Come Fly with Us

A family farm welcomes birders to the heart of Alabama

  • By Jacqueline Gray Miller
  • Conservation
  • Aug 02, 2022

Birders flock to what’s fondly called The Joe Farm in Alabama’s Black Belt region. Here, the Joe family offers birding tours on its working farm, a haven for birds and other wildlife. (Photo by Kim Hubbard)

THERE'S ONLY ONE BLACK-AND-WHITE photo of my maternal grandfather, Henry Perry, Sr. In it, his hardworking sharecropper hands stand out to me—hands that silently convey courage, strength and generosity.

Cornelius Joe, the grandson of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, reminds me of my grandfather. He and his wife, Leola, run an award-winning 200-acre Black Angus cattle farm in Alabama’s Black Belt, a fertile stretch of land along the southern half of the state. They and their family—adult children Cornelius II, Timothy, Christopher and Jacqueline along with daughters-in-law Christy, Jennifer and Monique—also help run the farm and oversee the family’s newest enterprise: Connecting with Birds and Nature Tours LLC, which Christopher launched in 2018 to welcome visitors to roam the land and enjoy its wonders.

I first met Cornelius Joe in 2019 during the Birmingham Audubon Society’s inaugural Black Belt Birding tour, designed to welcome bird-watchers to the Joe Farm as a form of ecotourism in one of the country’s most beautiful yet economically challenged rural areas. Mr. Joe and his family’s natural southern charm, working cattle farm and diverse habitats that attract many species of birds are the ingredients that entice people from around the country to come to the Joe Farm multiple times a year. I am one of them.

The Joe family has been working this land in Hale County, Alabama, for three generations. “From here and as far as your eyes can see, this has been family land since the early 1900s,” beams Cornelius Joe, welcoming a flock of first-time visitors to the farm. The retired agribusiness educator with more than 30 years of teaching experience captures and holds the attention of his audience with ease. Standing in a partial circle, we hang on his every word.

“Look around you,” he says. “At one time, a person with the last name Joe lived on, worked and owned a farm up and down this unpaved road, now County Road 57. Today, you are an extended part of our family.” Mr. Joe makes this proclamation in front of what appears to be a handmade, decades-old home structure. Empty now, the single-story former homestead is a shrine to the past, housing photos, furniture and history.

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A blue heron wading in water.

Visitors to the Joe Farm can enjoy scores of bird species that visit the area. One of those—a great blue heron (above)—hunts for fish in a nearby pond that also attracts bald eagles, wood storks, even pelicans. “The mix of habitats provides a great opportunity to see many bird species in one place,” says birder Meg Ford (below foreground, during a 2021 birding tour). “But the main reason I come is that the Joe family is doing incredible work getting a more diverse crowd into birding. It’s unique.”

Riches of the land

The Joe Farm offers visitors untethered access to stretches of private bottomland hardwoods, a broad pasture, a winding creek and 6 miles of trails where naturalists, cyclists, campers and birders can explore and commune with nature. It’s a utopia for birders of all experience levels. The property’s hardwood forests, which occasionally flood, feature alluvial soils that sustain gum, oak and bald cypress trees where small, yellow prothonotary warblers and other songbirds flit from branch to branch. Painted buntings with their vivid fusion of blue, green, yellow and red also grace the property. Just past its eastern edge, egrets, wood storks and great blue herons cluster around a fish pond. In the summer months, when Cornelius Joe cuts hay to sustain the cattle herd of more than 50 head, his tractor stirs up clouds of crickets that lure scores of swallow-tailed kites to the feast. With their large forked tails and gleaming white bellies, these diving kites are the “No. 1 target bird” for visitors, says Christopher.

A woman looks up in the trees for birds

Visitors to the Joe Farm are often looking up, but treasures are everywhere to be seen. Fresh turkey feathers, large deer tracks and tiny rabbit footprints speckle the trails, and four-legged hunters prowl across the landscape at night. “I have game cameras set up all down the property,” says Christopher. “You can see bobcats, foxes, a family of active deer. Bucks as heavy as 200 pounds are jockeying for position. You never know what you might see.”

Christopher wears many hats beyond working the farm and leading its birding tours. Concerned about the economic and environmental health of the Black Belt region, he worked with the Birmingham Audubon Society (now Alabama Audubon), the University of Alabama, the University of Alabama–Birmingham and Mississippi State University to develop the idea of bringing ecotourism opportunities to the Black Belt of Alabama. His family now offers about 10 day-long birding tours a year for groups of various sizes. Visitors pay $25 for the tour and often support area hotels and restaurants during their visits. “It was an idea for people to step away from the day-to-day to enjoy scenic views along a nature trail and tranquility along a beautiful creek, and it took off from there,” says Christopher.

In February 2019, the Joe family led their first tour of the property with University of Alabama graduate students. Five months later, more than 130 people visited the farm for a single-day outing during the Birmingham Audubon Society’s Black Belt Birding tour. That group included Dr. J. Drew Lanham, noted scientist and author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.

“Being among land stewards who looked like me and proudly lived the rural life that I once lived, sharing my passion for nature and birds, was as edifying an experience as I’ve had in a very long time,” Lanham says. “A Black family raising Black Angus in the Black Belt—I felt as close to that alliteration of blackness as if I’d known the Joes all my life. Watching them nurture nature as lovingly as they do—mowing for swallow-tailed and Mississippi kites, hunting white-tailed deer, living in harmony with the seasons and wildness while seeing the art in all of it—appealed to my core.”

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A man sits on a hay bale with another man next to him and a tractor in the background

Proud patriarch of the farm that has been in his family for generations, Cornelius Joe stands near his son, Christopher (above), in a hay field that helps sustain the family’s cattle. A birder and photographer, Christopher enjoys teaching visitors about the farm’s abundant avian life. Christopher Joe’s two-year-old daughter, Summer, (below) holds a treasure found on her family’s farm.

Sustaining the Black connection to land

The Joe Farm is special not only because of the family that so lovingly tends it. Today, there are fewer than five Black-owned working farms within a 30-mile radius of the Joe Farm, due in large part to ongoing racial discrimination. “Black land ownership is always challenged, whether it be through discriminatory and predatory bank lending, xenophobic sellers averse to Black owners or government-sanctioned seizure through biased and inequitable eminent domain procedures,” says Dr. F. Q. Kendrick, a social scientist and communications scholar, Washington, D.C., resident, Alabama native and descendant of Alabama sharecroppers.  “Therefore, any story of a Black family retaining control of their property in America beyond one generation is a feat in and of itself—let alone for more than a century.”

A young girl looks at a bird feather

Alabama is the fifth poorest state in the country, and its Black Belt holds its most poverty-affected counties. In Hale County, home of the Joe Farm, 20.5 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Ecotourism therefore offers the promise of more economic opportunity. According to a 2017 report by the Outdoor Industry Association, more than $30 billion is spent each year on wildlife viewing in the United States, with much of that coming from bird-watching.

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people and involves interpretation and education.” The Joe Farm exceeds those goals. “We are creating a ripple effect for businesses big and small and as far away as historic Selma,” says Christopher, an “ag-vocate” who advocates for farmers, growers and ranchers. “We promote hotels and restaurants around the region, and business owners are grateful that we mention their arts and crafts and award-winning culinary talents.”

Like their brother, Timothy and Jacqueline have their own unique ways of supporting the family farm and its birding tours. Timothy is a self-taught artist and instructor whose art reflects his deep roots in the Black Belt. Virtually and on the farm, Timothy teaches techniques on how to paint inspirations from nature. His art, he says, “is fueled by the need to preserve rural landscape and scenery, including birdlife.” For her part, Jacqueline focuses on making birding more inclusive and accessible by removing barriers to birders with mobility challenges. She often drives a tractor pulling an 18-foot trailer with a spring-loaded ramp for wheelchairs and hay bale ‘benches’ for those with limited mobility who don’t want to or can’t walk around the fields.

For me, a visit to the Joe Farm connects me to my roots, gives me insight toward the grandfather I never met and provides a special place to step away from the day-to-day noise for birding and tranquil, scenic views.

Christopher Joe photographs many of the bird species—both common and rare—that reside on or pass through his family’s farm. These include:

Jacqueline Gray Miller is a birder, writer and business owner based in Birmingham, Alabama.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Avian Obsession »
NWF Blog: Alabama Wildlife »
Our Work: Restoring Southern Forests for Wildlife »


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