When childhood friends Will Mastin and Karl Brantley were growing up
in Baldwin County, playing soccer at Bayside Academy and picking up odd jobs mowing
grass, they never envisioned being partners in a rapidly expanding small business that
would combine their professional careers and personal interests in farming and good health.
Mastin grew up in Spanish Fort and attended Auburn University, where he earned a degree in landscape architecture. Brantley studied agriculture and landscaping at Jefferson State and Auburn – and is the third generation of his family farming in Baldwin County.
Their friendship stayed intact as they each married, started their own businesses –
and families – in the same place they grew up.
In 2012, the two entrepreneurs developed a business plan to begin Local Appetite Growers, and a year later they bought property in Silverhill, Ala., where they built their first greenhouse to cultivate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for the local market. To maximize their growing times, they took courses and attended workshops at the University of Florida and Mississippi State University on hydroponic gardening techniques. According to Brantley, seeds are cultivated in coco husk, utilizing a recycled, closed-loop water system. Hydroponics allows Local Appetite to grow an assortment of fresh lettuces year-round, including red and green butterhead, red and green oakleaf, and red and green frisée, all of which can be purchased by single variety or in a spring mix. In the cooler months, they are also able to grow romaine lettuce and leafy greens like bok choy, mizuna, and kale.
Fall and spring are the best times for hydroponic tomatoes at Local Appetite, including heirloom varieties and different strains of cherry tomatoes. The owners are also expanding their field crops, including beans, eggplant, rainbow carrots, turnips, radishes, peppers, sunchokes, and okra.
“Summer is the hardest growing time for us,” Mastin says, “because of the intense heat.” Since the business owners personally build and maintain every structure on their property, they can utilize this downtime for expanding their growing sheds and making important upgrades.
While Local Appetite Growers is not yet certified as an organic farm, both partners concur in utilizing organic materials and processes in the cultivation of all their produce. Botanical sprays and organic fertilizers are used throughout their operation, and mineral salts are used on the hydroponic crops. “Our farm is also our grocery store,” Mastin says, “so
we want to feed our families the healthiest and freshest foods possible.”
While many local residents may not yet recognize the Local Appetite name, many have likely benefitted from the fruits of their labor. Currently produce from LAG is on the tables of The Noble South, Kitchen on George, and Pour Baby in Mobile, as well as Locals, Dragonfly Foodbar, Bay House Bistro, The Wash House Restaurant, Thyme on Section, and Warehouse Bakery & Donuts in Fairhope, and at the Fairhope and Mobile locations of Red or White. The award-winning Fisher’s Restaurant in Orange Beach is also one of their largest customers for lettuces throughout the year.
Rootz, an Eastern Shore nutrition kitchen that provides take-out dishes and catering for health-minded consumers, buys produce exclusively from LAG. Rootz chef and co-creator Sofia Fly, another Bayside alum, opened their business in Fairhope last year in a shop on South Section Street.
“We buy from Will and Karl because their entire operation is environmentally sustainable, and I like that,” says Fly. “I like to know where my products come from.” Because she wants the best possible produce in the meals she prepares, whether they’re take-out or part of a pre-ordered dining plan (meals her clients can subscribe to), she says the food from Local Appetite is “nutrient-dense, not hurt by anything that is not natural. Since so much of their food is grown hydroponically, no dirt means no pesticides and no contamination.”
In 2016, LAG began marketing Local Bags to individual consumers looking for fresh and healthy local foods. The subscription service delivers grocery bags weekly, featuring whatever is in season on the Local Appetite farm, as well as eggs, sweet potatoes, and other items from additional Baldwin County farmers. According to Brantley, “we can harvest and deliver on the same day, and you can’t ask for fresher than that.” For information on how to join, go to Local Appetite Growers’ Facebook and Instagram pages.
Plans for the future growth of LAG, according to Mastin, include the promotion of agri-tourism, whereby anyone interested in healthy food production can take part in a farm tour and learn more about hydroponic growing techniques. “We’re looking to host all kinds of events,” Mastin says, “and we want to begin seasonal farm-to-table dinners.”
While their current staff is small and mostly part-time, both partners still maintain other jobs as their farming operation continues to grow, future plans for LAG include opening a seasonal farm stand on their property. “Farm markets are too labor-intensive and time-consuming for us at this stage,” he says, “but a farm stand would give us a way to sell our food right here on the property.”
The growth in Baldwin County, along with an ever-increasing number of serious foodies in the area who want only locally sourced foods on their table, have made for a slow but steady increase in demand for Local Appetite Growers’ products. While they’re not the only hydroponic farmers in Baldwin County – Sirmon Farms in Belforest and Craine Creek Farm in Loxley are also experimenting with non-traditional growing methods – Brantley and Mastin see a bright future in providing locals with the best and healthiest foods on the market.
Robin Fitzhugh is a Mobile native and a graduate of Spring Hill College who makes her home
in Baldwin County. Formerly director of the Eastern Shore Art Center, she enjoys traveling, good books and cooking healthy meals from local farms for family and friends.