Dave & Kathy Melmoth: Truck Farm
By DAVID GREEN
Don’t even think about the first year on the farm southeast of Pittsford.
“There was a drought here and we lost just about everything,” said Kathy Melmoth, who owns Recipe Garden farm with her husband, Dave.
The Melmoths started off by growing about 10 acres of flowers for sale as both fresh cut and dried at the Farmers Market in Ann Arbor. They had sold vegetables and flowers as a part-time job before they moved to Hillsdale County, but it was the flowers that brought in the most cash.
Dave tried to save the crop by watering from a tank on the tractor, but it wasn’t enough. Forget the fresh flowers.
“That was the year I made dried flower bouquets to bring in extra income,” Kathy said.
They still had some funds left over from the sale of their house near Ann Arbor, but that wasn’t going to last forever. Dave lost his job with an engineering firm the year before, 1990, and he persuaded Kathy to give up her part-time job as a public health nurse to concentrate on farming.
The situation didn’t improve much in 1992. Kathy’s mother died in the spring, just when the planting season was getting underway.
“We put a trickle irrigation system in…” Kathy said.
“And we had a flood,” Dave added.
A good share of that crop was lost, too, and to compound the problems, Dave developed a back problem.
“This was the year I learned to make Christmas wreaths,” Kathy said.
1993—Surgery for Kathy. A continuing problem with the irrigation system—something kept chewing it up. An unexpected health incident for Dave.
“Dave had said that if the farm didn’t make it, I’d go back to work,” Kathy remembers. “The problem with that is we had our whole life savings wrapped up in it.”
So they forged ahead, adding winterberry as a cash crop for the winter holiday season. Flowers were still the main crop, but they added squash and some gardening plants.
In 1994, Dave designed and built a second greenhouse and another room of the old farm house was finished. He gutted the house after they bought the land in 1990, and it was a slow process to make it habitable. It was still rough, but a far cry from the early days when they lived in a camper and took showers under a hose in the greenhouse.
That summer brought another oddity in the weather department. In a span of three or four days, 11 inches of rain fell and drowned out most of the flowers. The sale of plants that got them through.
Over the next two seasons, they phased out flowers completely. Flowers made more money than vegetables, but plants were more profitable than flowers.
“When you haul stuff a long way in a pickup truck and only have so much time and space to sell, you have to sell what is most in demand and what you get the most money for,” says Kathy.
Earning the space to sell was an accomplishment in itself.
“The Ann Arbor market is a tough one to get into,” she said. “It took us 13 years to get a permanent spot.”
She started off selling on the sidewalk, biding her time until she reached the top of the seniority list.
Sometimes it takes a few years for a dream to come true.
With four greenhouses for production, the Melmoths are now established at the market as a dependable source of plants and shrubs, ranging from the common landscaping flowers such as columbine, phlox and hibiscus, to native shrubs, including pawpaw, wafer ash and spice bush.
“The thing about truck farming is that you’re the grower, you’re the seller…everything,” Kathy said. “I wish I had more time to garden, myself. But it allows me to live like I want to live and that’s not easy these days. My goal was to prove that a small farm can exist.”
“I think we had only one year where we actually had a loss,” Dave said, “but there were years that we sure didn’t make much.”
His rule was to make the business grow through careful savings. It had to prosper on its own without a loan, and the Melmoths have succeeded in that respect.
Kathy is willing to share her knowledge and experience with others who want to give a small farming operation a try.
“If anyone wants to find out about it, they’re welcome,” she says. “We can show them what to do.”
“And we can show them what not to do,” adds Dave.
A tour of the farm
A tour of the Recipe Gardens farm starts at the Reject Garden.
“These are the things I couldn’t sell at market for any price,” says farm co-owner Kathy Melmoth. “You have to get a plant to market in perfect condition. You’re up against a lot of competition.”
Crooked, discolored, diseased, too small.
“These are the things that nobody wanted,” she says. “If you throw them in a big enough garden, they look good.”
Pasque flower, red buckeye, columbine.
“The rabbits ate my variegated buckeye. And I had a really nice ground-cover forsythia, but they ate that, too.
A guest on the farm tour stoops to pull a weed, but Kathy brushes off the effort.
Kathy walks over to building she calls the Market Shed. Plants labels, stakes and price tags are inside, all used for the weekly sale of plants at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. The Melmoths are there twice a week.
“It’s sort of like being a gypsy,” Kathy says. “It’s a business on wheels.”
She walks into the first of four greenhouses at their farm southeast of Pittsford and begins pointing out small shrubs and seedlings.
“You can tell I’m in love with buckeyes.”
She also has pawpaws and spicebush growing, along with some tiny tree seedlings that she’s particularly excited about.
“Here are the bladdernuts from seeds near Riverside Park in Morenci. I collected them Sept. 14, 2002 [Kathy, is that right? Just half a year ago?] and planted them that year,” she says, reading a tag.
The seeds lay dormant and she was about ready to give up.
“All of a sudden last week they were all popping. After a year.”
Kathy says that she wants to do more with disappearing local shrubs, such as the bladdernut. She has local pawpaws sprouted, but they aren’t yet large enough to sell.
“They’re such a cool little tree. I’m kind of in love with the darn things.”
In recent years, the Melmoth’s customers have begun asking for native plants and they’re trying to fill the demand. In addition to the shrubs, they’re growing plants such as joe pye weed, swamp milkweed, cardinal flower, bottle gentian and columbine. Kathy is also working to add a couple native vines: wild yam and virgin’s bower (or clematis).
“My overall goal is to bring more awareness of the native plants and the pleasure they bring to the gardener, and also to point out how they bring a diversity of life to the garden.”
Native plants thrive here because they’ve had thousands of years to acclimate to the area’s weather and soil. They tend to have a deeper root system that leads to a biodiversity of microorganisms in the soil.
“People want plants that come back year after year and bloom all summer long in sun or shade,” Kathy said, but that’s not what a native perennial will deliver.
“Each plant has a cycle and you learn to appreciate each part of the cycle, whether it is the seed germinating or new fronds poking through after a long winter or the peak of the reproductive cycle, with the bloom and the seed set.
“The challenge I have is to make people appreciate all phases of the cycle and to grow a mix of plants that give them pleasure and interest all summer long.”
Native plants aren’t yet the focus of Recipe Gardens.
“Most farmers market customers just aren’t there yet, and garden flowers are what people want,” Kathy says.
On to greenhouse number two.
Phlox, salvia, arantia, hibiscus, coleus, veronica, penstemon, helianthus, anemone, rock rose. There’s Midnight Reiter geranium, a hot new item from Holland, and a new color of coral bell from a popular new nursery in Oregon.
In Ann Arbor, Kathy says, so many people have shade gardens because there are so many trees. They sell lots of shade plants and they’re always looking for new varieties.
In her sun greenhouse there’s Japanese climbing hydrangea and Ron McBeath cinquefoil.
“The rock gardeners got me started on that one,” Kathy said. “It’s becoming mainstream now.”
Eventually, the same thing will be said about another plant she points out—the limerock ruby coreopsis.
“This is a new one that sold out last summer.”
One of the things Kathy like best about the farmers market is the contact with customers. She always collects a few hugs when the season gets going again in the spring. She also collects a lot of information from the field. Customers try out a new variety and then report back on the success.
The final stop on the tour is what Kathy calls the Abandoned Garden. It’s similar to the Reject Garden, but it’s off to the other side of house and partly in shade.
“I have some really cool trees in here,” she says.
She points out Japanese maple, three-flowered maple, Japanese snowbell and Japanese stuartia.
There’s an Asian hornbeam (similar to the native species) and a Carolina silverbell (“My absolute favorite this year,” she says). Double bloodroot is rising from the garden floor.
“In a few days this will look really pretty. Then is gets pretty messy. All the rejects go in here and then I ignore them. But you can see my own garden is a mess.”
The season doesn’t slow until July, but by then, Kathy says, it’s too hot to weed and the ground is so hard.
That seems to be the fate of those who grow plants for others. There’s really not much time for their own gardens.
Kathy knows there will always be a market for what she and Dave are growing.
“I think people who love to garden somehow will garden until the day they die,” she said.
And someday she’ll get a turn and her own garden will come first.
May 7, 2003
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