Urban Farming in Fairhope, Alabama
Words by Jennifer Kornegay
You could easily argue that anyone in agriculture is a hopeful person.
With multiple unknowns in play, even the most fastidious farmer puts much of his future in the hands of fate. But The Hope Farm, an urban farm in Fairhope, Alabama, is built on a heaping helping of hopes: the hope that starting a new business in the middle of pandemic wasn’t as crazy as it sounded, the hope that its community would see—and appreciate—the positive impact it is striving to make, and the hope that by spreading its seed-to-plate message, it can increase people’s interest in supporting and sustaining the land that supports us.
It was born from Bentley Evans’ hope of turning his interest in sustainable lifestyles into a career. He and his dad Robert founded The Hope Farm right off one of Fairhope’s main thoroughfares in June 2020. “I love the whole homesteading concept, so this grew out of my passion for sharing that,” Bentley says. The initial idea was to raise produce for area restaurants, but soon Robert’s past business experience had him looking for ways to diversify revenue streams. Stemming from his personal passion for vino, they expanded the vision to include a wine bar. Then, the wine bar plan blossomed into a restaurant, and in keeping with the original mission, its menu would be focused on the farm’s bounty.
Today, The Hope Farm is all these things, and there’s more expansion on the horizon, with a barn being finished for additional dining space and a steadily filling event calendar designed to offer even more opportunities for the community to enjoy. But it’s all rooted in the farm and the fruits and vegetables flourishing there. “Everything we are now, has grown from the farm, and we center everything on the farm,” Bentley says. Satsumas just beginning to blush orange are weighing down branches behind him, olives are ripening across the lawn, and now-bare blueberry bushes near the parking lot are bending to the breeze.
With just over an acre, The Hope Farm doesn’t occupy a lot of space, and Robert jokes its “back 40” is 40 feet, not 40 acres. So, they’re making the most of what they’ve got with raised beds for squash, root veggies, various greens, and an abundance of aromatic herbs; fruit trees scattered throughout the property; and two shipping containers: one for hydroponic crops and the other for sprouting mushrooms. “Everything we’re growing is for our current menu, which changes with the seasons based on what we can grow best,” Bentley says, pointing proudly to fragrant thyme, vibrant rainbow chard, and frilly carrot tops in the beds.
But once he walks through the door of the hydroponic container, it’s clear that what’s happening inside this narrow space is the true fuel stoking Bentley’s fascination with farming. He pinches off a tiny deep-green leaf with burgundy stripes. “These little red sorrel are so amazing. Look at the color and the taste; it’s sweet then tart—really unexpected,” he says. “It’s so good because with hydroponics, the plants don’t have to put energy into their root system; this sorrel has put everything into its leaves.”
The Hope Farm is harvesting multiple benefits from the hydroponic method. “It’s extremely sustainable, allowing us to grow more in less space, using 90 percent less water than traditional agriculture, and no pesticides,” Bentley says. “Plus, we have increased control over the crops, so we can grow 365 days a year. And we’re still learning what works best. I’m having a lot of fun experimenting with it.”
The Hope Farm is using its containers for higher value crops, such as bok choy, and in its second container, it’s growing mushrooms. The space was custom designed for The Hope Farm and allows it to weekly turn out about 100 pounds of gourmet mushrooms—varieties not readily available in the area, including pioppino, chestnut, king oyster, lion’s mane, and blue oyster. The container farming aspect also helps the farm stand out in what Robert admits is already an agricultural haven. “We know it seems a little odd to have an urban farm adjacent to all the large farms right in our surrounding rural areas,” he says, “but there’s not a lot of container farming, and nobody here, that we’re aware of, is doing mushrooms in a container.”
Despite being surrounded by fields of crops and grazing cattle, the duo contends there are still those in the area who need to hear the “eat locally and sustainably” message they’re preaching and practicing at the farm’s restaurant, where chefs and bartenders simply stroll outside and pull what they want from the soil or pluck what they need off a tree. Those who may know the basics of traditional farming might not know much about growing produce in big metal boxes. Plus, not everyone in Fairhope was raised in the area. “We want to educate the community on where food comes from, how it’s grown, and how to do it responsibly. We have newcomers moving here from all over, and so many visitors too,” Robert says, “so we can shine a light on farming for them.”
Fairhope may be hosting lots of new folks, but just shy of its two-year anniversary, The Hope Farm is still relatively new itself. Fruit trees are still branching out, and the wood of raised beds has not yet reached fully weathered gray. An exception to all the new is a row of muscadines, grown from cuttings of veteran vines from nearby Perdido Vineyards. And even these heirlooms are fostering fresh starts: Soft green tendrils of new growth are climbing higher all the time, right alongside the fulfillment of the hopes Robert and Bentley planted at the farm’s beginnings.