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.
Ave., 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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.