EIGHTY FOUR, Pa. — Christine Yankel has a green thumb. She inherited it from her mother, and cultivates it by growing and selling heirloom varieties of vegetables and other plants from her home, in Washington County, Pennsylvania.
“For me, it’s the taste,” she said. “The taste of heirloom vegetables is not even comparable to other varieties.”
In addition to selling thousands of plants each year, Yankel also strives to help others find their green thumb, too, through classes, workshops and social media posts.
“There’s hope for everyone. There’s really no secret here,” she said.
She started Melody Acres Hobby Farm in 2011 after years of gardening and seeking out heirloom plants and seeds for herself.
Yankel was always interested in finding interesting and unique varieties of plants to grow. She’d start the seeds, plant some for herself and give some away to family and friends. It was a side hustle at first. She began selling some of her extras to people. Friends told their friends who told others. Much of the growth has happened organically.
Her whole business is operated on the two acres around her home, in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania. She didn’t want to get too big too fast.
Part of that is to make sure she has the customer base to support her business. The other part is because of the personalized care she gives to her customers. The green thumb can be learned. She’s there to troubleshoot and help people work through any issues they’re having through the growing season. There’s hope for everyone to become a successful gardener.
“You’re not just buying the plants, but you’re buying my advice for a whole season,” she said.
This year she planted 15 varieties of tomatoes, growing about 1,500 plants. She grew a dozen types of peppers, 10 varieties of squash, seven different types of cucumbers and four types of eggplants. She also specializes in Asian plants like the Okinawan bitter melon and the extra long smooth luffa.
In addition to more commercial varieties, Yankel has also gotten her hands on rare varieties of seeds from other gardeners and seed savers and brought them back to life. It’s about keeping the heritage and the history that comes with these plants alive.
“I’ve grown for some people locally who had an ancestor who brought seeds over,” she said. “They found that seed 30 years later that was in their great-grandfather’s garage. And they’re having trouble growing it, so I grow it out for them. You literally hover over these plants to hope you can get one plant, so you hope you can get one fruit to get seeds.”
“The seeds become our family They become part of our history. It’s really important to be able to pass that on.”
Social media prowess
Within the last year, she focused more on her social media presence and found that paid dividends in bringing in new customers.
“I have sales to prove that 98% of my new customers came from social media, in particular, Instagram,” she said.
The sales don’t come from advertising her store or items she’s selling. It’s more about making connections with her customers and the gardening and homesteading community. She posts tutorials and other educational videos and photos. Sometimes she just posts photos from her garden.
She posts often and makes sure to engage with people who comment on her posts. That favors the algorithm that works on the back end of social media platforms, but it also helps for people to understand and relate to her personality and her farm.
“People came out here to pick up plants who have never bought from me before,” she said. “They wanted to walk through the garden. And they said, ‘I feel like I’ve already been here.’ They connect with your story. They connect with your cause.”
When she holds classes and workshops, that bond deepens even further. Yankel said, while the brunt of her labor is in starting seeds and selling plants, the more profitable part of the business is from holding classes on gardening techniques, canning and other homesteading topics.
Along the way, Yankel homeschooled her three children and took care of her mother as she battled cancer. Her mother passed away in 2018, and her youngest child is off to college this year. So, now she’s looking to make her hobby into more of a “jobby,” as she put it. It’s time to expand.
Late spring is typically the busiest time of year. She sells most of her plants in May, when most people in western Pennsylvania and the surrounding area were starting their home gardens. Just this year she added an early spring and a fall sale. She also keeps a flock of laying hens to sell eggs and has a small fruit orchard in her front yard.
Next, she plans to build a greenhouse to expand her operation. She’s also developed a line of herbal teas, made entirely with herbs and plants harvested from her backyard garden, that she’ll soon launch.
“It’s scary and exciting, putting a full effort into a business with something I was so excited about for so long. I didn’t realize that was so scary to me,” she said. “Fear is going to come with you in life, so you say, ‘OK,’ and go anyway. It’s going to be there. It’s your partner riding along with you.”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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