Outside, the noon summer sun is beating down as I follow Bentley Evans around a gravel path at The Hope Farm. He tells me that 70 to 80 percent of the plants growing beside the new restaurant and event facility in Fairhope are edible, but it’s the ones the public can’t see when they drive up that I’m most interested in. He scans into a high-tech locking system with his phone, and a door to a clean-painted shipping container opens, revealing what could easily be a small hospital triage room. The door closes behind us, sealing out the summer heat and leaving us in momentary total darkness. When the next door opens, however, my eyes are met with shelves upon shelves of mushrooms bathed in an extreme hot pink florescent light.
Planting the Seed
The shipping container urban farm, around which Bentley built his restaurant, wine bar and event venue, undoubtedly holds his greatest passion. He describes the process of growing mushrooms — from sterilization to inoculation, colonization to harvest — with excitement as he shows off one gorgeous flush of blue oyster mushroom after another. They each will produce five pounds of product, all originating from one tiny hole in a plastic bag. “It’s roughly 30 days from start to finish,” Bentley says, explaining they can get two harvests out of one bag before they have to start the whole process over again. And while this cycle is repeating itself under the hot pink lights of one shipping container, hydroponic produce is sprouting in racks inside yet another. Microgreens, purple basil, red-veined sorrel, wasabi arugula — whatever Bentley decides to grow can be sprouted and harvested, regardless of the season, in his controlled environments. Meanwhile, fruit trees, edible flowers and herbs grow outside along raised beds overloaded with colorful eggplants and peppers, all in plain view and within arm’s reach of The Hope Farm’s customers. It is clear that Bentley loves the thought of a dinner guest wandering the grounds with a glass of wine, picking a flower off his pineapple guava plant. “Those little flower petals explode in your mouth!” He hands me a delicate society blossom to eat, warning that I will have garlic breath for the rest of the day, and promises to let us try the wasabi arugula, which packs a punch and then disappears just as quickly. “The whole experience comes together when our customers are able to see these containers, see what we’re doing on the farm, then taste the food.” And for the team of chefs and cooks, the gardens are a culinary playground.
Each of the aforementioned flowers, herbs or produce will eventually make its way into cocktails, appetizers and entrees created by The Hope Farm’s creative team. “There’s nothing we don’t do ourselves, right out of the garden to the cutting board, with our own two hands,” says Bentley.
Growing an Idea
Bentley discovered his passion for agriculture after college, and so in 2018 he attended a program at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, studying indoor hydroponics. His early conversations with family and friends about starting an urban farm in south Alabama blossomed into musings about a possible wine bar to sit alongside the farm. Bentley’s father, Robert Evans, is a wine aficionado, and soon after, signed on to become partner and co-founder of The Hope Farm. Robert built upon his business background to increase the scope of Bentley’s plans and before long, the idea grew into the 1.25-acre facility I now see before me.
Farming, cooking and gathering around the family table all go hand in hand, and Bentley was inspired by what he calls the “magic” of coming together at the end of a long day to share good food. Both family-style portions and table arrangements were always a part of the plan for The Hope Farm, but COVID-19 eliminated the communal seating for now. He still hopes you can enjoy a whole Gulf fish with the folks at your table or pass the mushroom toast around your group for all to try. From the gardens, to the kitchen and the dinner table, The Hope Farm seems both cutting-edge and a bit old-fashioned, returning to a slower way of doing things.
On my walk with Bentley, the conversation continues about mushrooms, the farm-to-table movement, national chefs he finds inspiring and “research and development” trips to Napa Valley. None of these things represent a new idea … but it is remarkably new down here. And while The Hope Farm’s high-tech farming methods might seem out of place for a small-town, south Alabama restaurant, the Evanses figured the region was ready. “Here on the Gulf Coast, our clientele is progressive and well-travelled, and we knew they would get it,” Robert says. And if the warm reception The Hope Farm received in its first few weeks of business is any indication, we will get to experience many seasons of good food, wine and gathering down on the farm for years to come.
The Hope Farm’s Mushroom Toast
The mushroom toast is a popular appetizer for sharing, giving the table a chance to try the unusual fungi growing at The Hope Farm.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon shallots, chopped
1/4 cup white wine
3 cups mushrooms, mixed varieties
1 cup vegetable stock
2 teaspoons thyme, chopped
1/3 cup butter
1/4 cup heirloom tomatoes, blistered*
3 pieces sliced sourdough bread, grilled in olive oil
1. Heat a large saute pan and add olive oil, garlic and shallots. Saute until golden brown, then add wine to the pan. Simmer until all alcohol has evaporated.
2. Add mushrooms, vegetable stock and thyme. Bring to a simmer and let reduce slightly. Add butter and allow to melt and combine with the pan sauce.
3. Add blistered tomatoes and toss lightly. Remove from heat and serve on grilled sourdough. Serves 2
* Blistered tomatoes are quickly sauteed in olive oil over high heat until they burst and char slightly.