Outfitted in the camo baseball hat he often wears, Chef David Bancroft kneels down and pushes lettuce between a space in the wire fence separating him from two hogs and a wiggly pack of piglets. “Hey girl.” He’s addressing a black sow who gladly and greedily devours the offering, the large curly green leaf disappearing in a wet “whoosh.” He’s got her attention and gives the rest of the lettuce in his hand to farmer Josh Hornsby, who offers the hog another bite while David tries to snap her picture. “Okra,” he calls, hoping she’ll respond to her name. She’s zoned in on food though, now ignoring David completely. In the adjacent pen, a stout Tamworth-Berkshire boar named Squash is chowing down too; Josh’s wife Beth is tossing him lettuce over the fence. The trio is discussing the state of Hornsby Farms’ hog program; it’s still in its beginnings.
Currently, the Hornsbys are best known for the fresh produce they grow on their farm in Auburn, Alabama, as well as pickles and jams made from their crops. They offer weekly farm boxes, sell at local markets, have their onsite farm store open in the summer, and folks can order their jarred goods online or pick them up at several area stores. But David and his two Auburn restaurants – Acre and Bow & Arrow – are some of Hornsby Farms’ oldest and largest customers. In the six years since the farm has been supplying David’s kitchens, a relationship beyond “buyer-seller” has formed. Thanks to common food philosophies, shared interests and just generally liking each other, David, Josh and Beth are not just “friendly business associates,” but true friends.
Planting the Seeds It all started in 2013. That’s the year a young chef took a big step and opened his own restaurant in a college town. Originally from San Antonio, Texas, David came to Auburn to attend Auburn University, and the “loveliest little village on the plains” captured his heart. He’d been cooking in area restaurants but was ready to run his own. Acre, so named for its actual lot size and its fresh and seasonal approach to food, served its first guests that September and was unlike anything in the city. Scattered between parking spaces and sidewalks are pieces of Acre’s own mini-farm. Peach trees line a median; an herb garden is right near the front door. Other veggies and fruits (plums, figs, blueberries, heirloom tomatoes, carrots, zucchini) are growing in unexpected places all around the restaurant, and they all find their way into David’s creations, food he describes as “driven by the land and what it gives us.”
Around that same time, the Hornsbys were harvesting the rewards from the equal risk they’d taken about six months earlier. After his landscaping business was taken down during the recession, Josh went to work for the forestry service as a fire fighter. It was good work but kept him away from his wife and kids. When on call, he had to live close to the station, so he stayed in a trailer on land his family had owned and farmed for generations.
During my down time, I planted some things in this one little field,” he says. “I’d sell what I grew under a small tent set up by the side of the road.
Josh made enough with that effort to get him thinking he could pull an actual living from the soil. He got Beth onboard, moved his family to the farm and the two set to work in the fall of 2012. The entire operation was run by him and Beth, and it still is. “We planted about five acres and grew anything we could get seeds for to try and make it work,” Josh says. It did work. That first summer, Hornsby Farms harvested an abundance. “We had vegetables coming out our ears,” he says.
And then Josh had a bright idea. He didn’t know anything about working with restaurants but had heard about Acre and thought its chef might be interested in what he and Beth were doing. He loaded a basket with a few of the prettiest specimens of everything they’d grown — squash, okra, peppers, tomatoes and more – and tucked his business card amid the bounty.
Up near the farm’s hoop house, where fledgling tomato plants are getting their start, Josh and David relive their introduction. “I drove over to Acre at dinner time on a Friday night,” Josh says, while Beth shakes her head at the memory. “That was the worst time!” she says. He waves her off; David grins watching the two play-bicker. “I took the basket to the hostess stand,” Josh says, “and I clearly said, ‘Don’t disturb the kitchen or the chef right now, but please get this to them when you have a chance.’”
The hostess ignored Josh, and within minutes, David had gotten his first look at Hornsby Farms’ produce. The friends are fuzzy on what happened next. “It was still daylight, and I hauled fanny out to the farm after you,” David says. “No, you came out the next day,” Josh says. As Josh tells it, after leaving basket, he got in his truck and headed home, never noticing that David had rushed out of Acre and was chasing his truck, trying to get his attention. David then used the number on the card and called Josh. “I never looked in my rearview mirror to see him in the parking lot, but I got his call about the time I was turning onto our road,” Josh says. “I thought I hopped in the truck and came that night, but we’ll go with your version,” David jokes. “Whatever the timeline, I just know it ended with a bunch of Natty Light and a friendship.”
There is no confusion when David explains why he was so eager to get more of the Hornsby’s harvest. “I just looked at the vegetables, and they were beautiful, truly the highlight reel of Southern produce,” he says. “Then the fact that they came from right down the road? That so perfectly fits into my belief of supporting local and using the best, freshest ingredients.” Once he saw more of the way the Hornsbys farm, he saw a glimpse of family and felt a kinship. “They are making the most of this land, the way my granddad did,” David says. “And he was quite an engineer like Josh is. When you live and work on a farm, you find out how to use the tools you have in brand new ways to solve problems. I see that in Josh all the time. He’s crafty.”
David knows he’s got something special, but he’s not hoarding Hornsby Farms; he’s worked to ensure that other chefs and restaurants source from the farm too. “I want to offer good food to more people so they buy into our philosophy and believe in our program,” he says. “We need to be spreading what Josh and Beth are doing throughout the community to make sure they have a sustainable business here.”
Good Food Gospel David is passionate about changing the food culture in his area, and the Hornsbys are on the same page. “I’ve called Auburn a food desert before and by that I mean its main offerings have historically been fast food and convenience foods,” David says. He’s used his edible landscape at Acre to change people’s perceptions. “That’s what Acre is about, to cook for those who were looking for something else, something better and to show everyone what that looks and tastes like,” he says. To do that, he’s got to have a ready supply of the best ingredients. “So, when a guy shows up with a basket full of just that, heck yeah I’m going to sprint after him,” he says.
Josh often expresses genuine amazement that more people don’t do what he and Beth are doing, at least on a small scale. “I have no idea why more people don’t grow their own food,” he says.
You can feed a small family on what you can grow on your back porch; you need about 40 square feet to grow enough produce.
Of course, if everyone did as Josh says, there would be less of a need for farmers like the Hornsbys. But we do need farmers, a fact that still seems to get lost despite the recent focus on “farm-to-table” cuisine. “I think a lot of people consider farming some ‘old-timey’ practice, which is ridiculous, but that is changing some now,” David says. “More people are realizing that if you want fresh food, you have to seek it out and support it.”
David also has strong feelings about the relationships between restaurants and farmers, and the disconnect that can sometimes leave farmers on the wrong end of a risk. “The farmer says, ‘I’m going to grow all this X. Do you want it?’,” David says. “The chef says, ‘Sure.’ The farmer comes back when it’s ready, and the chef says, ‘Oh man. I’ve gotten X somewhere else already.’ Now that farmer is stuck.”
Scenarios like this underscore how beneficial – to both chef and farmer – relationships like David’s and the Hornbsy’s are. The trust they enjoy now was built on an acre of okra, another story Josh and David like to tell in their easy back-and forth. Several years ago, Josh asked David to put okra on Acre’s menu because they were growing it in prolific amounts. David did. Guests could order a basket of Hornsby Farms okra dusted in Oakview Farms (a Wetumpka-Alabama granary) cornmeal and fried crisp-brown with a simple remoulade sauce for dipping. “It flew out the door,” David says. “Then Josh is like, ‘Man, we’re out of okra,’ and I was like, ‘Dude, I just put it on the menu, and it says Hornsby Farms okra, not just okra.’” The duo came up with solution. “I told him if he’d commit to using it, I’d commit to dedicating an acre of land to growing okra just for him,” Josh says. Today, Acre is never without okra, allowing the restaurant to satisfy demand for that now-famous basket and incorporate the veggie into multiple other dishes too.
Bringing Home the Okra David’s okra field at Hornsby Farms is so significant that it offered an obvious choice of name when he brought Josh and Beth a surprise from one of his guest chef events. In addition to growing collards, onions, garlic, cabbage, broccoli, squash, tomatoes, peas, corn, eggplants, peppers and all that okra, the Hornsbys are now also growing hogs. “David has to tell this; it’s his story,” Josh says. “I think you mean that in a bad way,” David says. “No, no, they’ve grown on us now,” Beth insists.
David recalls how after he and Chef Caleb Fischer finished an event in Charleston, South Carolina, Tank Jackson, owner of Holy City Hogs told him to, “Swing by my place; I’ve got a present for you.” David obliged, and Tank gave him a little female black piglet, one of Tank’s “super pigs,” a cross of two heritage breeds. David instantly thought of the Hornsbys. “For one, I knew my wife wouldn’t let me keep it, and secondly, if you were going to get into raising hogs, doing it with one of Tank’s is the way to do it,” he says.
He sent Josh a text and filled him in. Josh said to bring the piggie home. They decided to name her Okra in honor of their friendship. It was quite the ride back to Auburn; Okra sat in David’s lap the whole way. “She was cute and cuddly when she was still,” he says. “When she crapped on me, she was less cute.”
That was late summer 2016; today Okra is on her third litter of piglets. They’ll all one day be bacon (and other porcine products), but Josh plans to let Okra live out her days in peace on the farm. That’s despite her ravenous appetite. “She eats all the time, but it’s not just her. It’s all of them. It’s hard to get a pig full.” Josh and Beth have concocted some cost-effective ways to do it, using produce from area farmers markets that didn’t sell and won’t make it to the next market, even day-old bread from a local grocery store. “It’s a whole mix of things, but we know it’s creating some good meat. We had the best pork chops ever from one of our hogs this past winter.”
The Hornbys are finding ways to address the hunger needs of others too with their non-profit Nourish. Their pediatrician gets their weekly produce box and in 2016, told Beth about some families in her practice that could use a routine dose of fresh veggies. “She was looking for a way to help these families get access to better food,” Beth said. “That conversation led to Nourish.” Every week for the past two and half years, the program has provided healthy foods to 10 families, all hand-picked by the pediatrician. It adds up to 60,000 pounds of food so far.
We’re not even a drop in the bucket,” Beth says, “but we do have a big impact on the families we’re helping.
Much of the food is produce donated from Hornsby Farms, but Beth likes to fill in the gaps with other foods too, so Nourish holds quarterly fundraising dinners to raise the money needed to buy those items. “If you want to talk about the strength of our relationship, you have to talk about how David has stepped up on this,” Josh says. “We planned our first dinner in November 2016, and when I called David to see if he’d help, he didn’t hesitate. And he hasn’t stopped supporting the effort. It’s been…” David interrupts Josh. “I mean, what’s the downside? I love that they’re doing this,” he says.
There’s an obvious respect among the three, but there’s an equal amount of fun, especially between Josh and David, who jump from topics like what’s currently in season to giddily discussing how soon they can get to the prime turkey-hunting spots on Josh’s land.
The conversation turns back to summer crops, and David admits that there is an item grown at Hornsby Farms that’s he’s not interested in, at least personally. “The one thing they haven’t sold me on yet is yellow squash,” he says. “It’s just not my favorite. But, I’ve been thinking that I need to get over that and try some of theirs.”
Beth mouths “finally,” while Josh quips, “I already know I’ve got some you’ll like.” He turns toward the hogs and points at the big boy named Squash. “You’re right, friend,” David says. “That’s some squash I’ll eat.”
Written by Jennifer Kornegay / Photography by Colleen Duffley
Try David Bancroft’s Fried Green Tomatoes from Acre Restaurant here