Monday, May 16, 2011

Dawn Combs wanted a quaint farmstead in the middle of 100 acres of herb gardens, grazing livestock and buzzing bees. Carson Combs wanted to rehab an old home in Italian Village in the heart of Columbus. Their marital compromise landed them just outside of Marysville on a 3.5-acre farm with a population density somewhere in the middle of either extreme. It seems an odd location for a farm

“It all started with a lie. I told him, ‘I just want to try bees for a hobby,’” Dawn said.

It did not take long for those first few bees to develop into a small business. Dawn started selling her honey at a local farmers market and began making lip balm, skin cream and other products. The honey is harvested only once a year to maximize flavor and benefit to those with allergies. Carson handles most of the honey duties around his full-time job as a city planner in nearby Dublin.

Along with bees, Dawn has always loved working with herbs for their flavor, health benefits and medicinal properties. It was only natural, then, for her to blend herbs and honey, resulting in honey infused with lavender, rose petals, lemon/ginger/garlic, peppermint and other herbs.

About 40 types of herbs are harvested for commercial uses, and dozens more varieties are grown for display for tours and workshops held at the farm. Dawn works hard to educate her customers on how to use herbs on their own and make the most of her farmstead compromise.

“We’re trying to educate family herbalists with the knowledge and the herbs that they need,” Dawn said. “I do a lot of speaking engagements and workshops through the year to educate people about the herbs we use. And when people come here to our home just outside of Marysville on 3.5 acres, they are not intimidated. This is something they can relate to and see themselves doing.”

For the production of her plants, Dawn adheres to the principles of biodynamics that combine old herbal knowledge, folklore and science. Her methods are designed to get the most out of agricultural production while eliminating commercial fertilizers and pesticides to more closely work in concert with nature.

“If your soil is healthy, your plant is healthy, and healthy plants are less susceptible to pests and diseases,” Dawn said. “We do things a lot differently than the farmers around here, so people are always watching us to see what we’re doing.”

Dawn also practices companion planting techniques to control pests and weeds. For example, garlic attracts the aphids that plague roses, so planting the two beside each other keeps aphids off of the roses. The properties of nettles allow nearby tomatoes to stave off spoilage for a longer duration. Spearmint deters mice and mites, so that herb is planted in abundance around the beehives for healthy, pest-free colonies. Comfrey is planted around many crops because it falls over and makes an effective, natural mulch.

All of the farm’s herbs are harvested at their peak of phytochemical potency for maximum flavor and health benefit. The proper harvest time depends on the particular herb and the part of the plant that is being used. For roots, the best harvest time is in spring right before the plant emerges from the ground or in the fall just after it goes into dormancy. For the leaves of a plant, it is best to harvest just prior to flowering. The flowers should be picked just as they are opening.

“We are going for very high quality, and the work is meticulous,” she said.

Once the herbs are harvested, they are immediately incorporated into the various products from the farm. Their more than a dozen herb-infused honeys are loved from coast-to-coast, as the growing notoriety of the farm’s products has landed the couple in San Francisco to hand out samples and on the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Dawn also handcrafts skin creams, tinctures, bug repellant cream, first aid items and an extremely popular poison ivy relief kit.

And, while the Combs agreed to meet in the middle and live somewhere between city and rural, the quality of the products from the resulting Mockingbird Meadows Honey and Herb Farm is no compromise.

For more about the farm, visit

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

My daughter has always been energetic and I was excited when we had the chance to harness some of that energy for something constructive when she started playing soccer at three years old. What I have since discovered in her (and her teammates’) exploits on the field of play is somewhat less than constructive, though certainly entertaining.

Last fall and this spring, her team took to the fields in epic battles of post-toddler soccer struggles. More often than not, multiple players from each team are sidelined due to crying, distractions or potty breaks. And, most generally, if the players stay on the field and reasonably engaged in the game, it is a great victory worthy of celebration with a post-game ice cream cone (a favorite for both daddy and daughter).

Needless to say, this spring has been less than ideal for little kid soccer leagues due to the steady deluge of rain, brisk winds and cool temperatures. There have been more games and practices canceled than actually held due to the unbelievably terrible weather last month. At least we still got ice cream after the practices.

While youth soccer has certainly suffered due to the soggy spring weather, there are other implications that have more significant consequences. Farmers too have been kept on the sidelines this spring as the persistent rains have left fields too wet to plant crops.

As of May 2, 1 percent of the state’s corn crop had been planted compared to 60 percent in 2010 and 32 percent for the five-year average, according to the Ohio Agricultural Statistics Service. Everything else, from peaches to oats, is well behind schedule as well and 93 percent of the state’s topsoil has surplus moisture. Many parts of the state set, or nearly set, all time April rainfall records and some areas may have set single month rainfall records for any month.

Roger Zeedyk, who farms in Defiance County in northwest Ohio, has only been able to sit and watch, with the rest of the farmers in the state, as his fields grow weeds and gather puddles beneath the steady rains.

“To be honest, I quit checking the rain gauge. It really doesn’t matter because there is another rain coming behind it the next day it seems,” Zeedyk said. “I’m not concerned yet. In ‘98 our best crops were planted between the 10th and the 17th of May and that was the best year we ever had. Every year is different.”

Along with the wet weather, the cool conditions have delayed everything this spring.

“By looking at the trees around here, you’d think it was the first of April instead of almost the first of May,” Zeedyk said. “I had one neighbor who drilled several fields of soybeans 10 days ago. Otherwise, nobody has done anything. Fortunately we have a lot of tiled ground. I think that when it quits raining and if it is warm and windy (those days are coming) we could be in the fields in five or six days easy enough. We probably won’t have a spring. We’ll go right to summer. We’ll wake up and it will be 75 or 80 degrees and we’ll go right into planting corn. There won’t be any in between.”

But until things do warm up and dry out, farmers have little choice but to sit and wait during the calendar dates that are typically ideal for planting.

“We’ve been washing tractors and hauling a lot of corn for July delivery. We’re doing odd jobs — and they are starting to get a little bit odd now,” Zeedyk said. “We’re looking for some things to do now while we wait.”

There still is ample opportunity to get crops planted in a timely manner, but it is already nearing the end of the optimal window for planting corn by mid-May, and many farmers have yet to plant one acre. As we progress through May, the planting situation will become critical if the rain does not let up. And with already tight global food supplies, the world is depending on U.S. farmers to successfully plant and harvest a bountiful crop in 2011.

I am depending on the planting season too. I need those crops, to feed the cows to produce the milk to make the delicious ice cream cones for after soccer practice. The fall season is just around the corner.