Growing biodiversity at Happy Cat Farm

Happy Cat Farm’s Tim Mountz, along with his wife,Amy Bloom, farm almost 2 acres on East Farm ona slight incline called Oak Hill behind East Barnat Winterthur, the historic du Pont family estate groundsin Kennett Square, Pa.


Happy Cat Farm gets lots of help-two others full time and two part time in the early season, and by growing season, three other full-time and three part-time workers-when needed.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF HAPPY CAT FARM. B10 Growing APRIL 2011 Grow0411_NB1-

They grow 22 varieties of potatoes, plus lots of Asian greens and 12 types of mustard greens, 20 different peppers (though they’ve grown up to 80 different pepper plants) and as many as 12 radishes. On other nearby acreage, Happy Cat grows 230 varieties of tomatoes, and Mountz was just gifted another 37 varieties. “I promised Amy that I would quit at 200, then 250,” he says. “Now, I’m saying 300.”

There are advantages to variety and the biodiversity it creates. When blight devastated many tomato crops two years ago, Happy Cat had some heirlooms that were growing. Its vast array of produce also makes its farmstands distinct.

“Part of it is not wanting to be the same as everyone else,” Mountz admits. “Still, someone will ask me for a red tomato, and I’ll ask them if they know where New Jersey is. We do grow a few reds, but usually we encourage people to try a different one, or to try a black one.”

Other growers’ farmstand signs advertise “heirlooms,” but Happy Cat swears its colorful mixed pints provide an education too. Mountz has even bred his own tomato, Tim’s Black Ruffle (though he toyed with calling it Darth Tomato Vader or Black Tomato Metal). Either way, it’s a cross of a Black Krim and a Mexican Zapotec, and it is now being grown in seven countries. It’s also made two of the most prominent top 10 lists for best heirloom tomatoes.

“I may not be the best farmer, but I have the coolest market stand,” he says.

It’s where Happy Cat first connected with Martha Stewart’s people, an encounter that led to a summertime tomato shoot last year and a forthcoming article in her Whole Living magazine. Country Living magazine also featured Happy Cat in a seed-starting article early this spring. This winter, its new website (happycatorganics.com) launched.

Happy Cat is not your average seed company; it grows all its different seed out, then plants what it sells – mostly in 3-foot-wide, 20-foot-long beds that can be straddled and worked over – and sells what it plants, taking it all to produce, and then back to seed again. Mountz, 40, does a lot of lecturing too. He’d like to start a school one day to inspire others. He’s also writing a book with a friend about seed-to-table growing.

“It’s all a vicious cycle,” Mountz jests. “We’re definitely doing more than selling seed, and we just sense the need to take it all to the next level. We’re doing it all like they do in England. We’re tying it all together.”

Last year, they prepared 13,000 seed packets by hand. By May, they had sold 25,000 transplants and planted 3,000. The goals this year, Happy Cat’s third as a corporate entity, are to double those numbers. They’ve tripled business each of the first two years, focusing on tomatoes and peppers the first year, adding more peppers the second year, and then focused on greens last year. “Now, people are asking for everything else, so we’re giving it to them,” Mountz says.


Happy Cat Farm’s Tim Mountz, along with his wife, Amy Bloom.

Before this season, he still had a side job in the retail clothing industry. Bloom, 31, is a full-time horticulturalist at Winterthur, which allows the couple to live economically in estate housing. The relationship also provides Oak Hill, and space for their third-year farmers’ market there on Saturdays. On Sundays, they’re at Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market in Philadelphia. On the first Fridays of each month, they’ll set up at Kennett Square.

A Ball jar of seed

In 1993, Mountz’s grandfather was killed in a car accident. Within his estate was a Ball jar of bean seeds, including a cowpea thought to have originated in a local freed African-American community. There was also one bean, Stoltzfus Refugee, for which he’s considered the original source. In all, once researched, the jumbled mix represented some of the earliest beans grown in the colonies.

Mountz was the “next gardener in line,” which shouldn’t have been that surprising. He’d come from old dirt roots in Berks and Lancaster counties on both sides of his family. His four great-grandparents were farmers, but his own grandparents followed the Industrial Revolution, as did his father. “It took two and a half generations to come full circle,” Mountz says. “It always ran parallel to me, but I didn’t realize it.”

Initially, he didn’t know a thing about those seeds. He bought books, among them Tim Stark’s “Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer,” and interned with seed expert and food historian William Woys Weaver, who helped decipher the inheritance.

Last year, there was a big grow out of his grandfather’s bean seeds, though nothing was for sale. This season, Mountz is putting more seed back into the ground and raising the populations again as a safety valve.

It was at Stark’s Eckerton Hill Farm in Lenhartsville (Berks County) that Mountz first picked up a tomato and bit into it like an apple. “It was a life-altering experience,” he says.

When he met Bloom, she made him realize his over-the-top obsession with seeds. He was collecting and keeping them in pants pockets, pots, everywhere. She helped organize him, and his seeds.

Meanwhile, other connections gradually presented them with more and more land at Winterthur. What began as a 20-by-70-foot plot grew to 2 acres. There’s also 2 acres at H.G. Haskell’s SIW Vegetables farm on the Brandywine River, where he grows the bulk of the tomatoes. “This year, we’re expanding both of those properties,” Mountz says.

Mountz is also expanding onto another property on what is the country’s second oldest agricultural acreage – since 1650 when Dutch sellers arrived. The then 2,000 acres in what’s now New Castle, Del., were commonly called Dutch City and in 1701 became New Castle City. While just 300 agricultural acres remain, Happy Cat is farming 10 acres for sure this season, and maybe 20 if it expands into small grains in a partnership with Delaware Greenways. “We want to create a micro-education environment there,” says Mountz, who will be the project’s farm adviser.

In all, this year, Happy Cat is farming as many as 17 acres at the three sites and had a greenhouse in Lancaster, though Mountz was negotiating for space closer to his operations until he can build a 9,000-square-foot greenhouse locally in Modina. He also grows 1 acre of artichokes – native tubers that require little of his time – at his parents’ house in Jerusalem ( Berks County).

Thus far, with the plowing and tilling help of Haskell and Winterthur’s estate help, Mountz has done it all without a tractor, a concession he knows he must make this year. Without a tractor, and with minimal rent to live, the business has always been self-sustaining. Happy Cat gets lots of help – two others full-time and two part-time in the early season, and by growing season, three other full-time and three part-time workers – when needed. Others talk about sustainability, but end up at the bank. “That doesn’t make sense,” Mountz says.

Marketing growth

Success will always be based on good soil, good plants and good people, but Mountz has also realized how important it is to spend time branding. “No farmer can simply keep his or her head down looking at his carrots growing anymore,” he says.

Happy Cat is always testing, experimenting, and willing to send seeds out to others who will grow them out in different climates. Mountz would eventually like to launch a native edible plant line. Last year, he began working with a West Chester, Pa., chocolatier, <0x00C9>clat, to offer a chocolate and herbs concoction they call farm bars. Last year, they made 1,500 of them using Happy Cat’s basil, lemon verbena, lavender and rosemary. He’s spoken with Kennett Square ice cream shop extraordinaire La Michoacana about developing a tomato ice cream.

The approach is what he calls an Old-World Colonial approach to sustainability and expansion. With his international seed import license, he has friends travel the world and return with seeds for him. He’s mailed the Obamas seeds for the White House garden.

When will it all be more than the couple can handle? “When I feel like we’re losing control,” Mountz says. “We’re lucky. There are so many farming communities in Chester County, and there’s always a great supply of labor. But right now, as always, I have more ideas than I do money, but I like to work, too.”

The seeds remain his favorite part. He’s amazed by seeds and their ability to regenerate. Tomatoes keep him going, too. “There’s always that first tomato, and I think of it when I’m laying in mulch between rows, or when I’m ready to till it all back in and forget it,” he says. Then, he looks to his left and sees a pink oval Roselita on July 17, an early for the Northeast. It’s enough fuel to get him through another season. “It’s reinspiration every time,” Mountz says.

If he needs more motivation, he’s proud to be farming some of the most historic property in the nation, chiefly Winterthur. “It was a place with its own fiefdom, then one day the king died and it stopped,” he says. “It had its own dairies, its own pig slaughter operation, everything. They brought back Merino sheep [and wool]. Our effort is the first step to bringing agricultural and vegetable production back.”

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th- century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.