By Stephen McDill/Mississippi Business Journal
CLINTON— Peyton Collins was horrified when a little girl told her she thought spaghetti grew on trees.
The Clinton wife, mother and compulsive gardener said it’s 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 it’s just stunning that we have the land and agriculture heritage but no knowledge,” she said. “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 said while unloading a pallet of lettuce seedlings at one of her gardens recently.
She does all her gardening at home or in the backyards and fields of friends and like-minded organic foodies.
After a recent hailstorm damaged houses and cars from Vicksburg to Brandon last Monday, Collins was back out in the field 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 said 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 said. “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 said.
Collins is also on speed-dial with local chefs like Derek Emerson at Walker’s Drive-In in Jackson.
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 said.
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 said. “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 said.
Collins said 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 said. “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, that’s its whole purpose in life,” she said.
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 said.