Bigger and Better

Owl’s Hollow Farm owner Rod Palmer walked out to his Gadsden, Ala., farm in early January 2011 to discover all six of his hydroponic greenhouses collapsed under the weight of nearly eight inches of snow and ice. These special greenhouses housed the majority of the farm’s hydroponic produce, which is grown in nutrient-rich water instead of soil.

“I heard it,” Palmer said. “It was 5:30 a.m., and it shook the house. I knew what it was, but there was nothing I could do.”

The farmer stood in shock at the sight of his destroyed greenhouses and entire lettuce crops lost to the cold. Ten years worth of time and effort lay in messy, snow-covered heaps.

After the shock wore off, Palmer jumped straight into action.

“It was a couple hundred thousand dollars just gone,” Palmer said. “I had to ‘unbuild.’ Crying, kicking and screaming.”

During the process, the stressed farmer occasionally found pockets of perfectly preserved lettuce.

“Sometime we’d find maybe 300 heads of Romaine,” Palmer said. “It was just beautiful.”

Community Gives Back

Destroyed greenhouses

Palmer’s business has become well established in the Birmingham area since opening in May 2001, and throughout the disaster, Palmer said that the community’s support inspired him. People rallied to help the destroyed farm, something Palmer is extremely grateful for.

“I’m so thankful,” Palmer said. “I never knew people depended on local food so much.”

Owl’s Hollow has sold produce to restaurants all over Birmingham, as well as Pepper Place Market in the spring and summer months. Because the vegetables are grown using the hydroponic technique, Palmer is able to grow and sell his produce year round.

Local Homewood restaurant Urban Cookhouse depends on Owl’s Hollow for most of their produce and even held a fundraiser for the farm.

On Feb. 9, the restaurant donated 100 percent of all takeout dinner proceeds to the farm to help buy new greenhouses.

Palmer said that people he did not even know contacted him, wanting to help.

“People started sending me letters and calling saying ‘I’m so sorry’ or ‘I’m praying for you.’ It’s been one of the best bad experiences you can imagine,” he said.

A Better Tomorrow

While waiting for the new greenhouses to go up in March, the farm managed to survive. Palmer and a small team of farm hands salvaged everything possible and focused on rebuilding.

“You’d see all the remains and you’d know it all goes somewhere,” Palmer said.

Radishes growing in mineral solutions

Most importantly, the farm kept growing. Hundreds of heads of lettuce floated on styrofoam in a man-made pond on the farm while makeshift garden beds were filled with mineral solutions and used to grow herbs and smaller produce. A small trailer that sits on the farm held thousands of tiny tomatoes and sprouting basil plants.

Though this disaster caused nothing but stress and shock when it struck, Palmer tried to remain positive. The farmer viewed it as a chance to improve the farm, saying that rebuilding from the ground up would only make everything “bigger and better.”