There's nothing quite like discovering a new variety of your favorite vegetable. Something deliciously familiar but milder, sweeter, or just a different color can awaken your palate and enliven your dinner plate. Gene Hopper of StoneOak Farm in Shelby County specializes in these unusual heirloom varieties of vegetables and has cultivated a peaceful life on his father's farm in order to grow what he loves.
Once upon a time, Gene Hopper was a busy consultant, retired from the marine corps and working hard on the West Coast for a big paycheck. But when his father suffered a heart attack and stroke, Gene came home to nurse him back to health. "When I got him out of the hospital, I thought maybe he wasn't going to be able to work the farm, but if I kept it going and pushed him around on the wheelchair on the farm it'd keep him going," Gene says. His father lasted another six months before he passed, and Gene started thinking about getting back to work. "But I was riding on the tractor, watching the hawks fly around and mice run," Gene says, "And I thought, this is really peaceful. Who wants to go back to the stress?" So he stayed, and now he grows oriental vegetables, heirloom vegetables, and a few tree crops like peaches, pears, and apples. He also grows several varieties of watermelon, including Yellow Meat, that we carry in our market, as well as some of the sweetest plums I've ever tasted.
Gene says his favorite vegetable is probably the large, white, heirloom okra he got from a family that has had the variety in their family since the Civil War. He uses it in a gumbo recipe that he got from an old farmer in rural Louisiana. "It's wonderful in gumbo," Gene says.
Aside from growing an amazing variety of produce, Gene also proudly uses organic practices. "The farm has never had any chemicals sprayed on it," he says. "I grow everything organically, but I'm not certified organic because the requirements are a little too heavy for a very small farm." This is something I hear a lot from farmers, but it's great to know he's still committed to organic farming even if he can't carry the official certification. Gene believes in local food as a way for our cities to have a closer connection to their food supply, and he chooses to be organic because he believes it is healthier. But for me, the excitement in trying new varieties of watermelon, plums, okra, and more is a huge bonus when finding vegetables that are organic and local.
(Since StoneOak Farm doesn't have a website, here's a recipe for gumbo!)
As a freelance writer and copy editor, Emily Brown gets to juggle many roles, including work-at-home mom. She likes to cook more than she likes to follow recipes, and she likes her vegetables extra crunchy – no beets allowed. If she could make you anything, it would be a roasted chicken. Her baby is beyond adorable.
Copyright © 2013, Freshfully.com
200 41st Street S Birmingham, AL 35222 (map)