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.
Columbus, Ohio: The Devaults' first "farm,"
with a very young Mel and George.
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
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,”
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,”
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.