I recently caught up with Delilah Miske, a second year apprentice in our Diversified Vegetable Apprenticeship program. She told me a story about land. What it has to teach us and how it can transform us. She shared how apprenticing at Katydid Hill (formerly Tooth of the Lion) near her hometown has changed her relationship with the land she grew up thinking of as coal country.
She also reflected on what she’s learned through working with her mentor farmers to start her own enterprise and redefine the vision for the farm—homing in on the herbs that love to grow on the rocky hills of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
What experiences made you want to farm?
I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I did grow up catching frogs in creeks. I was always very curious about the living world. My dad is a florist and landscaper, so our conversations always involved me asking him what the name of that blue puffy flower was or if something was a perennial in Pennsylvania.
That said, I got my bachelor’s degree in fine art, and after that I moved to Philadelphia. I lived there for a few years, nannying and trying to make some art on the side. But I was always trying to find ways to travel out of the city; to tend to land.
Herbs were my gateway into agriculture.
A friend who was farming at the time recommended I look into this three-month internship at Herbpharm in Oregon, where you worked on the farm and took herbal classes. I did that and learned so much in such a short period of time, but also realized how much I didn’t know about agriculture. Something that is so important in our daily lives—food, tea, medicine—so much work and time goes into producing those things. I just wanted to learn more.
What about this farm made it feel like the right place to learn more?
Katydid Hill (formerly Tooth of the Lion) is in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, which is where I grew up.
Having learned to farm out west, in Oregon and Hawaii, my teachers out there would talk about the East Coast, and Pennsylvania specifically—how amazing the soil is. And I couldn’t believe that growing up here, I had never had that awareness.
When I learned that there was a medicinal herb farm in the county I grew up in, I just felt like I had to go and work there. I specifically moved back to the area because of this farm, to learn how to cultivate these plants in a familiar place, close to home.
Did farming in the place where you grew up give you a different perspective on that land?
Totally. This is coal country. Growing up, I didn’t even really know it was possible to farm here —because of the rocky soil, the hills, and impact of mining on the region.
Growing on this land has also given me such a deeper understanding of the seasons and cycles here in Pennsylvania.
Prior to farming I had no idea how in depth you can familiarize yourself with a piece of land. It seems like the more time you spend in these hills, the more they show you and the more you can learn from them.
Just within the two years here, I have seen shifts in what plants did really well compared to last year, pest pressure, and how the differences in the weather affect the growing season.
How have your Diversified Vegetable Apprenticeship mentor farmers, Katelyn Melvin and Ben Wissinger, supported and maybe even shaped you as a farmer?
Both Katelyn and Ben have taught me so much, from running a small business to learning how to identify plants at different stages in their life cycle, to just overall asking the hard philosophical and moral questions that come with the territory of agriculture.
We also have some pretty steep hills here, which were very intimidating when I first started. Especially on the tractor.
But they were so supportive of me and were just like, “You got it!” And now I feel much more confident. Learning how to drive a tractor on a hill… I feel like driving straight on level land is nothing.
They even suggested you develop your own product line.
Yeah! Katelyn and Ben presented the idea of me having my own enterprise project going into my second year of apprenticeship, where I would break down the budget, order supplies for the project, and grow what’s needed. I was thinking about how I learned about herbs, and it wasn’t until I had a direct experience either making medicine or seeing the living plants that I felt I really understood how it all worked.
Hands on learning has always been my favorite way to pick up on things, and I wanted to give that to our community.
I wanted to create an interactive project that gave people an experience with herbalism.
I decided to develop a kit where they could make their own herbal salve and learn about calendula through direct experience with it.
An interesting and kind of surprising part of developing the new product line has been learning about the marketing side of things. That’s something I really didn’t understand before. It’s a really important part of owning a small business, and it can actually be really fun!
I think I used to feel like marketing is like this manipulative thing… But I’ve found when you’re growing a product that you’re truly passionate about, the marketing can be really genuine and honest, and like this creative outlet.
I can definitely see that creativity at work. You made a zine to go along with the calendula salve kit?
Yes. The zine idea started as an instructional guide about how to do the project. It gradually evolved and unfolded into writing about how calendula has been used historically, some interpretations of magic, and a little background about myself and why we choose to farm sustainably.
So, I understand Tooth of the Lion is becoming Katydid Hill. Can you tell us a bit about the new name and vision for the farm—what sparked this change?
To put it simply: Love.
Katelyn started this farm. And through farming, she met Ben. They fell in love, got married, and wanted to reshape the farm to show the transition to shared ownership. Tooth of the Lion was the roots that have grown into the newly reformed Katydid Hill. (Katydid was Kateyln’s childhood nickname…and we farm on a hill!)
The new name also coincides with a narrowing of scope for the farm. We cut our crop list in half—twice. As we scale up production, we wanted to focus on tea and herbs that grow well for us. We really love chamomile, and growing a whole acre of it is pretty magical. Phasing out the crops that needed a lot of intervention has allowed us to reduce farm inputs, streamline our workflow, and really focus on quality.
Tooth of the Lion gave us room for experimenting and learning what worked really well on these hills and what crops were struggling here. For Katydid Hill we wanted to move forward the best of the best—the crops we love to grow and that also really seem to love to grow on this land.
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