By Judah Martin

Most days if it’s not raining, you can hang a left at the red light next to the Alberta Winn Dixie, keep driving for a spell, and you’ll run right into Billy Carr.

He’s on the left side of the road, across from the cemetery, standing under the shade as best he can. Even if you don’t see him, the bright reds of tomatoes and exotic looking chili peppers and the vividly saturated greens of the bell peppers and collards on his roadside stand should catch your eye from the road.

“Well, I just sit around here all day and don’t make any money,” he chuckled.

This is partially Carr’s own fault. He tends to give generous discounts to his customers. He gave a few free apples to his first customer of the day, his nephew Randy, who stops by every now and again.

Luckily, supplementing his income is only an after-thought for Carr. He dabbled in a myriad of professional trades before retiring seven years ago. For instance, he was a welder for a while, and later he spent a few years in construction, framing houses. Throughout it all, growing and selling fresh produce has been just about the only constant in his life.

“I’ve always enjoyed gardening. I love it,” he said.

A Tuscaloosa native, Carr grew up on a farm in Brookwood, just a few miles from his produce stand. There his family mostly grew corn and raised livestock.

“My daddy sold coal for a living, so my two brothers did most of the farming until they got mad and moved away,” he said.

Carr was the youngest of eight siblings and his mother and father were 45 and 52 years old when he was born. Growing up, Carr quickly learned the tricks of the trade. In addition to gardening, Carr was charged with untraditional, sometimes hazardous chores, like picking and disposing of the bugs on the farm’s potato leaves.

“We didn’t have all this stuff to spray on them to get rid of them back then,” he said. “You’d take a bucket and go out there and thump ‘em in. Then you’d pour gas on them and burn ‘em.”

He recalls getting burned more than a few times, but never anything serious.

Now 69, Carr his lived in all sorts of places like Houston, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Pensacola, Fla. He never stayed away too long, though. Most of the time he lived in apartments, so Florida was the only place where he could carry his gardening hobby with him.

“I always wound up back here, so when I retired I decided I wasn’t going to ever move again,” he said.

Thirty years ago, a good friend of Carr’s owned a general store that stood just a few feet from his produce stand until it was blown away by a tornado. When Carr returned home to Tuscaloosa his friend, now 86, gave him permission to set up his stand on the edge of her property.

Though he grows just about all of his own crops, Carr makes the occasional trip to the Birmingham market to get a few things that don’t grow as well at home.

“Now, don’t nobody make no tomatoes in this part of the country during this time of year,” he picked up a tomato from one of the neatly arranged rows on his table. “These here come from Sand Mountain. You have to be careful with tomatoes, because they can go rotten the same day you buy them.”

According to Carr, the tomatoes he gets from Birmingham are his most popular item. Being on the side of the road, he gets all sorts of customers, but he depends mostly on a few loyal return customers.

“I’ve got one lady who comes over here about every two weeks from Northport to buy tomatoes ,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ve just got bad tomatoes over there or if she thinks I’m cute.”

Reaching in his shirt pocket, Carr rescued a Winston cigarette and brought it to his lips.

“If my okra had done good, it would have been my biggest seller. Everybody likes the okra,” he reasoned. “But we had too much rain.”

Carr picked up a habanero pepper and held it at eye length.

“At one time the habanera was the hottest pepper,” he said. “But now they’ve got a ghost pepper that’s supposed to be 8,000 times hotter than that. People have died from eating it. If you get seeds to try to raise your own ghost pepper plants, you have to sign a waiver that they’re not responsible for anyone who dies from it.”

Carr doesn’t raise ghost peppers. He eyed a small, oddly proportioned orange pepper and held it up.

“Now this here is what they call a ‘Peter Pepper,’” he said, a smirk decorating his face. “Bet you can’t guess why they call it that.”

Carr lit another Winston and traced over to the back of his Chevrolet pickup truck.

“There ain’t too many of us left,” he said, as he pulled two cardboard boxes from beneath a tarp.

Several old whiskey bottles were strategically arranged inside the boxes, the liquor now replaced with various families of hot peppers.

“If I want to make something real spicy, I pour some whiskey in with these peppers. I like to pour that over my greens,” Carr said. “Boy, that’ll light you up.”

He stared for a few moments into one of the jars. A long trail of ash clung briefly to the cigarette dangling from his mouth until a light breeze blew it onto the sleeve of his shirt.

“I hear talk that you can’t do this over in Northport,” he said, nodding to his produce stand. “You have to pay all kind of taxes on what you sell. I think they were talking about doing it that way in Tuscaloosa, too.”

His eyes wandered back to the jar of peppers in his hands.

“I tell you what you do is, you take and dry some of these bell peppers and cut ‘em up. Keep them in a jar like this in your cabinet and whenever you get ready to make something, just reach in and grab a handful,” he said. “I use them for my meatloaf.”

He placed the jar back down and attempted a drag from his cigarette. Finding that it was no longer lit, he reached in his pocket and found his plastic lighter.

“I bet that in about ten years or so, you won’t even see people like me on the side of the road anymore,” he said.

While his nephew dabbles occasionally with gardening, Carr is the last of his family generation with a real knack for the craft.

But roadside produce salesmen aren’t necessarily disappearing so to speak, most have just found a new place to sell their product.

According to Don Wambles, director of the Alabama Farmers Market Authority, Alabama experienced a rapid growth in the presence of farmers markets over the last 15 years. In 1999, Alabama had only 17 markets. Today, there are 152 markets in the state.

“People have really been drawn back to being able to put a face on the food they’re eating,” Wambles said. “When you go into a farmer’s market, you’re in an atmosphere where you’re socializing with other people. It’s just a wonderful relationship that the customer establishes with the seller.”

Wambles credited the recent resurgence of popularity in farmers markets to two programs the Market Authority implemented in Alabama. With money from the federal Market Nutrition Fund, the Authority allocates farmers market vouchers to low-income senior citizens.  Wambles also cited the Buy Fresh, Buy Local movement, a joint venture of the Alabama Farmers Market Authority and the Alabama Farmers Federation that promotes Alabama-grown fruits and vegetables.

“We had a gradual growth in farmers markets between 1999 and 2004, but after ’04 it really took off,” Wambles said. “[After implementing the programs], we had markets in counties where there had previously not been any market for fresh produce. Once we had those markets we had something that we could build up and grow.”

Wambles also credited the nation’s growing concern with eating healthier food.

“Farmers are the backbone, they’re the bread and butter of our society,” Wambles said. “They provide our food. That’s something that has really driven the growth in farmers markets. People are drawn to the vibrant colors of fresh produce just as much as they are drawn to that interaction with the farmers.”

Charles E. Parker, assistant marketer for North Port Farmer’s Market, observed that, though the city of Tuscaloosa has had a farmer’s market in residence since the 1980’s, the local market has also seen a resurgence of popularity in recent years.

“Well, last Saturday we had twelve sellers, but in the summer we usually have about 18 or 19,” Parker said.

While there’s money to be made in such a trade, there are more than a few stipulations produce vendors must adhere to.

“You have to go to the extension office and get a farmers permit,” Parker said.

Parker said the market discourages famers from buying products from other markets and reselling them, also.

“The vendors have to actually grow the products that they sell here at the market,” Parker said. “There are a lot of people in Tuscaloosa who go up to the market in Birmingham and buy produce to sell back here.  The problem with that scenario is that there’s no telling how long that [produce] has been on the road or where it came from.”

According to Millie Christian, senior business tax officer for the City of Tuscaloosa, farmer’s exemption allows sellers who grow their own product to sell it at their home or on another person’s property, with their approval, without being required to pay for taxes or a permit.

“We can’t allow people to sell just anywhere,” Christian said.  “If they have approval, that’s one thing. But you’re not allowed to actually run a business from your home. People have offices in their home, that’s one thing. But we can’t have people advertising, for instance, or selling merchandise out of their home. If that happened, the city would have to ask them to cease.”

Wambles said that, though the popularity of farmers markets has unquestionably relocated many farmers who previously sold independently from their property, there are still a few market vendors who occasionally sell from a roadside stand.

“We don’t discourage purchasing from individual farm stands at all,” Wambles said. “People really like that when they purchase food from a farmer, whether at a market or a roadside stand, they can look that man in the eye who grew the food that they’re going to take home and feed their family with.”

That interaction is Carr’s favorite part of the job, next to raising the produce.

It’s that enjoyment that leads Carr out of his apartment on Skyland Boulevard and back to his stand each day. He doesn’t even mind putting up with the weather, especially now that he’s got a tent to stand under. After recently suffering his third heart attack, though, he tries to take it as easy as he can.

“You can be out here one day feeling good and all of a sudden you’re sick, feeling real bad,” he said.

Later on the next week, Carr found himself feeling bad again, so much so that he didn’t return to his stand until the following Monday afternoon.

Nevertheless, Carr was excited to finally be back to his garden. It was time to cut the okra. Though much of his okra plants didn’t fare as well as he’d hoped this season, he still expected a moderate return.

“It’s a lot of work involved in having a garden, but I sure enjoy it,” he said.

After taking a moment to sharpen up his artillery knife, he grabbed a white bucket and trotted over to the three rows of okra stalks at the front of his garden. When he got to the nearest row he stopped, scratched under his baseball cap, and ran a finger over an okra stalk.

“I believe somebody came up here and helped their self to my okra,” Carr said. His voice was nonchalant but, as he moved down each row, collecting 2 okra pods a piece from stalks that typically produce about 40 pods each, he became silent.

When he arrived at the end of the final row of okra stalks, he looked down at the five gallon bucket he’d expected to fill.

“Well I can still see the bottom of the bucket,” he sighed.

It seems the occasional thief isn’t Carr’s only adversary, at least not according to local weather reports.

“That cold weather will kill all these, every one of them,” he said, pointing to a row of peppers. “I was wanting them to turn red, but don’t look like it’s going to do it before the cold weather comes.”

Though he’s a little worried about the effect cold weather will have on his collard greens, he’s got plenty of rations to tide him over.

Cold weather or not, Carr plans to continue selling the produce that ripened before the arrival of cold weather. A jacket and wildcat whiskey mixed with honey and hard peppermint candy ought to keep him warm, he predicted.

“Ask some of the old people about that,” he said as his familiar, mischievous grin returned to his face.



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