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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Hydroponic Farm in Alabama Finds Success with Focus on Health and Local Food Demand

September 28, 2016 |

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A view of the greenhouse at Owls Hollow Farm in Gadsen, Alabama. Photo courtesy of Owls Hollow Farm.

Rod Palmer of Owls Hollow Farm in Gadsen, Alabama, wants people to think a little more about what they’re eating.

If they continue to eat the same processed foods that have led to an epidemic of diabetes and obesity, then they shouldn’t be surprised if their health isn’t improving.

If they continue to buy expensive produce grown outside the U.S. at the supermarket, then they won’t be able to stretch their dollars that much.

Owls Hollow gives both residents and employees at local companies in nearby Birmingham a way to eat healthier while saving money.

Palmer comes from a background in home building, and he never focused on farming as a career. When growing up, everyone around him, including his family, lived on a small farm. It never seemed like something unique.

When Palmer’s son was a teenager, he took an interest in farming, and the family bought a tractor and even started a garden and greenhouses. That sparked the elder Palmer’s interest in greenhouse growing as well as hydroponic farming. Fast forward to today, more than 15 years later, and Palmer and his business partners have a thriving hydroponic farming business that sells locally grown produce to the general public, restaurants, and to local companies.

Birmingham is a foodie-oriented town, with several restaurants and chefs that have been nominated for or have received James Beard awards. That’s one way that a business like Owls Hollow, with its focus on growing food for the local marketplace, has been able to prosper. Another reason for its success is a prevalence of local companies, who have made employee nutrition a key workplace focus. For example, at the request of Alabama Power Company and a local Blue Cross Blue Shield office, Owls Hollow has sets up makeshift farm stands where its produce is offered to encourage healthier eating among employees.

Palmer, or his partners, visit the companies on a regular schedule; at one point, they had 29 such arrangements. “Some were beneficial, and with others, we were just breaking even,” Palmer says. For instance, an employee might think it was novel to buy an apple from their farm stand, but would still buy the bulk of their produce at the supermarket. Owls Hollow narrowed the corporate arrangements to ones with the most demand. To sweeten the deal, the farm also sells cheese, butter, jellies, jams, and honey.

Owls Hollow also attracts customers is through its offering of less common produce. While a foodie may be familiar with heirloom tomatoes, arugula, or fresh-from-the-farm eggs, Palmer and his partners have made converts of the once food-naïve. This is one thing that keeps Palmer going—educating customers about the value of healthier eating. “It’s pathetic that there are people who eat like they do, they get sick, and they eat the same things again,” says Palmer, who gives presentations on healthy eating at local schools.

In fact, growing less common products—be they alpha cucumbers or fortex beans—is a way that Palmer believes farms can distinguish themselves and appeal to certain customers as well as restaurants.

Owls Hollow also reaches customers utilizing social media. Palmer says he and his business partner aren’t social media guys, but they’ve made the effort to have a presence on sites like Facebook. “We can get the message out to 50,000 people working on a four-block square [of Birmingham], and we know 40,000 of them are on Facebook all day,” Palmer says half-jokingly. “They know our chickens and our kids and grandkids. They feel like they’re part of the farm.”

Owls Hollow also works to make sure its booth at the local farmers’ market looks attractive—yet another way to attract customers, Palmer says—and they make available several branding products, such as hats and shirts, with the farm name and logo. “Anything to get the name out there,” Palmer says.

Palmer and his business partners are thinking of retirement as their next step, but he says there are younger interns for the farm who will likely take over what they do.

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