Bethany Village project is a production farm that will provide food to be served to camp guests.
That effort has already begun with help from Will and Liz Doonan, who recently relocated their Herron Hollow Farm from Trussville to land in Nauvoo owned by Camp McDowell.
While the couple are still in charge of the farm and allowed to keep the profits from it, they will be assisting Nee with pilot programs this fall related to the new farm school and will eventually become employees of Camp McDowell.
“One of our big goals is to show people that with creative thinking, a sound business model and farming practices we can put good food into our dining halls and not have to order it from somewhere across the country,” Nee said.
Johnston added that the vision for Bethany Village is line with the Christian principle of good stewardship.
“We recognize God through people and scripture, but we also experience the wonder, goodness and love of God through the creation,” Johnston said. “When people come here and get reconnected to the earth through our environmental center or farm school, I think that is a spiritual ministry as well as an important educational ministry because people are disconnected from food.”