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SALTWATER PORTRAIT

For the love of plants

Helen Waite and John Feliciani selling the farm
February 5, 2019

Helen Waite and John Feliciani are selling the farm.

As the couple moves into their late 60s, the daily grind of growing fruits and vegetables and taking care of ducks and geese is just getting to be too much. So after years of welcoming people to Black Hog Farm on New Road through farm-to-table dinners and as guests of the bed and breakfast, the couple is ready for full retirement.

Feliciani’s first retirement came in 2010 after working for 38 years at Winterthur Museum and Garden in northern Delaware. It was his first official job out of college, but he had already been working there since he was 10 years old. He was the fourth generation of his family to work at Winterthur. A photograph of his grandfather working in a garden at Winterthur that appeared in LIFE magazine hangs over the couple’s fireplace.

Feliciani, originally from Kennett Square, Pa., earned a degree in ornamental horticulture from the University of Delaware and wanted to be a mushroom grower.

“I interviewed with a couple of growers and one of them offered me a job and wanted me to work 70 hours a week,” he said. “When I got out of college, I still had some partying left to do, so I went to work at Winterhur full time.”

Little did he know he would stay for nearly four decades. During the economic downturn of 2010, he was offered a retirement package and took it. He was finally able to spend more time with his wife, Helen.

“We had just gotten married in 2009 and I was commuting back and forth, coming down here on Friday nights and going back up on Monday mornings,” he said. “So it was perfect timing.”

Waite was born in Toronto, Canada, to English parents. Her family lived in Don Mills, a planned community just north of the city, and they commuted for school and work. She graduated from York University in Toronto.

After marrying her first husband, Waite moved to Connecticut for eight years, where they had two children. In 1986, they relocated again to Lewes, buying what is now Black Hog Farm.

“It was all cornfields or soybean fields around us,” she said as she thought back, considering how recent and proposed development may soon change the look of New Road.

Following a split with her husband, she worked for banks before getting into the green industries, working for Grizzly’s Landscape, then based in Milford. It was through her work at Grizzly’s that she met Feliciani. Working with the state chapter of the Professional Grounds Management Society, Waite had sought the help of national members.

“I contacted eight different groups, and the only one that responded was John,” she said.

It did take Feliciani a little while to respond, because he thought it was a joke. “A lot of mom-and-pop operations have little signs behind the counter that say, ‘Our credit manager is Helen Waite. If you want credit, go to Helen Waite,’” he said. “I had a lot of friends who liked to play practical jokes. After a couple of days, I got curious who was playing the joke, so I called, and sure enough it was legit.”

After talking with Waite, he agreed to attend a state chapter meeting. “Like most nonprofits, I said two or three words, and I got elected president,” he said.

Waite served as secretary and the two worked together. “We had the opportunity to get to know each other, and then we went off in different directions and didn’t see each other for 10 years,” Waite said.

In that time, Waite earned a master’s degree from the University of Delaware in soil science. She started her own business, Waite Garden Design, and even taught 10 semesters at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Lewes.

The couple reconnected following the death of Feliciani’s wife. “We bumped into each other and decided this was a good thing,” Waite said.

Feliciani moved to Black Hog Farm full time following his retirement from Winterthur. That’s when his second career began.

“The first year I was retired, I made the mistake of telling Helen I was bored,” Feliciani said.

“When you get two horticulturists living on a property like this, you can expect things to happen,” Waite said.

Waite had been gradually transforming the four-acre property over the years, but things really started to take off in 2010 when Feliciani moved south.

They built a mist system to propagate plants, something Feliciani had done early in his career at Winterthur. Feliciani and Waite even sold some of their plants to Winterthur.

Then they got the idea of joining farmers markets. They applied for the Historic Lewes Farmers Market, but heard it was difficult to get into, so they also applied to the Millsboro Farmers Market. They got into both. They were selling a variety of lettuces, arugula, onions, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables.

“The learning curve that first year was steep,” Feliciani said. “We’d be sold out by 10 a.m. We didn’t have enough stuff.”
They then got into figs. At one point, they were growing 24 different varieties on the property.

Then came microgreens. They would grow them and deliver them to five local restaurants on a weekly basis. And then there were the ducks and geese. “We sold a lot of duck eggs,” Waite said.

But they were a lot of work.

“You have to protect them and put them to bed, because there are foxes,” Waite said. “One year, we lost almost half our flock. We were away from the farm and we weren’t back early enough.”

But the ducks and geese also added to the atmosphere for guests of the farm. For the last six years, the couple opened their home to the public as a bed and breakfast.

“Helen always had the idea of a B&B. I said no, forget about it. We’re not having people in this house,” Feliciani said. “Guess who won?” He admits it wasn’t as bad as he feared.

“We’ve met so many wonderful people,” he said. “Actually our best friends, Mark and Margaret, they were from New York City and building a house here. Every time they came down to check on it, they stayed with us. Now we do everything with them.”

As if they weren’t already doing enough, a few years ago the couple started offering farm-to-table dinners on their large porch.
Once a month from May to October, the couple would offer a 22-person dinner with ingredients straight from the farm. It became very popular, Feliciani said.

“We would tell people the menu and schedule would be on our website [at midnight] March 15,” he said. “This past year when we did it, Helen checked at 12:15 and it already sold 27 dinners, and we sold 108 dinners out of a total of 132 the first day.”

The couple says they couldn’t have achieved all they haven’t without the help of friends in the community. Most of their endeavors were done through partnerships, with many people offering sound advice and invaluable help.

While they were constantly busy, Waite said, it was necessary.

“When you’re doing a job like this, you have to use every little thing you’ve got, every little way of earning money you can because it’s not a sure-fire rags-to-riches kind of job working as a farmer,” Waite said. “It’s a lot of physical work. And starting in our 60s. It was really demanding. John lost a lot of weight.”

The couple hopes their farm will find its way to a person or family who will use the property as a farm, but they understand that might not happen.

“We haven’t really done nearly as much as what could be done here,” Waite said. “If we were in our 40s, we could’ve done so much more.”

“We just think this property can be a great asset for someone,” Feliciani said.

The couple plans to move closer to downtown Lewes. And while they’re retiring for real this time, they don’t expect to just sit around and relax. “We want to do more volunteer work,” Feliciani said.

“With nothing to do, you kind of forget what day it is,” Waite said.

Feliciani said he wants get involved with the farmers market.

“They have been so good to us,” he said. “I’ve been involved in a lot of nonprofit organizations throughout my career, and the Historic Lewes Farmers Market is one of the best-run nonprofts. They do a great job.”