Jennifer Moeller, Hensbury Farm, Waite Hill, Ohio

Growing it Alone

Jennifer Moeller was a woman on a mission. Living on fifteen acres of rolling farmland just east of Cleveland, she knew she wanted to do something; she had land, she had some time, and most importantly, she had the energy. How could that energy be put to good use, producing something useful and beautiful at the same time?

Her location: near a major city, blessed with well-drained silty loam soils, zone 5 with moderate summer temperatures and consistent moisture (especially considering seventy-plus inches of snowbelt contributions some years) made her fields ready to produce just about anything.

But how could this be done by only one woman? Her husband’s job took him out of town for several days a week, her childrens’ activities kept them too busy to take anything but a passing interest in new agriculture ventures, and her distance from neighbors and friends made labor (or lack of) an issue not to be taken lightly.

Small Farm, Big Dog

Goats were her first experiment. She bought 20 Boer goats, and bred them until she had produced a champion at the 2007 Ohio Meat Goat Association Show. Others won more prizes, and Jennifer enjoyed her time showing and selling them.

They’re happy to range a small pasture, climbing a steep hill that overlooks a lake and nature preserve. They share their space with a Great Pyrenees named Julia, who, raised with goats since puppyhood, considers herself one of the flock. Since coyotes and other predators can easily nab a goat kid in Jennifer’s rural area, it’s helpful to have a dog on the premises. A really large dog.

Jennifer couldn’t find the market for goat meat that she needed to be prof-itable, even in the ethnic markets of Cleveland, so she now maintains a herd to sell goat kids to human kids for 4-H projects. Their composted manure is used to amend the cut flower beds in another section of the farm.

Chickens have proved to be a more lucrative enterprise. Locally-produced eggs are enjoying a massive popularity boost, thanks to the buy local movement and the public’s recent awareness of factory farming. Jennifer’s $4.00/dozen is reasonable for beautiful, clean and safe eggs. She sells them mostly to friend and locavores from the farm, and delivers some to florists with her flowers.

She raises a mix of araucana and brown layers, and currently has about 40 birds. Jennifer built a mobile coop of cedar that’s a step above most chicken tractors. The cedar helps repel pests attracted to manure and spilled feed, and the entire structure (coop and attached wire pens) can be easily moved around the farm. The chickens can feast on weed seeds and insects, fertilizing the soil as they do.

Small Farm, Tall Sunflowers

Goats and chickens aside, what is most dear to Jennifer’s heart – and profitable for her wallet – are cut flowers. She grows on a small scale, about two acres, and concentrates on annuals like sunflowers, celosia and zinnias, with a lot of dahlia production that gears up in the fall.

She likes ‘Benary Giant’ zinnias, and the sunflower cultivars that perform best for her are ‘Sunbeam’, ‘Procut BiColor’, and ‘The Joker’. Even though the heads on the multicolored varieties tend to bend, the florists prefer their unusual colors, and don’t mind wiring the stems.‘Sunbeam’ does great in retail settings.

Jennifer has grown Karma and other dahlias that she buys from Gloeckner, Ednie Bulb and Swan Island Dahlias. She prefers to use tubers rather than cuttings so she can dig them up and divide them for the next year. Among the Karmas, Jennifer considers ‘Prospero’, ‘Corona’, ‘Sangria’, ‘Cornell’ and ‘Gingersnap’ real workhorses, though they bruise easily.

Flowers are delivered to florists in University Heights, Cleveland Heights and Mentor, relatively easy drives from Waite Hill. Jennifer recently began a relationship with Allied Wholesale in Cleveland, to whom she delivers about twice a week. This is a bit farther from her farm, but worth the trip, as it’s usually a larger order.

Jennifer also delivers directly to a Whole Foods and to the warehouse at Heinen’s, northeast Ohio’s local high-end grocery chain.

She tried selling her cut flowers at two different farmers’ markets but realized they weren’t for her. The prep time, driving distance and unpredictable finances (too many rained-out Saturdays) made them inefficient and unprofitable for a one-woman operation.

In addition to the field annuals, Jennifer has “landscaped” her long driveway with a collection of willows and shrubs she uses as woody cut stems. They’re appealing enough to pass as “decoration” for passing neighbors, but shrewdly placed so that she can drive down the lane, cut and bucket the stems, and load them directly into the van for delivery.

Mother of Invention

That’s just one way Jennifer manages to run her farm by herself. She gets occasional help when weeding or flower picking are peaking, but in general, it is a one-woman operation. A pretty small woman, at that. Jennifer realized that she would need to find other ways to make her farm as efficient as possible.

The electric fence surrounding one of her annuals field is solar pow-ered. Nothing fancy, or too expensive, just a standard battery with a solar trickle charger. She’s used the same battery for several years with no problem. This helps keep her utility bill to a minimum while ensuring a steady stream of power to the fence. The abundance of white-tailed deer in northeast Ohio make this a necessity.

A frequent contributor to the ASCFG Bulletin Board, Jennifer credits other members for turning her on to CoolBot. This small piece of equipment connects to a standard room air conditioner, making it more efficiently cool a flower holding area. Jennifer was easily able to set up the system herself, and can’t imagine storing her product without it.

Another “Pay now, or pay later” decision Jennifer made was to use weed fabric on several of her fields. She’s happy with the one she purchased from Rain-Flo, and thinks it will last ten years if she takes it up each winter. While the initial financial output might have seemed overwhelming, the advantage it gave her over weeds was unmistakable. The rows without cloth are quickly overtaken, even with biweekly hoeing; the areas covered can be easily maintained by pulling the few pests that make their way through the holes burned for the cut flower crops.

Jennifer credits the ASCFG and its generous members for much of her success. She did as much research as she could before planting her first crop, but it wasn’t until she discovered the organization that she was able to pull together what she needed to get started on the right foot.

She finds her fellow growers to be an invaluable source of real world information on everything from pricing to sourcing supplies to pest control. Just seeing another cut flower operation helped validate some things Jennifer was doing; with absolutely no experience, how could she know what drip tape was supposed to look like in the field? She was happy to meet many other growers at the 2010 Northeast Regional Meeting in Ithaca, who gave her a sense of how they space their plants, manage harvests and figure out their marketing.

What’s next for this energetic grower? Like many others, she’s considering rethinking her strategy, and hiring outside help so she can grow her business. And like many, she wonders: Does she want to be a people manager as well as a farmer? Luckily, she has the ASCFG to guide her on her way.