Catalpa Grove Grows Plants and Memories for Families

COLUMBIANA, Ohio – With veggies and fruit picked fresh from the fields and baked goods sometimes still warm from the oven, Catalpa Grove Farm gives customers a taste of the farm more than 40 years after it was founded.

Starting with pansies sitting on the old wagon out front, the business also sells spring flowers, landscaping and vegetable plants and herbs raised in the many greenhouses on the property, located on state Route 14, just west of Columbiana.

Joyce Bender was among the customers browsing through a quiet greenhouse at Catalpa last week. She was happy to see so many hanging baskets and plants to choose from, because she had meant to get there before Mother’s Day.

“I love flowers,” Bender said. “This is a great place. … There’s a great variety and good quality here. And a nice country setting. They change with the seasons too. … In the fall they have all the pumpkins and squash and Indian corn.”

Customers from Afar

Despite the distance from her Warren home, Bender said she usually comes back several times each year to shop at Catalpa Grove Farm. She makes a day of it, stopping at another market down the road, visiting a friend who lives in the area and stopping in Boardman on her way home.

Bender is not alone. Craig Mercer, a second-generation owner of Catalpa Grove Farm, has been amazed through the years to see people’s addresses on their checks. They travel from Steubenville, Wintersville, Pittsburgh and Cleveland to visit the farm.

“You get a lot of people driving here from the west side of Pittsburgh,” Mercer said. “They get into this neighborhood and there’s multiple farm markets. It’s nice farm country, and you have Columbiana where there are shops and the Dutch Haus to go eat at.”

Catalpa Grove Farm is located on state Route 14, just west of Columbiana.

Through the years, the farm has evolved to meet changing customer demand, Mercer notes. Flowers and plants now comprise 40% of the business. Produce remains the top seller at 60%.

In decades past, visitors wanted to pick their own produce or buy it in bulk to can or freeze. But today people like the convenience of buying items that are already picked. More people are interested in farm to table, buying something they plan to cook right away. And some buy local because they prefer knowing from where their food comes.

“You have to change with the market,” Mercer said. “That is one of the reasons we expanded the greenhouses because the people that can and freeze are considerably less than 30 years ago.”

Mercer emphasizes the freshness of the produce picked at Catalpa Grove Farm. It is not shipped from another continent or picked green and ripened in transit.

In Season

In mid-May at the farm, asparagus, rhubarb and lettuce are at their peak. Strawberries are coming. Freshly baked items, plants and gardening decorations fill up the remainder of the store.

“When people come in here in the spring, they ask if we’ve changed hands,” said Joy Weaver, who has worked there 38 years. “I say, ‘No, we’ve just changed seasons.’ We have flowers in spring, and then we change our focus to food once we get through Memorial Day.”

As the growing season progresses, the market will offer tomatoes, green beans, peas, sweet corn, lima beans, raspberries, candy onions, garlic, cantaloupe, cauliflower and cabbages as the growing season progresses.

Strawberries remain one of the items people like to pick themselves, along with tomatoes and peppers. Mercer predicts strawberries will be ripe in about two weeks. The window to pick them when they’re at their best is about five weeks.

Sweet corn, tomatoes and peppers are among the plants that are planted in multiple stages to allow the market to maintain a supply of fresh produce as long as possible throughout the summer and into early fall.

“Most farmers, it’s a sprint. You try to get everything planted right away,” Mercer said. “But here, it’s a marathon. We started planting sweet corn on March 30, and we will keep planting until mid-July.”

Some History

Craig Mercer’s parents, Tom and Martha Mercer, who were choolteachers, bought the farm from Martha’s father in 1978. When Tom retired from teaching, he and his oldest son, Craig, began growing vegetables, and the family sold what they grew from a small wagon parked in front of the farm.

Craig Mercer credits his mother for choosing the name Catalpa Grove Farm, saying his grandfather told them there was a salesman who came through in the early 1900s who claimed Catalpa trees made the best fence posts. Several groves of Catalpas were planted in the area, including on the farm.

Craig and his wife, Joanne, run the operation with their son, Ross Mercer, his wife and two children. Ross’ brother, Ryan Mercer, is an engineer but comes back to the farm with his family.

Joy Weaver, left, bakes many of the breads and other treats found in the Catalpa Grove Farm market, which she manages with the help of many long-term seasonal employees, including Bonita VanPelt, right.

The farm employs about 20 people seasonally. Weaver has been there since nearly the beginning.

“I enjoyed working with his parents,” she said. “I worked one-to-one with them, helped his dad hoe and pick peppers and melons. And his mom, we used to have a little stand under the tree and weighed everything individually and marketed it that way. So we’ve watched a lot of changes through the years.”

Now Weaver and her helpers bake the muffins, sweetbreads and coffee cakes sold in the market, while another worker prepares cookie bars. Her sister-in-law bakes the cinnamon rolls. Another baker makes “amazing” angel food cakes once strawberry season begins, Weaver said, while her crew makes a simple shortcake that also sells well. New this year, Weaver’s crew will make sourdough loaves on some weekdays.

Catalpa Grove Farm closes at Christmas, and Weaver is one of the few who works at the farm throughout the year. Even in the off season there is cleaning to do and special events near Valentine’s Day. The market reopens each March, and Weaver is busy helping to manage the day-to-day operations.

When the produce season begins, she creates a list each morning of what is needed to refill the stock, and many of those fruits and vegetables are picked daily and delivered to the market. The produce could be on the table hours after it is picked from the field.

“This is the best family available to work for,” Weaver said. “It has always been faith and family first, and everything else finds its place.”


As the growing season ends, Catalpa Grove Farm transitions into the fall. Pumpkins, squash, mums and fall decorations take over the market. A Saturday family adventure can include a hayride out to the pumpkin patch to seek the perfect jack-o’-lantern. Families make memories at the farm’s animal petting zoo area and with other fall activities.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Catalpa Grove Farm offers poinsettias, wreaths and trees.

Through some of the employees’ connections, Catalpa has added outdoor furniture, concrete statues and birdhouses – hand-built by Amish craftsmen – to the farm’s spring offerings.

Potted plants are ready at Catalpa Grove Farm as visitors get ready for their spring gardens and landscaping.

Mercer is in the process of adding a gazebo, recycled from a grain bin from another farm for another outdoor space. The perennial house is new this year

He said Covid actually boosted business. More people became interested in shopping for fresh produce at small locations, cooking at home and growing their own plants.

Although fewer people are planting large gardens, Mercer sees an increase in those interested in growing a small number of tomato plants and cucumbers, or experimenting with various varieties of hot peppers, like ghost peppers.

Mercer stressed the importance of always trying to build the business. As trends changed, the family has expanded with more greenhouses, allowing them to start their own plants for the fields and sell a larger variety. Through diversification, Catalpa Grove Farm generates revenue nearly year-round.

“It gives you income and work when you normally wouldn’t have work or income,” Mercer said. “That was a necessity to have a broader income base. … That’s why we expanded the greenhouse end of it – to try to diversify the farming operation, and that’s why we grow a lot of different crops.”

Pictured at top: Craig Mercer, who operates Catalpa Grove Farm with his wife, Joanne, stands in one of the greenhouses where a variety of plants can be found this spring.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.