Good Works: Local Produce Year Round

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With a mission to help people improve their health, Owls Hollow Farm grows vegetables and herbs using hydroponic and traditional techniques.

story and photos by N. L. MCANELLY

No matter where you stand on the debate regarding labeling of genetically modified foods, whether you are curious about where your food comes from or even what’s in it, you most likely do care about the way your food tastes. Not all veggies are created equal. Genetic strain, how produce is grown and freshness all factor into taste.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Rod Palmer, owner of Owls Hollow Farm, is well aware of this. He is passionate about food and takes pride in growing and sharing the highest quality produce possible.

Owls Hollow Farm is located in Turkeytown, an area about 8 miles north of Gadsden, Ala., that was named after the Cherokee chief who founded a settlement there. Owls Hollow staff use both traditional and hydroponic growing methods in fields and within 20,000 square feet of greenhouse space. All plants are certified naturally grown or uncertified organic, and Owls Hollow’s mission is to help people get healthier.

What started as a family farm is now a regular food provider for many more families, several high-end restaurants and even a couple of large area grocers. Owls Hollow sells directly to customers at farmers’ markets in Birmingham, Ala. It also offers a CSA (community-supported agriculture) “Farm Box” program that delivers a variety of fresh produce weekly to pick-up locations in Birmingham, Gadsden and Scottsboro, Ala. Through a corporate market program, Owls Hollow sets up weekly mini-markets at businesses including Protective Life Corporation and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, and employees visit during the work day.

“When my son, Caleb, was 15, he wanted a greenhouse for growing pepper and tomato plants,” Palmer says. “My brother Phil and I found a nursery that had went out of business and bought it. We had an extra nine greenhouses with nothing to do with them. We decided to try lettuce because nobody around here did lettuce. We were growing thousands of heads of lettuce. We had so much that we didn’t know what to do with it, so we started going to Mountain Brook [Ala.] and asking the restaurants if they wanted to buy. They wanted it.”

Owls Hollow now grows 15,400 heads of lettuce at a time, planting every two weeks. The lettuce is only a fraction of what comes from Owls Hollow. The organization works in partnership with Jack-O-Lantern Farm (in Muscle Shoals, Ala.) to provide a wide array of produce. According to what is in rotation, you might find several heirloom tomato species, zucchini, eggplant, sugar snap peas, kale, cabbage, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, collards, turnips, three types of beets, two types of radishes, chard and all kinds of flavorful grasses and herbs including dill, lavender, basil, chives, mint, orange mint, oregano and stevia.

Palmer shows me around the inside of his greenhouses.

The words “hydroponic farming” might bring to mind images of high-tech setups involving LEDs and a network of tubing more fitting for the International Space Station than your neighbor’s backyard. Grow facilities can be vastly intricate, but Palmer assures me the idea behind this style of farming is simple: deliver just the right amount of nutrients, water and light to plants so they can reach their full potential.

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants indoors that takes soil out of the equation. Soil is replaced by a growing medium (perlite, gravel, clay, etc.), and roots are submerged or misted in a water-based nutrient solution. This gives the farmer complete governance over factors affecting plant growth and flavor.

“With hydroponics we can control the nutrient and moisture content and temperature and get things ideal to taste the way they should taste,” Palmer says. He plucks a ripe tomato from a vine and hands it to me. It is a deep purple, almost black. It is sweet – much more flavorful than the tomatoes found in my local grocery store.

Hydroponic farming also has benefits that go beyond taste. It takes up less space; one-fifth the space is needed for hydroponic versus traditional farming. Because plants are grown in temperature-managed greenhouses, Owls Hollow can produce a large variety of vegetables and herbs throughout the year. This provides the community with access to fresh, locally grown veggies during cold months when it would otherwise be impossible.

“It may sound cliché, but to grow something, pick it and eat it… is almost like something spiritual,” Palmer says.“You take a seed – I seeded all of these from last year’s plants – it grows and you pick it and eat it. You grew it. You didn’t have to depend on anybody else. When I cook supper for my family, I walk outside and pick what we are going to have. I bring it in, cook it and eat it. I know what it is. I know where the food came from, that there is no poison on it. I know how safe it is.”

Getting food from Owls Hollow Farm

Owls Hollow sells produce a number of ways in north and central Alabama.

At farmers’ markets: Owls Hollow is at Pepper Place Market in Birmingham, Ala., on Saturday mornings (April-December); Homewood SoHo Farmers’ Market in Homewood, Ala., on Saturday mornings (summer); and The Summit Farmer’s Market in Birmingham (near Urban Cookhouse) on Thursday afternoons (summer).

Through the Farm Box program: For $20 per week (prepaid monthly), you can get a generous amount of food that includes five or more varieties of vegetables and an herb. Pick-up locations are at Back Forty Beer Co. in Gadsden, Ala., Scottsboro Middle School in Scottsboro, Ala., Urban Cookhouse in Homewood and Birmingham, The Red Cat Coffee House in Homewood and Terry’s Two Wheel in Pelham, Ala.

At your workplace: For businesses large enough to support the program, Owls Hollow will set up a weekly corporate market offering employees fresh produce year round. It also offers corporations a farm box program, delivering food to employees at the businesses once a week.

More info: owlshollowfarm.com

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