Gardening and farming have been in Melia Thompson’s life since she was a little girl. Growing up in Clarksburg, she fondly remembers gardening with her grandparents, who encouraged her curiosity and green thumb.
“I grew up gardening with my grandparents,” she said. “They always let me go to the greenhouse and let me pick out the tomato plant that I wanted. It was planted in a little spot on the corner and, looking back now, I think they must have been giving it some type of soluble fertilizer because my tomato plant was always the largest. It always produced the most tomatoes, and I think that was probably because they were feeding it something and I did not know.”
Thompson also helped with other crops on her grandparents’ farm and used the farm as her own personal playground, which led her to want to continue that lifestyle when she got older.
“I think them including me in pulling the garlic and letting me play in the corn patch – I was allowed to play hide and seek in the corn patch – and things like that instilled a love of gardening that I didn’t know I had until I was older and I had my own kids.
“When Josh and I got married, we continued to garden,” she continued. “He, of course, grew up gardening – when he was a youngster, as well.”
The Thompsons returned to Green Bank, where Josh grew up, and started their own family and garden. Their first child, Mariah, developed health issues at a young age, which led Melia to be even more cognizant of the food her family ate.
“It wasn’t until my daughter, Mariah, had her health issues that I really realized that gardening wasn’t just important, it was actually a passion to feed my family healthy food and to know where my food came from,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that I was giving them the best food that I could, and that, in fact, is by growing it ourselves. It’s kind of how I started and how it morphed over time. Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
When the Thompsons returned to Green Bank, Melia initially took a job at the Green Bank Observatory, while Josh worked at Snowshoe. Now, Melia is gardening and farming full-time, with Josh helping when he’s not at work. The children, Mariah, 11, and Isaiah, five, have also gotten into the gardening spirit and help when they can.
The Thompsons now have four gardens, a corn patch, seed house and caterpillar tunnels.
“Caterpillar tunnels are a small version of a high tunnel, so they can be anywhere from a foot tall to three feet tall, but essentially, they’re moveable,” Melia explained. “Where a high tunnel is – obviously, not a permanent structure – but people keep it where it is, I have the ability to heat soil in different places. I have beets ready to be picked in four or five days because of my caterpillar tunnels.”
With the smaller tunnels, Thompson said it is easier to allow plants to get exposed to nature, but at the same time, have a protective shell when needed.
“If a big wind storm is coming and I have broccoli plants that are starting, I don’t want those broccoli plants damaged,” she said. “I go out and it takes me fifteen minutes to cover a hundred foot row and I’ve saved that entire crop. Caterpillar tunnels just give you more versatility in your garden. They allow you to grow more because you can heat the soil, but it’s also a good protective cover.
“They’re also more cost effective. Starting out, we built caterpillar tunnels and now we’re like, ‘why would we do anything else.’ It works, it really does.”
Although caterpillar tunnels don’t extend the growing season as long as high tunnels do, they still manage to help the Thompson’s garden grow.
“What don’t we grow,” Melia joked. “We definitely have all your top ten vegetables. We do sweet corn, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, sweet and hot peppers, broccoli, cabbage, beets, radishes – you name it. Every type bean, peas, carrots, garlic, onions. We’ve taken a whack at things like Brussels sprouts and leeks.”
Melia said that, through the years, they have learned there are plants that do better than others in their garden.
“There’s something about sticking with what you know and doing it well,” she said. “I may have some Brussels sprouts to sell this summer, but not multiples because I haven’t quite mastered that, yet.”
As the Thompson’s garden grew into multiple gardens and a full-scale farm, there was a surplus of produce that the family couldn’t consume on their own. Four years ago, Melia joined the Pocahontas County Farmers Market, of which she is now president. She also added a farm stand last year at her home to sell produce on the merit system.
“I can put out four hundred dollars worth of produce in the morning and it will be gone by two or three o’clock, so there’s definitely a demand for fresh produce,” she said. “Even though we live in such a rural community where you think everybody grows a garden, it’s not necessarily true – or what I grow, they don’t grow.”
Being a member of the Farmers Market has helped Melia see how to provide plenty of choices for the customers.
“It’s kind of cool to see who grows what and the variety of things they grow,” she said. “I’m really into the big stripy tomatoes – those big yellow tomatoes with the red stripes through them. Nobody else at the Farmers Market grows them, so it’s really interesting to see who grows what and be able to support different vendors because they grow different things – and you want to try those different things.”
Once the Thompsons started selling their produce, they wanted to make sure they were providing the best produce possible. One way to do that was to have their soil tested through a program offered by West Virginia University Extension Service.
“It wasn’t something that we really thought about,” she admitted. “Now that we’ve gotten larger and started growing more, we now test our garden soil three times a year. We send it off to WVU through the Extension Office. It is a free service – you have to pay to get there – but they will test your soil and send back a full analysis of it.”
The analysis will provide information including what the soil needs in order to help certain crops grow better and even tells exactly how much of each mineral or additive to put in the soil per square feet.
“In our cornfield this year, we need to add some lime to it,” Melia said. “They tell you how much per square feet they recommend, and, of course, if you need help, the extension office is always ready to help.
With the added knowledge and help to keep the gardens as healthy as possible, as well as the Farmers Market as a place to sell produce, the Thompsons have seen their business grow in many ways.
“The Farmers Market has been invaluable to me as far as furthering my business as a farmer and wanting to be a full-time producer,” Melia said. “It’s not only grown for me, but the whole market has grown.”
The Farmers Market has sites in Green Bank, Linwood, Marlinton and Hillsboro. While the market suffered a bit during the COVID-19 pandemic, Melia said it is back in full force this year, and she is excited to see it return to its glory in serving the community.
“We’re now back up to Green Bank, Linwood, Hillsboro and Marlinton,” she said. “When Marlinton first started, it was just during First Friday events, but there was such a demand for it, that now we’re there every single Friday. All the markets will open up the end of May, first of June, and they’re going to go into October this year.”
This year will be a bit different for Melia. Although she is still president of the Farmers Market, she will not be a vendor. Instead, she has opened her own produce store in Green Bank, called Homemade Harvest.
Having a storefront for her produce has been a dream for years and at the beginning of May, that dream finally came true.
“It really has been a dream of mine just to have my own business,” she said. “I’ve always had that want to create something of my own. I want to be able to do what I want to do at my pace. Just with the growth of the market and needing to create a space at home for myself and a space somewhere else for work is really where the need for Homegrown Harvest came from.”
The store is located in Dr. Roland Sharp’s former office. The building also houses a branch of Seneca Trail Physical Therapy.
In addition to her own produce, Melia will also have ice cream, homemade items, bakery goods from Jackson River Bakery and Deli and produce from other county farmers.
“I will now be a customer at the Farmers Market because at the end of the day, if they haven’t sold something, I will go pick it up and bring it to the store. That will allow them to sell all week long,” she said. “I’m hoping that it will be a nice simpatico relationship which gets fresh foods into the community.”
Homegrown Harvest will include a kids club, called Rah-Rah-Radishes in which children ages two to 12 can get free produce and activity packets.
“Every two weeks, we will have a new piece of produce to give the kids,” Melia said. “They do not have to sign up, it’s absolutely free. You will get that piece of produce, but you will also get a packet that has information about that vegetable, where it came from, what farmer produced it and different little tips on what that food is good for. Then it will have activities – anything from a color sheet to things to do with vegetables, like if it’s beets, you can make dye after you cook them.
“It’s a way to engage them around their food and not just say ‘we’re eating this and this,’ but try to say, ‘we eat this because…’ and teach them about the nutrition factor, but also make it fun and creative,” she added.
Mariah and Isiah came up with the name for the club and Mariah is drawing a Rah-Rah-Radishes’ mascot which will be included in the packets.
The store had a soft opening May 5 and will have a grand opening celebration Memorial Day weekend.
“We’ll be doing a barbecue roast outside and have some music,” Melia said. “People doing different craft-like things throughout the day. It will be a shebang happening that weekend to draw people in and to see the store.”
Homegrown Harvest is located at 4914 Potomac Highlands Trail in Green Bank. It is open Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and may extend to Tuesdays and Wednesdays in July through September during peak production season.
For updates, visit the Homegrown Harvest Facebook page.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at email@example.com