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Amazing stories from visits to Belmont County Farms

When you work in the Soil and Water Conservation world you get to meet a lot of really interesting people, see a lot of amazing farms and listen to a lot of meaningful stories. I’ve been with the Belmont Soil and Water Conservation District for six years now and have no short supply of stories, and this one is about the day that I visited three Belmont County farms in five hours.

I started the day not knowing that I would be visiting all three of these places in one day, it just ended up that way. I had contacted each of the landowners and asked them if I could interview them about their garden for a social media post that I was working on. Of course all of them said yes on the same day.

So within five hours I gathered three amazing stories.

My first stop of the day was Ed Chini’s farm near Flushing. Ed lives on Chini Orchard Road, named after the many fruit trees that dot his property. Ed was born on the same land that he has farmed for 93 years. He bought his property in 1955 and bought an adjoining piece of property in 1990 totaling almost 300 acres.

The orchard that he is so well known for was actually started by accident. Ed says that back in 1992 he noticed a peach tree that had grown from the “bones” of a peach that his wife had thrown out. So he dug it up and replanted it. He continued doing this with all the peach tree seedlings sprouting from the discarded peach pits. He remembers his wife asking him what in the world was he going to do with all those trees. A few years later Ed began picking, traveling and selling the peaches from the trees he had grown. There are at least 150 peach trees on the property today, but that’s not all, there’s also pear, plum, English walnut and cherry trees as well.

In addition to the orchard, Ed and his son, Ed Jr., grow a large garden every year. As I walked through the garden I saw tomatoes, onions, sweet corn planted a few weeks apart, watermelon, cantaloupe, grapes, blackberries, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, radishes, strawberries, lettuce, green beans and more. There wasn’t a weed in sight. Ed said he doesn’t like to hoe but hates weeds. He uses the same hoe that he’s been using for 20 years.

There wasn’t a whole lot left of it, it had been worn down to almost nothing. Ed Jr. said he bought his dad a new hoe but he refuses to use it.

The tomatoes were staked up inside a wire cage, the pole beans were climbing up fencing, the sweet corn had just begun to tassel and small watermelons were getting bigger every second. They give away a lot of their produce and can the rest.

One year they canned 50 quarts of tomato juice that Ed says he loves to drink.

As we stood in the garden reminiscing, it started to rain. Ed took cover under the back porch, but Ed Jr. and I stayed in the garden. He wanted to make sure I went home with some fresh zucchini and cucumbers. So we made our way to the other end of the garden where he started picking some very large vegetables straight from the vine and filled his arms with them. After the rain stopped we were able to reconvene by the garden. I continued talking to Ed as his son started stuffing the many vegetables that he picked for me in my work truck. I could’ve stayed all day and talked but I had to get going to my next stop.

The next garden visit was near Colerain at the home of Jeff Theil. Whereas the other farms that I visited this day had a plethora of many different vegetables, Jeff had only one. Giant pumpkins. I wasn’t sure if I was at the right house or not when I pulled in, but then I looked into the backyard and saw a ball cap just peeking over the largest pumpkins leaves I’ve ever seen. Then I knew I was at the right place. I walked into the backyard to find Jeff uncovering the largest of his giant pumpkins.

I walked right into the garden amongst giant vines. It wasn’t until a few minutes into our conversation that I realized how precious and protected this plant was that I had just mindlessly stepped over. I started to panic inside and said, “Why didn’t you tell me not to come in here? I could have stepped on a vine!” to which Jeff’s reply was, “I could’ve yelled at you but I didn’t.” For that I was grateful but I made sure to pay very close attention to where my feet were after that.

The vines that I was standing in came from a single plant and covered about 800 square feet. Jeff only allows one pumpkin to grow per plant and is nurturing three plants this year. When I say nurture I mean it. These pumpkins are kept under a shady tarp, up off the ground on a foam sheet, watered and fertilized daily, with fans blowing on each end of them to prevent moisture. The 44-day-old pumpkin we were standing by Jeff estimated to weigh about 600 pounds and was gaining 26 pounds per day. He measures them about every 5 days and uses a chart to estimate their current weight and daily weight gain.

To make sure there is only one pumpkin per plant Jeff cuts off the female flowers from the plant to prevent them from being pollinated and producing another fruit that would then suck water and nutrients from the main pumpkin. He had a knife holstered to his side and periodically would whip it out and slice away at blooms and sometimes vines. While we are in the garden talking Jeff is flitting about chasing bugs and squashing them. I can see a few cucumber beetles on the leaves but I don’t think much about it, they’re just little bugs, but a few little bugs on a plant as prized as this one is a problem so Jeff takes extra care to keep bugs away.

Jeff knows the lineage of all of his pumpkins and hand pollinates his plants to ensure that the seeds they produce aren’t crossed with something else. When I asked him how much time he spends in the garden a day he responded with “Too much”, but he says he probably spends four to five hours every day. He has a watering system set up that collects rain water from his barn roof and stores it in tanks that are hooked up to timers. This way he can keep the water bill down since he has to water each pumpkin 130 gallons of water per day.

Jeff’s dad was the inspiration for this hobby as he also grows giant pumpkins and won the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival King pumpkin contest in 1985. The largest pumpkin Jeff has grown was in 2018 when his garden yielded a 1,488 ½ pound pumpkin. Along with the giant pumpkin Jeff also dabbles in some other giant garden plants including tomatoes and sunflowers.

After learning more than I ever thought I could about growing giant pumpkins, I’m off again to the next farm. This one is right outside of Barnesville and owned by Ron and Marisa Duvall.

Ron, Marisa and their two kids, Jenna and Ronnie, have recently become gardeners in a big way. Before this year they had only grown pumpkins and gourds. This year they have grown thousands and thousands more plants.

This past winter the Duvalls started experimenting with hydroponics and microgreens in their basement. This experiment then grew into a high tunnel being installed. Now the Duvalls are growing thousands and thousands of plants. They started most of their plants from seed and grew 2,000 broccoli and cabbage plants and 1,000 zucchini and butternut squash plants. They are also growing sweet corn, white tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon and Brussel sprouts. They grew and sold lettuce and herb bowls this year that were very successful along with all of their other produce.

What started as experiments in their basement is now a roadside produce stand. The Duvalls now offer their own produce along with other locally grown produce for sale from a wagon in their front yard. This wagon is based on the honor system where customers pay for what they’ve taken in a box; there is no one sitting at the stand taking your money. The wagon is lined with crates that are filled with fresh produce that entice passersby to stop and check it out.

This family is a group of innovators. They have been tinkering with hydroponics, aeroponics and growing microgreens. They said that they have already learned a lot about irrigation, pest control and nutrients. Even Ronnie and Jenna are young experimenters. Jenna has started growing her own mums this year and Ronnie potted the sprout of a lemon tree that he is very excited about.

Marisa said, “This was the year of, why not? Let’s try it and see what happens.” When I asked Marisa what the plan was for next year she said they have been talking about constructing a greenhouse but the main plan for next year is to plan better.

These stories were all so different yet all alike in the fact that these people cared about what they did and loved to garden. I now have three more amazing stories to add to my collection.

Editor’s Note: Samantha Hearn has worked as the education specialist for the Belmont County Water and Soil Conservation District for six years. A Barnesville resident, Hearn enjoys gardening, nature and photography.

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