You know the old saying: necessity is the mother of invention. A piece of equipment breaks and the genius in the farm shop is able to weld together something even better. Market prices look unfavorable or the weather is unpredictable and agricultural operations in Oregon adjust as needed.
Oregon agriculture has endured as much because of its innovations as its traditions. With Willamette Valley Melon Company, it is especially fun to see new ideas that come from a place of curiosity and optimism instead of a moment of crisis.
“We’ve been growing seedlings for years for all of the different production regions around the northwest,” says Neal Lucht of the other business he co-owns, Northwest Transplants. Those seedlings included melons and specifically watermelons for the Hermiston area. “At one point we did a variety trial for a seed company,” he says, and the experimentation continued with some of the open fields not occupied by the greenhouses holding that side of the operation.
The main question: “what would it take to grow melons here in the Willamette Valley?”
Neal Lucht, along with wife Pamela and daughter Lauren, have grown their seed of an idea into a new business, Willamette Valley Melon Company. With their horticultural experience from Northwest Transplants as well as the public facing work they’ve done with Oregon Aglink, including participating in Adopt a Farmer and leading committees for events like Denim and Diamonds, the Luchts have shaped their business into a purveyor of delicious produce and a place for communities to gather and connect with food.
What started in Neal’s words as “a hobby and research” about growing melons in the Willamette Valley led to the next question: what do you do with all the melons you figured out how to grow? “That’s what really moved us to retail,” says Neal, and the roadside farmstand was born.
From Farmstand to Something More
The stand began with the melons but quickly incorporated other fruits and vegetables grown at the property. “Everything there is something we grow,” says Lucht. While many farmstands will carry produce from other farms to increase their variety, the main stand operated by Willamette Valley Melon Company is unstaffed and runs on an honor system, which would make divvying the proceeds more challenging. Customers pick their selection and then drop cash or a check into the paybox or pay via mobile app Venmo. It works well to keep labor costs down, with staff mainly coming by daily to restock what has just been picked in the fields.
If the thought of stopping at a farmstand only to pay via an app and not chat with someone for a few minutes makes you nostalgic for a more connected time, don’t worry too much. Connection seems like a given with the different events the team at Willamette Valley Melon Company puts together to bring in community members from the area and draw in new faces from farther afield.
Still, says Neal, “It’s an easy thing to learn how to grow something, it’s twice as hard to learn how to sell it and get people connected to it.”
“Horticulturally, I can work on the farm and develop the practices to grow things and get production down,” he continues, “but then someone’s got to be entirely focused on the marketing, sales, growth plans. You just cannot do it all.”
So while Neal continues with steering the variety selection and harvesting melons at peak ripeness, the other Luchts–Pamela and Lauren–are leading the team that develops and promotes their events on the farm. It started with the Family Fun on the Farm in fall of 2020, which included a corn maze grown to say “Do the Watermelon Crawl,” teasing their next big rollout of the first annual Watermelon Crawl in 2021. Since then, they’ve added a sweet corn fundraiser called Shuck Cancer, a weekend horse-riding event called Sip & Ride, and their recent Mother’s Day event with flower baskets grown in the greenhouses.
“We’re still so new at it but we’re getting better at it,” says Pamela of the events. “It’s great to see families out having a good time” she continues. Agreeing, Neal mentions that there are whole segments of communities around Molalla that have become more engaged with the farm as the result of the events, which include family-friendly activities, local food trucks, vendors, and musicians.
Chance to Connect and Educate
Everyone loves a party, but Neal and Pamela both emphasize the opportunity to help people understand where their food is coming from. In his words: “We’re focused on how we can provide an educational component and connect people to food and farm.” Pamela agrees and shares that they are looking at getting more schools involved.
Their events have many of the classic farm visit activities like a wagon tour, pumpkin patch, and corn maze, but the chance to eat a delicious meal and chat with the local farmer presents opportunities for learning about the food itself and local agriculture.
With Neal being busy in the greenhouses and fields, it’s a treat to have him share more insights about their practices. You can ask just about anything about the farm– say their irrigation methods or choice to use biodegradable plastic that mulches into the soil after harvest– and he’ll give you a full explanation about how it works and most importantly, why it works for their farm. While many customers might appreciate choices from an environmental or social standpoint, Neal makes it easy to understand how the operation keeps running from a business perspective as well.
Where Do You Grow From Here?
In the same way the Luchts keep testing and working out the best melons to get out to the public, they also continue to fine-tune their event lineup. The Mother’s Day event in May was a success this first year, but Pamela suggests that it might look different next year and incorporate more celebration of Father’s Day and parenthood in general.
Many people think of a trip to the farm surrounding summer and fall harvest festivities. The greenhouses next door at the Lucht’s Northwest Transplants operation present a unique opportunity for Willamette Valley Melon Company to push up that event window almost a whole season with things like flower baskets. “[Let’s] get people connected to our operations in that time of year that they wouldn’t think about,” says Neal. “We’re shifting into events that early.”
The greenhouses have been a big contributor to the “what if?” spirit in their corner of Molalla. In previous years, you could find citrus fruits and even a pineapple plant growing in one or two of the greenhouses thanks to Neal’s curiosity about what he could do with the right combination of heat and humidity. With the farmstand, Neal says, “we have a lot of potential for extending our seasonal fruit stand selection and offering greenhouse produce in the same retail format.”
Growth can look like new produce, new events, new seasons, but at Willamette Valley Melon Company, one of the most important places of growth is putting together a team, says Pamela. “Where we’re building success is our approach to divide and conquer,” adds Neal. Everyone brings their own strengths.
At Willamette Valley Melon Company, it’s not just one person running the show, and it’s not just one family or business that benefits from an idea that brings a community together.
By Allison Cloo