In fact, to satisfy requests from his regular customers in the Magic City, Palmer now brings his wares to Pepper Place even during the marketís off-season. He sets up shop on sunny Saturday mornings outside the Pepper Place General Store, which was established last August and stays open all year. Palmer sends out e-mails to over 300 of his regular customers during the week to let them know which goodies he will be bringing to town on Saturday.
Palmer is also a carpenter and contractor by trade but has recently concentrated on farming. In between a half-dozen conversations with faithful customers at Pepper Place on a recent Saturday, Palmer chatted with me about the whole-food nutrition of returning to a menu of simple, slow-grown food from small farms.
BW: Tell me about your use of hydroponicsóa method of farming that uses water instead of soil.
RP: In our greenhouses, we donít grow in soil. We grow in other mediums. Lettuce is grown in water. We have pools of water, 10 feet wide, 100 feet long and a few inches deep. In that water are all the nutrients it takes to grow stuff perfectly. We get the seeds started in little flats that hold 276 seeds, then in three days, you break the lettuces apart and put them in two-foot-square styrofoam rafts, and they float in the water while they grow. Lettuce is almost all water anyway. Plants are like us. During the summer, they drink more water. During the winter, they take in more nutrients than they drink water. You have to keep everything adjusted. The sun has been out for two days, so thatís going to throw everything off. You see a lot of stuff like watercress. We grow it in a spring. It eats minerals out of the spring, so it grows the way the lettuce does, but itís wild. Itís just the way itís intended to grow.
How long have you been growing things this way, and why is it better than traditional methods?
Probably 10 years. You can control the environment a lot better. With soil-grown stuff, it may grow great, or you may have a bad pH level in your soil, or too much potassium. You have to adjust that all the time. With soil-grown stuff, especially with soft crops like lettuce, you have a whole lot of white flies. You have a bigger slug problem. Rats, rabbits and raccoons will go through and mess them up. Groundhogs are really bad about field-grown lettuce and other kinds of grains. We do like green beans. We grow them in pine bark. The computer turns on and squirts a little bit of water with nutrients in it every 7 1/2 seconds. The benefit of soil is that you have something to hold the roots and offer shade. With hydroponic stuff, as long as you have something for the roots to go to and you have shade (because sun will kill root systems), thatís all the plant needs.
Lettuce is a traditionally a cool weather crop. Can you do it in the spring and summer because of these alternative growing greenhouse processes?
I struggle there in August, but we do go pretty much year round on these. We do about 15,000 heads of lettuce. On our cut stuff, we have about 130 trays of mountain cress, arugula, micro mizuna, radish tops, chives and chard. We do hydroponic cucumbers, too, in pine bark. The benefit to them is that theyíll grow in 10 months. Most of these things are developed in the Netherlands. Some in Argentina and New Zealand. Nicole Shaw, this woman I know that works at Florida State, does the Disney World Epcot stuff. Sheís developed a cucumber that I use nowótender, seedless, sweet.
Who originally taught you how to do all this?
A lot of reading. I met a man in Lake City, Fla., that raises basil, and he helped me some. Just learning, trial and error. We do a greenhouse tomato course at Mississippi State every year, and I learn a lot there. You meet a lot of people there that do similar things. You can adjust. A friend of mine does organic research at Auburn. Heís like the gardening guru. Everyone that farms knows him. Heís like a rock star. Heís smart. Heís pointed me to the right people.
Did you grow up on a farm?
My grandparents farmed. We didnít call it a farm, but we had a five-acre garden. We had animals, but I didnít know it was a farm. Thatís just the way everybody I knew lived. People I knew that really farmed had a thousand acres. We always had a real big garden and enough for all of us and everybody in the neighborhood or anyone that needed anything.
Tell me about your customers.
I deliver on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I do DuPont, Bettola, V. Richards, Little Savannah, Hot and Hot, Bottega some, Highlands, Ocean, Daniel George, avo, Satterfieldís, Flip Burger and, depending on the time of year, Belliniís. As far as my market customers, Iíve been selling stuff to most of these folks for nine or ten years. A lot of them grew up in town, so they hadnít been around what I call real food.
Do you feel like thereís a big educational component in what you do?
People donít understand the difference between our and other peopleís lettuce, but itís because it got picked last night instead of in Mexico three of four weeks ago. Itís just a real big difference in the freshness and the quality. The lettuce [in grocery stores] they get from a warehouse in Oxford. From there, it came from California in another warehouse. And it went from Mexico to that warehouse, and itís three weeks old before you eat it. Thatís just the way it is. Thatís the way most people grew up eating.
Tell me more about food in your own home. How do you eat and cook during the week?
If Iím going to cook, Iíll do garlic and onion [he points to items on his produce table]. Iíll cut up apple real fine and fry it down. Iíll put in these green beans, braise them, take that out. No, take that back. I would put kale in with it. Then I would boil a whole thing of these. This is just for me to eat, by the way. Then I would take them out and put cheese on it. Usually gouda, and lots of times, Iíll put watercress or something like that on it, just because itís so good for you even though I donít like it. I try and make everything taste good. I eat that much spinach a night [He holds up a freezer bag full).
Find Palmerís farm on the web and join his mailing list at www.owlshollowfarm.com
Visit him any Saturdayóweather permittingóat the Pepper Place General Store from 9 a.m.-noon. The store is located at 212 29th St. South. You can get updates regarding the store and Palmerís visits at www.facebook.com/pepperplacemarket or www.twitter.com/pepperplace. Palmer will also take part in the regular Pepper Place Market season. For dates and other information, visit www.pepperplacemarket.com.