One never knows when or where an epiphany will occur. For chemical engineer, attorney, and one-time pro golfer Mel Ellis, his life-changing moment came in a courtroom.
“It was late afternoon and I was sitting around with some fellow attorneys and the judge. We were all involved with misdemeanor cases, drug possession, and other Mickey Mouse stuff, and while we were sitting there, trading stories about the criminal justice system, it just came to me: This is not something I’m going to do the rest of my life.”
He and his late wife, Shelly Nichols Ellis, also an attorney, closed their practice at Tupelo, Miss., and re-centered their lives at the hole-in-the-wall community of Mayhew, almost equidistant between the nearby cities of Columbus, Miss., and Starkville/Mississippi State University.
Mel’s parents, M.C. and Frances Ellis, after their retirements, had established a vegetable farming operation there, on land that has been in her family for four generations. Over the years it had grown into a large, successful business.
For 11 years Mel has been a vegetable farmer. “Everything from pounding tomato stakes in the ground to the hundred and one other chores this business demands, I do it,” he laughs between sales of tomatoes, okra, squash, cucumbers, and canned goods to a steady stream of customers who find their way to the farm, down a wooded lane off old Highway 82.
“When you’re a lawyer, nobody comes to your door happy. They come in mad at somebody — and, too often, they leave mad at you. Now, I just cope with weather, weeds, bugs, and the multitude of other problems associated with perishable products. But, every day is a challenge, we deal with some great customers, and I can truthfully say I’ve never had the first moment when I wished I was back in my law practice.”
For the three Ellises, the path to vegetable farming has been a varied one.
“I was an agriculture major at Mississippi State,” says M.C., “but I wanted to teach and coach. So, I went back and got a master’s in education. Frances was a teacher, too.
“We moved to Georgia and I taught and coached for several years. On the side, I started doing turfgrass management for golf courses, and worked at Augusta for five years.
“But we wanted to get back to Mississippi and one of my former professors, unbeknownst to me, had recommended me for a parks and recreation job that was opening up at Tupelo. The city was also in the process of buying the local country club and golf course. I took the job and we were at Tupelo 25 years until we retired.”
While there, he worked several years with Mississippi State University’s bollworm management program and also did on-farm survey work for a MSU cotton econometrics study.
“While doing that, I visited a cotton farm where there must’ve been 40 or so people out in a field picking up peanuts. The farmer had no peanut quota, but he’d found a cash niche selling green peanuts to local area customers.
“That gave me an idea for what we might do here when we retired. I rode around with the late Dr. Frank Killebrew, MSU Extension plant pathologist, looking at farming operations that included vegetables, melons, greenhouse tomatoes, and other sideline enterprises.
“In 1997, we started here with what basically was a large tomato garden. We sold tomatoes from the patio of the house and at nearby farmers markets in Starkville and Columbus. We had $9,208 in gross sales.
“We expanded a bit the following year and did well, but we quickly saw we needed more than just tomatoes if we were going to increase our revenue stream. We added squash, eggplant, and a few other vegetables, and used an old barn for on-farm sales.
“Even though it seems we’re in the middle of nowhere here, we’re only a few miles from two sizable cities, and once word got around, we had a steady stream of customers — 75 percent to 80 percent of our sales are right here at the farm, the rest at Starkville and Columbus. Starting in June, we have a full-time clerk here to help with sales.
“We want to have 80 percent of our sales complete by Aug. 1. Once the dog days heat sets in, vegetables don’t produce that well, people are getting stuff from their gardens, and the business just kinda fades. We’ll keep selling tomatoes, melons, and a few other things, including Frances’ canned products, until October.
“We were pleased when Mel came back to join us.
He had no farming experience, but he pitched in and very quickly got up to speed on the agronomic and production aspects of the business. I do all the tractor work, off-site sales at farmers markets, and running errands, and Mel runs the show.”
“As the season gets under way and strawberries are in season, we run a few ads on the Columbus TV station. That’s all it takes, and word gets around. A lot of our success has come from being local, people knowing us, and knowing the quality of our products. It’s part of the psychology of the business that customers like to be able to chat with the owners, ask questions, and get advice and cooking/freezing tips. Probably 75 percent of our customers we can call by name.
“We’ve added more crops each year and our business has grown every year. We’ve added two shelling machines for peas and we likely will add another.
“We’ve added a cooler and we’ve made improvements to the sales building. We’ve plowed a lot back into the business, and have had pretty much a pay-as-you-go approach — we don’t really want to take on any long-term debt. We’re now about at the level we want to be in terms of labor and being able to manage it all.
“Much of what we sell here at the farm, particularly strawberries and peas, is pre-booked. People call us with orders, we get the stuff ready, and they come pick it up. They start calling in January to book peas that won’t be ready until June. By early June this year, we probably had 1,000 bushels of peas already booked. When strawberries are ready, the phone rings constantly. During the height of the season, we’ll have 10 people working here.
“Crops include cabbage, onions, turnips, mustard, strawberries, English peas, green beans, cucumbers, squash, cantaloupes, watermelons, several varieties of peppers, eggplant, and pinkeye and crowder peas. Oh, and okra — lots of okra. To make this business work, you’ve got to produce a lot of stuff and once you produce it, you’ve got to sell it quickly.
“I’ve got records of every day we’ve been in business. I can compare what we did today with every other day since we started. Every year we’ve shown a pretty uniform increase in sales — except 2008, when things just went crazy and we had a really gangbusters year; we don’t know why, but for some reason people were just buying a lot of vegetables.
“People who’ve grown tomatoes or a few veggies in their back yards don’t realize the intense day-to-day work that’s involved in an operation like ours, or the losses that are involved when plants die or don’t perform well, or from diseases or spoilage.
“The first few years, we leased greenhouse space and grew our own vegetable plants from seed, but it involves more labor and time than we wanted to devote to it. Now, for most of our vegetables, we buy seeds for the varieties we want and have them grown by Rushing Nursery at Philadelphia, Miss. We give them our schedule, and when we’re ready to plant, we pick up the transplants at the nursery. There are a few crops we still seed directly in the field.
“Strawberries have been really good for us. When we began growing them seven years ago, we put out 1,500 plants; last fall, we planted 18,000. They provide a good spring cash flow while we’re waiting for other crops to start coming in. But they have a very short window — once daytime temperatures are consistently 85 degrees, they’re pretty much gone. We hope for 30 days of good picking.
“Everything we grow is on raised beds, under plastic. Rows are 1,100 feet long. We start planting onions the first week in January. When we make beds and lay plastic for strawberries in the fall, we also do beds for onions and cabbages, and put straw between the rows so we don’t have to work in muddy middles. We start planting cabbage about March 2.
After that, it’s potatoes, turnip greens/mustard, and about mid-April, snap beans, squash, peas, and okra. We do four tomato plantings: late March, May, June, and July. In a lot of years, we’ll have to cover tomatoes for a late frost — we’ve had frost as late as April 18. This year, luckily, we didn’t have to do that.
“Most of our land is really good ‘ice cream’ soil, and except for some fumigating for nematodes, we don’t have a lot of pest problems. We had to put up a five-strand, angled electric fence around the strawberries to keep out deer.
We’ll move crops around occasionally, so we aren’t growing the same thing in the same location continuously. “We’re continually soil sampling to be sure fertility is up to snuff. With our under-the-row drip irrigation system, we can inject fertilizer as needed. Tomatoes need 225 units of nitrogen, a lot of calcium nitrate, and at least 2 inches of water. The drip system allows us to manage this very efficiently.
“Tomatoes are staked every two plants and tied with string as they attain height. Our goal is 8 pounds to 10 pounds of tomatoes per plant. We have 8,000 to 9,000 plants this year.
Unlike a lot of operations which buy specialty canned products from large suppliers, slap their label on them, and sell them as their own, all the canned goods sold at Mayhew Tomato Farm are cooked and canned in Frances’ own kitchen.
She turns out an astounding variety of products, from apple butter to strawberry jam to pepper jelly, salsas, cucumber pickles, and beets, to pickled okra, tomato juice, and bottles of pepper sauce.
“I’m chopping and stirring almost every day, making a couple of batches of something,” she says. Each batch is enough for 40 pint jars.
“During the season, I have plenty of fresh ingredients from the farm, and I freeze a lot for use during the winter. In a year’s time, my helper and I will turn out about 6,000 jars.”
Her most popular canned product: an unlikely-sounding strawberry jalapeño jam. “It sells like crazy,” she says.
“I’ve always enjoyed cooking, and this has become a good little sideline source of revenue for us.”
“After I got my chemical engineering degree at Georgia Tech, I had an opportunity to play professional golf in Florida,” Mel says. “I’d grown up around golf courses as a result of my father’s work; I was young, unmarried, it was good money, and I figured it was the kind of life experience that doesn’t come along often.
“I did that for three years, then went to law school at Ole Miss, where I met my wife, Shelly, who passed away in June 2009. We had a law practice together at Tupelo for 10 years before I came here to the farm.”
From law to the agronomic practices and management of a sizeable vegetable operation was quite a change, he says.
“I learned a lot from my father, of course, and a lot of professors and specialists from nearby Mississippi State University work with us on trials of one kind or another and have been generous with advice and information. Most of it, though, has just been from digging in and year-to-year hands-on experience.”
“Our sales season usually gets in full swing when strawberries start coming in. We had a good strawberry season this year, with sales up until May 20.
“We started picking tomatoes May 25, got into our first big field the first week in June, and were in full harvest mode by the second week. In a good day, we’ll get 500 pounds to 800 pounds of tomatoes, 150 pounds of squash, a lot of okra, 200 pounds to 400 pounds of potatoes and onions, a lot of peppers, and when we start picking peas, we’ll get 30 bushels to 50 bushels a day, plus a lot of cantaloupes.
“We have an acre of watermelons, which gives us 1,000 to 1,200 melons over the season. Watermelons, for us, are sort of like gum and candy at the checkout counters at Wal-Mart — they’re an impulse item. We’ve grown a lot more in the past, but they’re so bulky, the handling logistics are terrible, and by July 20 every peddler is selling watermelons out of pickups on the side of the road, so we grow just enough to fill that impulse niche for customers who come to the farm.
“Every day at 6 a.m., we start picking — two people start with squash, then go to tomatoes; one man is snapping okra, then picking cantaloupes, and a couple of other people are floaters who do a variety of chores, including grading.
“When customers come in here or at the farmers markets and look at what we have to offer, they don’t realize all the work that’s gone into getting those products there. We don’t just toss tomatoes and vegetables in a bucket. We grade everything in our shed here for size and color so it will be uniform in appearance.
“We generally knock off with the picking about 11 a.m., when it gets so hot. Sales hours here at the farm are from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m.
“If weather allows, I like to have about a half-acre each of tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers going into the fall to generate cash flow to help pay for labor in cleaning up the fields.
“We’ve had to change tomato varieties a number of times over the years. For one reason or another, some just don’t hold up long term, or seeds are no longer available.
“We cooperate with MSU on various experiments, and we do quite a bit of variety evaluation ourselves to see what will work well here. We’ve been evaluating a high tunnel facility to give us an early start on tomatoes, but it’s too early to tell whether the numbers will pan out.”