Peyton Collins was horrified when a little girl told her she thought spaghetti grew on trees.
The Clinton wife, mother and compulsive gardener says its a sad irony that despite Mississippi’s agrarian roots, it is losing its grip on good food and farming at the consumer level.
“I think its just stunning that we have the land and agriculture heritage but no knowledge,” she says. “It is kind of a tragedy.”
Known locally as “The High Heeled Hippie,” Collins is no pushover. Every Saturday she puts on her high-heels and gathers up a truckload of her locally grown, heirloom edibles and heads to the Mississippi Farmers Market at the state fairgrounds in Jackson.
“Saturday is the only day I’m not wearing work boots,” Collins says while unloading a pallet of lettuce seedlings at one of her gardens off of McRaven Road. She does all her gardening at home or in the backyards and fields of friends and like-minded organic foodies.
After a surprise hailstorm damaged houses and cars from Vicksburg to Brandon last Monday, Collins was back out in the field the next morning checking on her different mini-crops. No major damage was reported but she did snap photos of baseball-sized dents in the soil around her lettuce patch.
“One of these days I hope to be living on the land that I’m cultivating,” she says while clipping a sprig of arugula. Also known as a salad rocket, the cool weather green has a punchy, spicy taste somewhere between peppers and peanuts.
The granddaughter of a longtime Attala County agriculture extension agent, Collins grew up in Tchula surrounded by cotton and soybean fields and an occasional rice paddy.
“My granddaddy grew flowers at home and would graft trees,” Collins says. “He was collecting and planting wildflower seeds and would leave pine straw out for mulch. He was ahead of his time.”
In addition to earning degrees in history, horticulture and landscape architecture from Mississippi State University, Collins has built up years of experience everywhere from agriculture research to garden retail.
Whatever the season, the High Heeled Hippie has something to offer from tomatoes and melons to red leaf lettuce and kale. Each week Collins’ devoted band of garden groupies quickly snap up the tasty produce.
“They will text me and say I’m running late can you please hold this for me,” she says. Collins is also on speed-dial with local chefs like Derek Emerson at Walker’s Drive-In in Fondren.
A bubbly renegade, the High Heeled Hippie sidesaddles the fence between completely organic and mainstream. “I’m not certified organic but I’m not mainstream at all in my techniques or what I grow,” Collins says.
For example, she does her open-pollinated gardening on borrowed land and foregoes chemical fertilizers and herbicides, using instead mulch from whatever she can find, wherever she can find it. “When I see somebody has piled up leaves I go get my trailer,” Collins says. “I can’t certify the origins of all that material. I just do it as sustainably as I can.”
From Big Ag hybridization practices that breed out flavor and are heavily influenced by the chemical and seed lobby to modern food processing and restaurant cooking that is slowly killing taste buds, Collins has real concerns for food in America especially for future generations.
“If you’ve got five seed companies that are providing for every commercial grower then your diversity goes from thousands of species to a few hundred varieties,” Collins says.
Collins says the modern tomato is a good example of what happens when a crop is corporatized. Tomato plants are grown smaller so farmers can pick them more easily and the skin is designed firmer so it can tolerate mechanized handling and processing without tearing.
The High Heeled Hippie intentionally grows one hybrid: Burpee’s Big Boy tomato. First developed in the late 1940s it was more disease resistant and productive as a plant. “It still tastes good, I’m looking for an open-pollinated replacement but haven’t found it yet.”
Collins blames the modern American grocery store for slowly changing the way we view, buy and eat food. “We are a Wal-Mart culture and we are used to cheap food,” she says. “A lot of people haven’t really tasted a real tomato or melon. You wouldn’t believe the flavor.”
She often gets requests for seedless varieties, something she definitely doesn’t do. “Fruit is for making seeds, thats its whole purpose in life,” she says.
Despite the ailing economy and the rising popularity of Big Organic stores like Whole Foods and Fresh Market, Collins stands firmly behind her prices and unorthodox practices.
“I may not be as reliable as Sysco but my stuff is worth getting, I swear it,” she says.
>>Peyton’s Tips for Organic Farming & Eating
» Plant something and start growing food for yourself even if its one tomato plant or a clump of basil in a container. Gain experience with a crop that is easier to manage and be successful with.
» Mulch, mulch, mulch! It moderates temperature and moisture so you don’t have extreme cold or heat with your crop. It also conserves water, keeps soil even and reduces weeds.
» When you irrigate use soaker hoses or drip. Don’t overdo it — you will water down the flavor of your produce. Mississippi’s heat and humidity can breed plant rot and disease, so also remember to keep plants dry.
» For a light, spring snack dip slices of cucumber in lime juice then sprinkle with cayenne and salt for an extra kick.
» Radishes aren’t just for rabbits. Slice them up, drizzle and soak with soy sauce, then sprinkle with sesame seeds for a nice appetizer.