For Kevin Hall and his family, the gradual transition from Charlotte’s mild winters into the sporadically sunny days of spring marks the beginning of strawberry picking season at the Hall Family Farm. Before the farm closed in 2019, cooler weather meant the promise of pumpkin picking, hayrides, the fall festival and maple doughnuts that people were willing to drive across town for.
Since its opening season in 2008, the Hall Family Farm was known for being a family-friendly gathering place that gained popularity each year, even as developers snatched up the property around them. Boasting a little over 30 acres nestled just outside of the Ballantyne neighborhood, the property was in the Hall family for generations until they sold it to Novant Health in 2019 — its most recent caretaker being Kevin Hall, the great-grandson of John Kister Hall.
In the 11 years from 2008 to 2019, Kevin along with his wife Laura and children saw the farm evolve through many seasons of strawberry picking and fall festivities, which they now plan to resume at the farm’s new location in Lancaster, South Carolina.
Growing up in Virginia, Kevin Hall never planned to follow in the footsteps of the Hall patriarchs, a legacy that began with his great-grandfather and continued with his grandfather’s siblings, who were eventually followed by his uncle, Tim Hall, an agronomist for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.
Hall turned to his uncle and the agricultural department at North Carolina State University to start his unconventional education.
“Between the internet and … the resources available in North Carolina, I learned how to do it,” Hall shared.
The first year was so successful, the pair realized what they had in front of them was no longer a hobby but a career. Lack of experience didn’t stop Hall, as the farm grew in popularity each year.
“I’m happy to be out on my own working and my wife works with me so we don’t have to deal with the normal work environment,” Hall says. “We’re fortunate to be doing what we do.”
On the vast 250-acre Lancaster property, a couple of miles down the road from the original, the family hopes to bring back the child-friendly play areas, the hayride and other activities they previously didn’t have space or resources to accomplish.
The new farm is over eight times the size of the original location, giving visitors space to socially distance. Part of the land is dedicated to a lake that one day can act as a swimming hole or place to kayak.
“We’ve got long-term plans to maybe open that up for people to canoe on or kayak, but we’re not ready for that quite yet,” Hall says.
Hall and his family are now just waiting on the strawberries to come out of dormancy, which typically happens 30-40 days after the first flowers bloom. Like everything else this year, things are running a little behind schedule, but they hope to open to the public in late April.
Four generations of farming
With one growing cotton, another utilizing the space to build a home and personal garden, and the more recent addition of the irrigation system giving the historic farm a modern advantage, it seems like each Hall generation had a different relationship with the Hall Family Farm over the years.
Shortly after the Civil War, John Kister Hall, often referred to as J.K. Hall, moved his wife and two roosters from Indian Land, South Carolina to Charlotte, more specifically to Providence Road West, seeking a better life. He used part of his net worth — $1,000, which at the time was considered a substantial fortune — to buy land sitting in the spot where Ballantyne Country Club is located today.
J.K. grew to be the landlord of a small community of tenant farmers. He provided the mules, equipment, housing, seed, and land and the tenants provided hard manual labor to grow cotton, building the property to 600 acres.
Leitner Shurley Hall, Kevin’s grandfather, was born in 1914, making him the youngest of J.K.’s 11 children. Gifted a small plot of land to build a home on the property, Leitner cared for a garden of watermelons, cantaloupe, okra, squash, and peas. Rather than operating a typical farm like his father, Leitner grew just enough for his family.
Kevin’s uncle, Tim Hall, was the only one of his father’s siblings to take an interest in working the farm. He studied agriculture at NC State and eventually became an agronomist for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.
Hall’s father grew up playing on the farm, and continued to work there into his adult life, but eventually moved to Virginia where he raised Kevin and his siblings. Kevin’s uncle and grandparents continued to run the farm.
“I’m not a farmer by education,” Kevin shared. “I’m actually a mechanical engineer, so I got into farming sort of as a hobby.”
Growing up, Hall’s parents encouraged him to attend university and focus on his academic interests. While attending Virginia Tech, Kevin and Laura studied mechanical and electrical engineering, respectively, until moving to Wilmington for work.
Back in Charlotte, the Ballantyne neighborhood was introduced in 1994 and most of the farm was sold in the process to make way for the new development.
After the birth of their first child Sabrina in 2000, Kevin moved his family back to Charlotte as he searched for work, while his wife chose to stay at home with their firstborn. In the meantime, they managed rental properties and constructed homes alongside Hall’s brother.
“[My uncle] had talked to me in the early 2000s about how that farm site would be great for you-pick strawberries and I actually knew nothing about it,” Hall shared with Queen City Nerve.
As the recession began to take hold in 2006, the Halls were pushed to take a shot at running the family farm. Kevin knew nothing of farming outside of the tidbits of information he’d learned over the years from watching his uncle during sporadic visits to the farm.
Before eventually taking over and transforming the Hall Family Farm in 2007, his only experience involving you-pick strawberries was taking his children picking a handful of times on farms in Fort Mill.
Kevin committed to teaching himself about farming in North Carolina, one of the top five states to grow strawberries in the country, and the regionally popular plastic irrigation system that he eventually introduced to the farm.
Continuing the generations of tradition, Hall shared that his kids have been known to help out around the farm, joking that, “They do whatever I tell them to do.”
Turning over a new leaf
As developers purchased all of the properties around the Hall Family Farm, they knew the sale of the farm was becoming inevitable. It was no longer a question of if but when, and to whom. The passing of Hall’s grandfather in 2011 finalized what the family already knew was true.
“We knew that, from the very beginning, we would not be able to stay,” Hall recalled.
The land was split as an inheritance amongst Kevin’s father and five aunts and uncles, many of whom were scattered across the country. With only two of them having any interest in the farm, it became apparent that the only way to fairly deal with the inheritance was to sell the whole thing.
The farm stayed open season after season, all the while, though Kevin and his family knew they had to find a new property if they wanted to continue farming strawberries. Hall and his wife didn’t own the land and couldn’t afford to buy it outright so their next steps were clear.
“We started looking for land even way back then. The economy was terrible in 2011,” Hall said. “The family wasn’t selling because there were no buyers out there.”
Having yet to sell the original farm, Hall and his wife pulled together whatever funds they could by selling other properties they owned. During their hunt for a new location, the couple realized that the closer they looked to Ballantyne, the higher the price of land was.
Trying to stay in the area proved harder since each mile they moved further away from their dream location, the price of land per acre decreased by nearly $100,000. All the money they had saved up until that point still couldn’t meet the costs needed to keep them in Charlotte.
The search for a new property finally came to an end in 2015 when they found land right across the state border in Lancaster. With that purchase came other problems. Tracing the history of their latest purchase, Hall found that the last time the land there had been farmed was in the early 1980s. It was overgrown and needed years of manual labor, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in farming equipment to undo the effects of neglect.
“It took a long time to get it back to where you can grow anything,” Hall explains.
For the past five years, the Hall family has spent over $1 million, often working seven days a week. They first cleared the forest that had grown during the land’s dormant years, then prepped it to be farmed. The spring and fall seasons were set aside for growing strawberries and pumpkins back at the original Charlotte location and every moment in between was spent working on the new property.
Hall finally sold the original farm in 2019 to Novant Health, freeing his family and everyone that lent a helping hand to focus on the future ahead.
Hall’s friends who farm in the area had a good year last year despite the pandemic. Strawberry season was just opening up in spring right as things were getting worse. The industry found a way to pivot by offering visits by appointment and postponing crowded events.
The Hall Family Farm has seen the family through generations of weddings, graduations, the loss of loved ones and the birth of the current generation, the youngest of which is about to graduate high school.
“Based on my first posting on Facebook the other night, I think people are ready to get back to strawberries,” Hall shared. “We’ve been working on the new property since January of 2016. It’s been five full years that we’ve been working on it. We’re ready to open.”
As the family patiently awaits the day when they can open the new location in Lancaster, they look forward to starting the latest chapter of a legacy over a century in the making.
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