Photo: Pictured above from left to right, Tea Town Alabama’s Jonathan Gardner, Owls Hollow Farm’s Lisa Gallardo and Forgotten Ways Farm’s Amber Bennett support their community with a drive-thru contactless market at Back Forty Beer Company at 200 N. 6th Street in Gadsden. (Katie Bohannon/Messenger)
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
As the COVID-19 pandemic alters how businesses conduct operations nationwide, several local farms are teaming up to ensure that the Gadsden community remains nourished and whole.
Owls Hollow Farm, Forgotten Ways Farm, Tea Town Alabama and Eastaboga Bee Company combined their talents to create a contactless drive-thru market for Gadsden residents craving their favorite foods without compromising their health.
On Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., locals will find dedicated farmers handing bags of fresh produce, meats, cheeses, honey and tea into vehicles at Back Forty Beer Company at 200 N. 6th Street in Gadsden. Wearing gloves and masks and sanitizing the market stations, the quartet maintains social distancing protocol while ensuring that residents receive a warm welcome to accompany their pre-purchased goods. Beautiful Rainbow Café Director Chip Rowan joins the farmers at the Back Forty market as well, slipping appetizing recipes using ingredients from all local farms represented into bags for customers.
The idea for the contactless drive-thru market originated with Owls Hollow Farm’s Lisa Gallardo, who sells produce at the Pepper Place Market in Birmingham. As Pepper Place transitioned from a traditional market setup to a drive-thru system to adapt to COVID-19, Gallardo saw an interest and need for a similar opportunity locally.
As restaurants and businesses began closing their doors, Gallardo decided to transform an unfortunate situation into something positive for her community. She brainstormed with her husband and Owls Hollow Farm co-owner Mario about who could benefit from a drive-thru market and contacted other local farmers to join her at Back Forty.
Back Forty offers the perfect location for a drive-thru market, with a covered porch and large parking lot. But more than its physical convenience, Gallardo’s choice for Back Forty as the market’s home base represents something more.
“It’s a big deal when your business closes down,” said Gallardo. “[During COVID-19] you’re trying to transition your business. We’re friends with Jason [Wilson] at Back Forty, and they were doing pickups, orders and hand sanitizer here. It just seemed like the perfect opportunity that if we’re here, you also bring people to them [Back Forty] too. This really was all about helping the community and supporting as many businesses as you can.”
Gallardo did not always envision herself running a farm. Inspired by her children who love the outdoors, she and Mario discussed purchasing some land as a future adventure. The future arrived much earlier than they imagined, and soon the family found themselves with a new home and a new business.
“If somebody had told me at 18, 20, even 25 or 35 that I would be farming at 43, I would have really laughed,” said Gallardo. “Even when we were looking for land, I wanted a place where we could have chickens and grow a garden, [but] I just didn’t expect it to be this scale.”
The Gallardos purchased Owls Hollow Farm from a friend who was ready to retire and willing to train them. For a little over a year, the Gallardos learned the business aspects of establishing a successful farm along with the intricacies of hydroponics, a method of growing plants. They attended farmers markets and grew to know their customers, developing relationships with regulars and newcomers alike.
“There are a lot of aspects [of farming] that I enjoy,” said Gallardo. “Obviously I enjoy the growing – being in the greenhouse, being in the fields. I enjoy the customer interaction, too. You learn people’s cars, you learn faces with name; you know who they are. You learn about their kids, grandkids and dogs. You become friends. I couldn’t pick between the two [aspects]. Getting to grow it is fun, but getting to share it with people is one of the best things.”
An organic and homegrown artisan tea company born in Tuscaloosa, Tea Town Alabama provides its community with delicious and soothing loose-leaf teas derived from locally grown herbs, fruits and homegrown ingredients. While expanding its own garden, Tea Town hopes to provide its customers with the purest teas enriched with the most helpful medicinal benefits.
Though originally from Gadsden, Tea Town Alabama owners Jonathan and Becca Gardner discovered their passion for gardening in California. Since the couple lived an hour away from any town, they started growing their own vegetables and keeping goats and chickens to live a more sustainable lifestyle. The Gardners maintained this lifestyle when they moved to Tuscaloosa, where Becca’s love for growing herbs and creating teas transformed into a booming business.
“We’re getting re-established [in Gadsden],” said Jonathan. “[Being a tea business,] our business is a little different because we sell by the cup at the market. When it’s an outside market and everyone is walking around, when they get hot they buy tea from us and we do well. Changing to a drive-thru market, we [now] do pre-orders, which is a good alternative for us to have a local presence.”
Though Tea Town Alabama thrives in bigger towns with coffee shops like Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Auburn, the Gardners hope to increase their business in their hometown. While the virus restrictions have regulated their orders to methods such as the Back Forty drive-thru market, the couple enjoyed attending art festivals and farmers markets where they could connect with people.
“Really meeting the people and going to the festivals and markets [is what I enjoy the most,]” said Jonathan. “They think you’re an expert at what you do…but really you’re just figuring it out yourself!”
Forgotten Ways Farm sprouted in Michigan, when owner Amber Bennett decided to buy a few dairy goats to provide milk for her family. Eighty acres and 25 goats later, Bennett moved her farm to Gadsden to develop clean food for not only her relatives, but strangers interested in adopting a healthier diet.
Bennett believes that food should remain as nature intended, free of unnecessary chemicals or GMO’s, with animals raised in pastures as opposed to feed lots or confinement operations. Forgotten Ways Farm promotes a way of life considered lost but sacred, striving to deliver wholesome products and food to locals. In addition to meats, cheeses and dairy products, Bennett also offers goat milk soaps, body butters and lotions in a variety of natural scents.
“As a child, I loved being outside, working with animals and being in the garden,” said Bennett. “[At Forgotten Ways,] we’re adding beef at the end of October, and I want to add honeybees [in the future].”
Together, Owls Hollow Farm, Tea Town Alabama, Eastaboga Bee Company and Forgotten Ways Farm provide a safe, reliable and accessible source of nutrition for local residents. While the one-stop shop helps others receive necessary goods, the collaborative market represents a group of individuals dedicated to helping one another as well. With encouragement and ingenuity, the contactless drive-thru market proves though the waters seem rough, Gadsden businesses are still afloat.
“[I hope that people gain] an awareness of supporting local [businesses] and buying local food,” said Gallardo. “I don’t think people really realize the difference in taste. You’re not eating something that was picked three weeks ago; you’re eating something that was picked yesterday or this morning – and the taste alone is so much better. People have really supported [the market], and the community response has been really good.”