From Market to Farm: One couple’s commitment to cultivating connections on Ohio’s largest certified organic blueberry farm

Edible Columbus
by Karin McKenna
Summer 2014

In a matchup nearly as inspiring as blueberries and cream, Phillip and Margaret Nabors, well-known food advocates and owners of the venerable Mustard Seed Markets, are now organic farmers themselves. A few miles south of Loudonville, and very near the Mohican Memorial State Forest, blueberry pickers have been making annual treks to Blueberry Hill Farm for 60 years. In 2010, Nabors bought it.

“For years I’ve been wanting to own land,” Phillip explains. The 66-acre property was put on the market and though he and Margaret were on vacation with only the Internet on his phone as a meager research tool, Phillip saw the potential in the property. The rest magically unfolded.

“I didn’t do my normal fastidious research, but it just seemed right,” he says.

The text that he received from Margaret on his way to the auction must have played a large part in the decision. “Let the angels guide you,” it read.

Since then, the large group of Nabors family and close friends (the 40 Hippie Method, Phillip calls it) have been working very hard to clear the land of invaders, grapevines, poison ivy, and a couple thousand trees. As a result, the 5,000 blueberry bushes are breathing a bit easier. At any time there may be six to twenty guests visiting the land and helping out. Large meals are cooked and enjoyed; friendship is shared. There’s a pool, a teepee, a friendly contingent of dogs, hammocks, and a welcoming vibe.

The longtime association with the farmers with whom they work through Mustard Seed Market has made Phillip and Margaret’s transition to the farming life a natural one. “The connection between the earth and our food supply is profound,” says Phillip. “For every bite of food there’s a farm somewhere. There’s a profound process that’s worthy of appreciation. It takes a lot of effort to manage all of the forces to get food to grow out of the ground and get it to market.”

As the land is cleared, they’re planting new trees. Long-term plans include diversifying and focusing on high-nutritional-value super fruits, and aligning with the permaculture model. They’re introducing forest gardening, creating a habitat for mushrooms, ginseng, medicinal herbs, “things that want to grow in the forest,” as Phillip says. Between the forest and pasture are the paw paws, persimmons, and nut trees.

“There are a lot of interesting crops that want to grow on the edges, and we’re going to help them along by planting them,” he says.

Obviously, the food aspects of Blueberry Hill are important, but the spiritual effects of the farm have become apparent as well. “To a person, everybody who goes there feels something,” Phillip says. “We’ve had some amazing experiences with our guests really connecting with this land.”

Visitors receive explicit instructions at Blueberry Hill to taste the berries as they pick, and Phillip likens the joy that comes from this to feeding our inner caveperson’s primal connectivity to the earth. “We take the larceny right out of the equation. By saying that it’s okay to eat as they pick, we take the guilt off the table. Very often, kids will come back, their faces just smeared with blueberries and about 12 berries in their bucket. They come back with these huge smiles. It’s fun for us to enable that.”

The Nabors’ hands these days are quite full with Blueberry Hill and the two grocery stores. Joining locations in Solon and in Montrose, a third Mustard Seed Market is under construction in the Highland Square area of Akron. “I am incredibly excited about the store because it’s not just a new store, it’s a new path for us,” Phillip shares.

The newest market is a smaller store in the dense neighborhood where the Nabors family has lived for 35 years, on the edge of an official USDA food desert. Lacking a grocery store for 15 years, the neighborhood is truly hungry for its offerings and much thought is being put into how to best serve the area.

“What’s amazing is that the category of natural organic stores has evolved to where now we can do a natural organic store and serve as the neighborhood grocery store. That really wasn’t possible as little as 10 years ago,” explains Phillip.

With an eye toward education, a value-oriented mix of offerings, and cutting-edge green building features, there is a lot of excitement about the new store, which could open as early as December of this year. Of course, shoppers will find Blueberry Hill berries in all three Mustard Seed stores.

Blueberry picking begins when the berries are ripe. Watch the Blueberry Hill Facebook page for the latest updates or call the farm at 740.599.5050. Blueberry Hill is located at 23038 Gessling Road in Glenmont. Directions are on the website at BlueberryHillFamilyFarms.com.

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