A weathered wood sign that reads “Compost Happens” welcomes visitors to Greenhand Nursery, where Mila Berhane and her husband Andeab cultivate seeds in tiny potting trays, 500 wells to a flat, growing them in compost-rich soil. The soil is a point of pride that Mila demonstrates with a fistful of the black gold, a smile stretching across her face.
“We make our own potting soil,” she explains. “We collect rainwater. We collect our own seeds, especially for the unusual plants. We try to be as sustainable as we can.”
When the seedlings outgrow their thimble-size wells, Mila and Andeab transfer them to upsized containers, which ultimately become healthy plants that the couple sells at Thursday and Saturday iterations of the Red Stick Farmers Market for home gardeners to enjoy.
In early February, the ground is boot-slicking black mud with a chill in the low-slung clouds. One step inside the Greenhand greenhouse, it’s tropical summer with cuttings and propagations displayed like fine art. “It looks like it’s out of control, but we know what’s going on here,” Mila says. “It’s ever changing.”
This is a true mom-and-pop operation, with two seasoned farmers who learned through trial and error. “We like to grow some unusual things,” Mila says. “We grow starfruit and sell five or six plants each year. We have curry trees, Kaffir limes and rue, which attracts blue swallowtails. We have turmeric, ginger root and galangal, heirloom okra and green heirloom eggplant, jasmine for tea. Herbs and vegetables are our most popular offerings year-round.”
A chemical engineer by training, Mila came to the United States from her native El Salvador to work in food science with the extension service. She started partnering with small farmers, hired initially as a lab manager. “Then I switched to plants!” she says, her enthusiasm unconfined. “Hands on, that’s the best way to learn.”
She is a researcher and adjunct professor at Southern University, working in commercial vegetable production and ornamental horticulture. “My main job is research,” she says. “I teach one class each semester. It’s really inspiring.”
On Friday afternoons, she and Andeab survey what’s ready for market and methodically load it into their truck for Saturday. “This is my weekend hassle,” she laughs. “He does it full time,” gesturing to Andeab, an entomologist. “He knows how to deal with the bugs. That’s why we don’t have problems. He knows what to do. The big diversity keeps the insects under control.”
A honeybee bounces from an arugula flower to a golden mustard blossom, cueing her childlike excitement. “Look who’s here! We keep anything that’s flowering to attract the bees. They have been busy today.”
The Greenhand Nursery booth at Red Stick Farmers Market welcomes Saturday visitors at the corner of 5th and Main. “We are among the original vendors at the Market,” Mila says. “We started in the beginning. We love it!”
To see more featured farmers from our March 2023 cover story, click here.