Herb farm roots run deep

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MINERVA, Ohio – Professor Culpepper – an eccentric and enthusiastic plant scientist armed with a guitar and a variety of potted plants known as his Amazing Garden – travels to elementary schools across northeastern Ohio, teaching students about the benefits and joys of gardening.

Without his ficticious alias, Paul Carmichael teaches the parents of those students and other adults and customers about the same topics from greenhouses at his Lily of the Valley herb farm.

The farm, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is located on Fox Avenue between Alliance and Minerva in eastern Stark County.

Small start. Carmichael and his wife, Melinda, started the operation in 1982 from a greenhouse at the nearby Fairmount Children’s Home with other people interested in a healthy lifestyle. Through their work in the early ’80s, the couple sowed seeds and sold their plants at a small stand, but the interest in herbs hadn’t yet caught on in the area.

The Carmichaels didn’t give up. With the next year’s tax refund check, the couple bought a greenhouse, plant starts and an old truck, all with hopes to root themselves in the herb and greenhouse industry.

“We wanted to make a go of it, and figured that was our best chance at the time,” Paul Carmichael said.

To the market. While Melinda took care of the couple’s daughters, Paul took care of the seeds and plants. Once enough of the seeds had emerged and the plants began blooming, Carmichael trucked his stock to the Aurora and Hartville flea markets. The response was gigantic.

“We’d take a truckload there and sell out pretty quickly. Business really started to pick up,” he said.

The couple also learned more about their growing business by selling at the markets. Trips there showed them the demand for other value-added commodities from their industry, including crafts and dried flowers. Soon after, the farm shop offered a variety of crafts and dried herbs, as well as craft classes taught by Melinda.

In 1983, the Carmichaels were accepted to participate in the nearby Yankee Peddler festival. It was no small feat, according to Carmichael, because all vendors there must meet quality criteria and sell only handcrafted items. Craft show participation soon catapulted Lily of the Valley into a full-time business venture.

Today’s operation. “Neither of us has any formal or real horticultural training,” Carmichael said. “We read a lot and studied and basically learned everything we know by the seat of our pants.”

Today, the operation consists of two main 3,000-square foot greenhouses and a series of smaller ones. There is a small shop that offers dried herbs, gardening books and an assortment of small gift items.

The 10 greenhouses offer customers a natural division between plant types.

“Keeping the perennials separated from the annuals helps the customer find exactly what he needs,” he said, adding the farm boasts nearly 1,000 plant varieties.

“Without some type of division, this place would be chaos.”

Seeds held over. Much of the farm’s stock is started from seed, according to Carmichael. Unusual varieties are propagated, but some of the more common bedding plants are purchased from outside vendors, as are roots and plugs for some plants.

“We found it gets to be too much of an operation to do completely yourself,” Carmichael said of his decision to purchase plants. “After a while, you learn what’s smarter to buy.”

But for a number of herbs, annuals and perennials, including the farm’s 30 varieties of scented geraniums, the Carmichaels gather and save seed or cuttings for the next year’s crop.

The task, combined with retail sales, has pushed the couple into full-time, year-round work. The greenhouses are open to the public from early April to late July each year. A hanging sign also offers sales during other months by appointment or chance only.

Carved niche. By offering a number of specialty plants, Lily of the Valley has carved a niche in the growing greenhouse industry.

“Some types of plants are only carried by a couple places across the whole country. A lot of places don’t bother because they don’t see the niche.

“Why compete with the other guys for the plants that everyone has, if you can offer something rare and unusual?” Carmichael said.

In addition to the scented geraniums, with aromas of apple, chocolate mint and coconut, the operation also offers a variety of hard-to-find flora like the toothache plant, whose leaves, when chewed, give the mouth a numbed and tingling sensation; mimosa, a sensitive plant whose leaves wither when touched; heirloom flowers, including five varieties of morning glories; and hundreds of varieties of herbs, including aloe vera, catnip, chamomile, mints, bay and basil.

Operation focus. Carmichael’s formal definition of ‘herb’ is any seed plant that dies to the ground each year and provides seasoning, fragrance or medicine. His everyday explanation is that an herb is a flavorful plant that people use to enhance their lives.

He also views gardening as a true life enhancer. “Our real passion is gardening, and we try to share that with our customers,” Carmichael said. “A lot of places just retail, but we throw in a little more.”

“We are a specialty grower with some unique plants, but we also have the standards. What sets us apart is the extra attention we can offer,” he said.

This business approach has put Lily of the Valley in a desirable market position. The Carmichaels printed more than 8,000 catalogs this year, and rely heavily on word of mouth to expand their customer base. Last year, the operation bought no paid advertising but still had increased sales from customers coming from as far away as Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

“There is a big interest in gardening in the area, and we get a lot of business from people willing to drive the distance” for quality garden stock, Carmichael said.

“They’ll come one time and get a few herbs, but then they decide to come back and get some more things. Every garden needs annuals but then people discover and get hooked” on perennials and other nursery plants.

Life education. Carmichael is also driven by the educational aspect of gardening, which led him to develop the elementary school age-based Professor Culpepper traveling program. He’s also involved in a movement to establish a public botanical garden in Stark County.

“This is my business, but I enjoy the interaction, sharing, and education that goes both ways.

“People lose themselves in gardening. Their garden is their escape, their own little piece of Eden. If this business can touch people’s lives, then that’s what it’s all about.”

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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