NORTON, Ohio – Three acres isn’t much to many farmers, but Mark Welton and his family have made the most it.
The Weltons’ back yard turned into field of vegetables five years ago when he decided to sell their overflow of garden vegetables by the road.
To his surprise, people stopped and bought the produce.
His wife suggested trying to grow on a bigger scale to make a profit.
So he did.
Now the Weltons of Summit County grow for three small, upper-class local restaurants and sell produce at the North Union Farmer’s Market in East Cleveland’s Shaker Square.
Two shifts. Welton manages two full-time jobs, working for Davis Water Treatment and weeding, picking and seeding on the farm.
But keeping up their land, Deer Run Farm, is not work to him. It is what he truly loves to do, he said.
Welton keeps in mind price per square foot. With only 3 acres, you have to make the most money out of the space you have, he said.
Salad mix is their signature crop but they have grown and sold a wide variety of naturally grown vegetables.
He’s been reading books on organic farming since he was 15.
“I do it for them (his family),” he said. “I want them to be able to pick something straight from the garden and eat it.”
Welton, his wife, Olivia, and two daughters, Ashley, 17, and Sarah, 7, do all the work.
Sarah helps plant and weed. Ashley takes care of the goat, chickens, and is her dad’s right-hand-man.
Olivia does the paper work and stays in touch with the restaurants.
Family day. Every Saturday, they make time for the whole family to go to the market.
Friday evening, Ashley and Mark go to the field and cut the lettuce by hand with knives and pick whatever else is ready. They use knives and do it by hand to avoid any bruising or breaking.
Saturday mornings they get up before the sun to pack the lettuce and other produce in the truck and drive to Cleveland.
The whole family agrees it’s what they like to do: spend time with each other and make people happy by providing a high quality product.
Choosy growers. They are particular about what they will grow and sell. They won’t grow anything they don’t like to eat themselves, and they specialize in unique crops.
It is about niche marketing – that is where the money is, Welton said. You have to stay focused or you’ll become spread too thin.
The Weltons take only about six different crops each week to the market. And they keep high standards when it comes to their product.
“If it’s not the best of the best, I won’t take it (to the market),” he said.
High demand. The Weltons are well known at the market. At times, Welton said, they have almost 20 people waiting in line to buy their lettuce.
Normally, it doesn’t take them more than two and a half hours to sell out.
There is such a demand, customers call or e-mail the Weltons to pre-order salad for the next week.
When they have finished selling their crop, the Weltons walk around to buy groceries for the week from the other 50-60 vendors.
“We rarely go to the grocery store in the summer; we like to reinvest in our local economy,” Olivia said.
Restaurant sales. Buying produce locally is an upward trend. Restaurants are willing to pay the extra penny to have fresh foods, Welton said.
Working with restaurants has been a continuous learning experience and a pleasure, he said.
Welton gives chef-buyers a lot of credit because they have to be patient and able to adapt and adjust their menus at the last minute – the weather and the insects have a lot to do with what is available.
Worm castings. A small tractor and a rotavator are the only equipment Welton owns, but his success comes from learning how to keep his plants healthy and a state-of-the-art irrigation system.
Welton uses rock minerals to sustain the soil’s mineral content and also makes his own potting soil so he knows exactly what is in it.
Worm castings are one of his secrets. He puts worm castings, or digested worm product, into his potting soil and into the ground before every plant.
Irrigation. Two years ago, they drilled an irrigation well and began laying pipe. Lateral lines now run underground throughout the 3 acres and microwaterers place small drops of water on individual seedlings.
The system is connected to a solar-powered timer, which irrigates the fields three times a day.
The waterers come out of the ground to sprinkle water on the maturing lettuce, he said. It doesn’t pound the dirt down like a regular hose would.
The gardens also have underground moisture sensors, which signal the irrigation unit how much water, if any, is needed each time.
The Weltons put in the irrigation system two years ago.
“The second the well was drilled, the rain started,” Welton said jokingly.
“It rained so much, they had to pull the drill out of the mud,” he said. “And it never stopped raining for about two years.”
Last year, there was so much rain they had an 80 percent crop loss.
This is the first year the family has had to use the irrigation system, Welton said, and it has already paid for itself.
With this summer’s 90-degree weather, it would be impossible to keep the lettuce going without irrigation, he said.
There are also 3,000 feet of drain tile underground for when it is too wet. The tile takes excess water away from the plants.
Extended season. Welton tries to keep all of the crops on a two-week rotation, so he is constantly planting new seedlings and germinating. He wants produce to be ready almost year-round, from March to January.
The same year the Weltons put in the irrigation system, they also invested in a hoop house. The hoop house is like a greenhouse, but it has open ends and doesn’t have a heating unit.
The hoop house is used to make the crop season last longer and start sooner. It allows him to control the rain and keep frost off the plants.
Welton is already preparing for the transition into fall by tilling parts of the hoop house and planting seeds.
The seeds will soon be germinated and put into the ground under the hoop house.
New crops. Even though salad mix is their signature crop, Welton likes to experiment with different kinds of produce.
They are experimenting with meter long beans, American pawpaw trees, and hope to start crops of blueberries and ginger.
The Weltons also dream of getting more land and expanding, but for now, it is enough to keep their family going and eventually help pay for the girls’ education.
The oldest daughter, Ashley, who has been selling at the market since she was 12, would like to carry on what her parents have already established and continue to sell naturally grown produce.
It’s only 3 acres, but it keeps the Weltons busy and the customers satisfied.