Micro Management

Van Weldon ekes out a living by farming tiny plants

But as the two men slog among the farm's greenhouses, row crops and tomato patches, Weldon sounds reluctant. He echoes Meyer's complaints of 60 years ago: Selling at market takes time, and time is his scarcest commodity.

Taking refuge from the rain under a potting shed, he admits farming is still incredibly tough. That much is evident from the exposed ducts and beams of his house, which he hasn't had the time or money to drywall. His kitchen has been invaded by industrial sinks where his wife painstakingly separates seed pods from millions of arugula shoots. Both have worked 70-hour weeks for years.

Bundshow sounds sympathetic. "You don't see any family farms because it's hard work," says the former backyard farmer. "Damn hard work."

Van and Regina Weldon enjoy a rare moment of 
repose in front of their duck pond.
Van and Regina Weldon enjoy a rare moment of repose in front of their duck pond.

Yet he's suddenly at a loss for words when Weldon lowers his voice, leans against a littered potting table and confesses that his wife would like to sell the place today if they could.

If Weldon had grown up in a farming family, he might have stayed in the energy sector. Meyer's grandson has virtually swapped places with him: He works as a trader for Greenspoint Energy.

"The young farmers don't want to work that hard," says Meyer's friend Lawrence Pilkinton, produce retailer for 46 years at Canino's. "They want everything coming in and nothing coming out."

Pilkinton's eyes are the color of lima beans, and they spend much of their time these days staring at a security monitor to keep the greedy masses from shoplifting avocados. Sitting in an office recently next to a stack of banana boxes and sacks of chicken scratch, he considers farming life. "It's like blood," he says. "You've got to have it in your veins and your body. Because if you don't, you'd better get out."

He's thinking as he's talking, though, and he suddenly goes soft on the under-80 crowd. "You know, I think they're right," he adds. "It's too much work."

At the farmhouse Weldon looks antsy, staring out at the duck pond like he feels guilty for lounging on the couch instead of harvesting. His wife, Regina, walks in and asks if clipping the micro-red kale can wait. "You might want to cut it now," he says, "because I think the temperature is going to go up."

Thanks to the Weldons' diligence, profits have spiked. Regina quit her travel agent job last summer, and the farm now feeds the family. It will be paid for in just two more years. They're even talking about hiring more full-time employees so she can volunteer at their son's kindergarten.

"I think in a couple of years we could do $300,000 to $400,000 a year in sales," Weldon predicts. "But we are going to have to find new markets and exploit them. Because the microgreens thing may be around forever, but only a certain number of restaurants are going to use them."

Small farmers often find lucrative niches don't last. Like spring mix ten years ago, micros are already on their way toward the macro-economy. Whole Foods has begun offering the micros in a handful of stores. Weldon knows his freshly cut plantlets will always taste better, but he worries the restaurant trend will jump to another product if the midget mix becomes commonplace.

Just as in his brokerage days, Weldon's security is in his contacts. But it's also in his flexibility. As long as he remains a farmer, he knows he'll have to change his crops at a moment's notice.

At least nimbleness no longer means reseeding himself in a corporate cubicle three states away. He picks up his cell phone on the road back from Arkansas, where he was trying to learn how to grow new greens. "I would rather have that kind of challenge as a choice of lifestyle," he says, "versus working for some company and being the victim of somebody else's yearly review."

Independence can be worth more than the best Aeron chair, 401(k) and dental package. But after years of digging, Weldon is still coming to grips with his green prospects. "Man, I am due," he says. "I am due for some success."

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