NUTS & BOLTS & DREAMS: A beginner's guide to farming
New Farm® dreams DO come true

Maybe not the way you thought they would. But with planning, persistence and a little luck it is possible to get started in farming today. New Farm® columnists Melanie and George Devault tell their own story.

By Melanie and George DeVault

Lane Ave., Columbus, Ohio: The Devaults' first "farm," with a very young Mel and George.
January 17, 2003: Our “first farm” -- all one-ninth of an acre of it -- cost $14,000 in May of 1973. That was after the owners knocked $1,000 off the price when George promised to paint the 2-story frame house and one-car garage that hadn’t seen a paint brush in at least 30 years.

It took scraping by hand, often into bare wood from atop a 40-foot aluminum extension ladder, 36 gallons of paint and all the next summer, but 21-year-old George finally got the job done. “Sweat equity,” they call it. Gave the neighbors a lot to talk about.

The farm was a 63- by 62-foot city lot at 267 E. Lane Ave. in Columbus, Ohio, about one mile east of Ohio Stadium.

By hand, we dug up the narrow strip of grass between the house and garage and planted sweet corn, tomatoes and peppers that we started from seed on a window sill. We filled in the gaps with broccoli and radishes. Now the neighbors knew we were nuts.

The crops didn’t amount to much, but that was OK. The monthly house payment was only $93.35. Besides, we each had an off-farm job to support our farming habit.

We worked as reporters at The Columbus Dispatch. George covered night cops from the pressroom at police headquarters. He worked 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday through Thursday for four years. If it bled, burned or blew up in a 10-county area, it was his job to tell the world with words and photos. Melanie worked the night city desk and the welfare beat before becoming religion editor.

But we just had to get more dirt under out fingernails and more land under our feet. Don’t know why, exactly. Maybe some deep, dark genetic quirk in George’s family. His great-grandfather, Harley Hunter Glick, augmented his teacher’s salary during the 1930s by raising flowers, herbs and vegetables on a city lot at 62 S. Warren Ave. in the Hilltop section of Columbus’ West Side. He sold everything on Saturdays at the old North Market in Columbus.

So, we started looking at land in Ohio and also in Maine, where George’s parents have a home six miles from Helen and Scott Nearing’s Forest Farm. On vacations there, we’d visit with Helen and Scott while building stone walls or picking their blueberries. Next door, a young Spanish literature professor named Eliot Coleman was getting started in a one-room wooden shack with a self-serve roadside stand.

But wanderlust yanked us in the opposite direction. We moved the farming operation to Pompano Beach, Fla., in 1976. Melanie was working at The Miami Herald, George at The Ft. Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel where he wrote hundreds of stories about South Florida’s troubled winter vegetable industry. Now we had an orange tree and a mango tree between the house and the street, and a tangerine tree in the front yard. We planted a few grapefruit and lemon trees, dug grass clippings into the sand in the side yard and planted vegetables. The neighbors laughed.

The sub-tropical heat, humidity and year-round bugs quickly did in the veggies.

"We began looking for a real farm. We didn’t want much, just a classic pre-revolutionary stone farmhouse with a huge Pennsylvania-Dutch bank barn,
a spring-fed pond, maybe a spring-house and fertile fields dotted with fat cattle for as far as the eye could see in all directions."

After five years, we’d had enough of concrete, Cadillacs and condos. We packed up our two toddlers and farming dreams and moved to Emmaus, Pa. George began working as editor of The New Farm® magazine at Rodale Press. Melanie soon landed a job as a reporter for The Morning Call newspaper in nearby Allentown.

First thing we did that summer was borrow a garden tiller. We worked up the side yard and planted five long rows of sweet corn at the sunny end of our suburban tract home. Neighbors were not amused.

The yield was so good that we began looking for a real farm. We didn’t want much, just a classic pre-revolutionary stone farmhouse with a huge Pennsylvania-Dutch bank barn, a spring-fed pond, maybe a springhouse and fertile fields dotted with fat cattle for as far as the eye could see in all directions.

For the next three years, we scoured the countryside for our dream farm. Every chance we got, we would pile both kids in the backseat of the station wagon and prowl the back roads in parts of three counties for hours on end. We came close to our quarry a few times, but in the end our hearts were always broken and our dreams were dashed. Our dream farm just didn’t exist -- at least anywhere close to our price range.

We settled for vacant land, 19.2 acres where a succession of renters had grown corn and hay for too many years. Even that happened by chance. We were just in the right place at the right time.

The owner had been trying to sell it for development. Builders wanted to put 15 to 20 new homes on the site. But the land was just a little too rolling, lay just a little too wet in spots to make it worth their while. By then, the land hadn’t been farmed for several years.

Old and in failing health, the owner wanted one less thing to worry about. He dropped his price by $20,000. That same morning, George called the realtor about a new “For Sale” sign we’d seen on our rural patrol. George quickly called Melanie at home.

“Meet me there in 15 minutes -- and bring the checkbook,” he said.

We walked over part of the west hayfield and wrote a deposit check for $500 on the spot. The land was ours. We finally had a real farm!

We were delighted. So was the realtor. He was just starting out in his family’s real estate business. He was thoroughly pleased with himself, so he spared no detail in recounting his great victory to his uncle, who ran the business. Uncle was not impressed.

“Hell, for that price I would have bought it, myself,” he said.

We had $10,000 in the bank. It was money we had saved from Melanie’s newspaper salary. We gave that to the owner as our down payment. He carried the financing on the remaining $20,000 for two years.

The next month, we bought a 1946 Ford 2N tractor, a 5-foot Bush Hog rotary mower and a 5-gallon gasoline can. We parked the tractor in our newly acquired field behind a neighbor’s woodpile. We covered it with a blue poly tarp. Now, instead of prowling the back roads in search of our dream farm, it was time to get to work. George and the Ford began the task of reclaiming the land from multiflora rose, wild grape vines and brambles, while Melanie planted blueberries, flowers and a small garden.

Pheasant Hill Farm, 1985: Melanie pictured with Don and Ruthie. In the background at left is their 1946 Ford 2N, parked behind the neighbor's woodpile.

We were both in our mid-30s then. It was time to get serious.

All of our spare time and money started going toward establishing our farm, bit by bit, as we could afford to. The first major development came that fall. We moved the tractor and tools into a 12- by 24-foot prefab storage building that arrived on a flatbed truck.

There was no driveway. The flatbed’s tires kept slipping on the wet grass. George hooked a log chain up to the truck and pulled it up the hill with the old Ford. The “Tractor Haus,” as we call it, went on a gravel foundation we’d made to cover up a probe hole left by would-be developers.

In 1984, before home building boomed in our township, the place was overrun with pheasants. Every time we went out to the farm we’d see and hear cocks and hens scurrying about the fields. We named it Pheasant Hill Farm.

While we still lived in town, we planted our first commercial crop of sugar snap peas on the farm the next year, using a borrowed gardentiller and push planter. There was no water at the farm. George roped three 55-gallon drums in the back of his pickup and hauled water from town to keep our newly planted blueberries, fruit trees and raspberries alive. As George baled water with 5-gallon buckets, our children, Don and Ruth, had fun playing in the barrels of icy water in 100-degree heat.

We knocked on a lot of restaurant doors with samples of our beautiful peas. A country club chef said he would take all we could grow. “What else do you have?” he asked. “What else would you like?” we replied, offering him a Johnny’s seed catalog.

Every year, we planted a little more, plowing the modest income back into the farm. We lived on George’s salary and saved Mel’s newspaper pay. Once the land was paid off, we took out a mortgage, built a house, drilled a well and moved out to the farm in May of 1987.

Pheasant Hill Farm today: More greenhouses, more modern equipment, but still a work in progress -- like most farms.

Inspired and coached by Ward Sinclair and Cass Peterson and many other beginning farmers around the country, the farm kept growing. Then George’s work for Rodale took us to Moscow, Russia, during the hungry, mean and bloody years of 1993-94. We were making good on Bob Rodale’s dream of a New Farm® magazine for Russia.

After returning to the world, Melanie went to work on our farm full-time. We built a hoophouse in 1995, started a small CSA in 1996 and then sold our development rights, preserving the farm in perpetuity for agriculture. Much of the money went into greenhouses and more modern equipment. Before long, we were cropping up to four acres and feeding 75 families, selling to area restaurants, country clubs, health food stores and at farmers’ markets as far away as Philadelphia. Son Don joined the farming operation a few years ago.

Like most farms, Pheasant Hill is still very much a work in progress. We figure it always will be as we and future generations learn more from fellow growers and adapt to a constantly changing world.

We’ll bring you their stories and lots of practical examples of what worked, what didn’t and why in future columns as we all work on making our farming dreams come true.

Meantime, feel free to visit us anytime at www.phforganics.com.