|By MEGAN KUHN
FALMOUTH, Ind. — The field next to Matt and Sheila VanNatta’s rural Rush County home isn’t filled with corn or soybeans, but with another more colorful cash crop - daylilies.
Like many small family farms, the VanNattas have looked for ways to diversify their operation for years. Matt farms about 500 acres full-time, while Sheila commutes to Indianapolis five days a week for her job with a transportation company. They began growing daylilies about five years ago and have been commercially selling them for the past two years.
“It’s tough for small family farmers to continue today,” said Matt. “It usually takes two (incomes).”
The VanNatta’s daylily operation - Daylily Connection - grew out of a misunderstanding between the couple. Matt told his wife that there was an article in the Farm World that he wanted her to read. Sheila admits now to only half listening to the request but she did pick up the paper later.
What she read was an article about a Kentucky tobacco farmer who converted some of his acreage to daylilies and how the new operation allowed him to spend more time with his family. She was intrigued.
However, the article that Matt had wanted her to read was on cattle genetics because at the time their son, Colt, was a student at Purdue University majoring in animal science.
While Sheila was interested in the idea of growing daylilies commercially, she started out small, collecting one or two plants of varieties that she enjoyed. A visit to a display garden in southern Indiana last spring shifted Sheila’s plans into overdrive.
“Primal Scream started it all,” Matt said. “That’s the variety Sheila was looking for when we found the display garden for sale.”
The couple, who owned the display garden, was looking to retire and after several discussions, the VanNattas decided to buy their entire stock of daylily plants.
Starting last spring, the VanNattas, with help of son Colt, set about 40,000 daylily plants by hand in a field of soybean stubble. The daylily operation, which includes more than 750 varieties, currently takes up about one and a quarter acres next to the VanNattas home.
“Matt has gotten ribbed a bit from other farmers for planting flowers in his farm field,” Sheila said.
Matt added, “Especially when I had to plow under a corner of my already growing soybean field because we needed a bit more room to plant last spring, but I think the neighbors are beginning to see what we are doing here.”
The VanNattas decided to treat the daylily operation just like any other crop on their farm. They are a state-inspected, licensed facility.
“I set up the rows so customers can walk easily through the field, but also with enough room so I can drive in with a tractor and sprayer in case I need to spray for weeds, insects or disease,” Matt said.
He added that rust on daylilies showed up sooner than soybean rust, but the disease has not affected the plants too badly. With the busy season for the daylily operation in late June and July, it fits in nicely with Matt’s other crops - corn, soybeans and hay.
“Normally I should be done with most of my spring fieldwork, with the exception of cutting some hay, before we get too busy with the daylilies,” he said. “It also lets us spend time working together as a couple, which is something we’ve never really been able to do.”
Sheila added that being more involved with the daylily operation has made her appreciate some of the worries that Matt has always had as a farmer, especially over the weather.
“I can identify much more with what he goes through now when it comes to the weather,” she said. “I now worry when we have strong winds or hail.”
“Although the recent rains that had Matt so worried were great for the daylilies. They love water. The more they get, the more they thrive,” Sheila added with a smile.
The daylily operation normally doesn’t require much in the way of daily upkeep.
“I look at them daily - check them over for disease or insects and deadhead them,” Sheila said. “But really I go out to enjoy them.”
Enjoying them is what she hopes her customers who visit the farm will do. “I am just hoping the people come out and enjoy them as much as I do,” she said.
Initially, the VanNattas did not plan on opening the farm to the public.
“We decided to stick with mail and Internet orders only,” Sheila said. “We didn’t think the local community would be interested in buying from us.”
So they created a website - www.daylilyconnection.com- and began selling online. Business has been good, according to Sheila. They have shipped plants across the country from Maine to Alabama. “We recently had an inquiry about shipping to the country of Latvia,” Sheila said.
In the process of learning more about their new horticulture crop, the VanNattas joined two daylily e-mail groups and are members of the American Hemerocallis Society. They also went through the local Master Gardeners course and became members of the Rush County Master Gardeners club. They found that there was interest in their community about what they are doing, so they decided to open the farm during bloom season.
The farm officially opened for the season last weekend with about half of the plants in bloom. However, the VanNattas expect the farm to be in full bloom between July 4-10.
Daylily Connection is open to the public from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday now through August 6 or by appointment. The farm is also open over the holiday weekend - Friday, June 30 through Tuesday, July 4. For details, call 765-969-8989. It is located at 6338 East 900 North off of State Road 3 in Rush County. For a listing of varieties and a price list, visit www.daylilyconnection.com
This farm news was published in the June 28, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.