By Angela Madaras | Photography by Hilary Nichols
(Editor’s Note: The writer, Angela Madaras, has written numerous articles about local farming for the CW Journal. She’s put her heart into these stories. She has been struggling with lupus during the years of writing for us. Nearing completion of this article, Angela went into hospice. It means much to her to see this article in print, and this profile reflects her deep love for Ann Arbor’s organic food culture.)
On a bitter cold and rainy day in late April, my husband and I were inspired to do our annual trek to HillTop Greenhouse and Farms to plot this year’s garden and bask in the warmth and stunning visuals contained within the expansive space.
The day before I was in the process of contemplating another horticultural local for the farm beat column for the Crazy Wisdom Journal while in the midst of personal challenges that greatly hindered my ability to tackle basic tasks. I simply could not come up with a story line. I knew I had to let go and trust that the perfect story would reveal itself if only I pay attention and step aside. Quite honestly I was going to postpone the piece for a later date.
Then the family that inspires HillTop moved me. I firmly believe there are no real coincidences. Sometimes life carries me to a certain intersection in time, where if I pay attention to the subtle nudges guiding my path, I am better able to accept there are hands of something greater than myself guiding the way. As we were leaving, it became completely clear their story was meant to be shared with reverence and gratitude.
HillTop Greenhouse and Farms is located between Parker and Jackson Road, ten minutes from Ann Arbor, and we have been patrons for the 11 years since they opened. The proprietors, Denise and Ken Prielipp, and their staff have a way of being that is uplifting. Getting a hug from Denise is a bonus!
The space is nurturing and visually stunning; overflowing with colorful vibrant hanging baskets, an expansive array of annuals, perennials, and my personal favorite, vegetable and herb seedlings. They have one of the most extensive varieties for edibles starters I have ever encountered, including heirloom and rare varieties alongside the most popular choices for our region. Denise and Ken procure non-G.M.O. and seeds sourced by initiative companies, when available. They hand seed 90 percent of their plants, with the exception of tropicals, and other proprietary annuals and perennials (all clearly labeled). The green house is 52,000 square feet and very peaceful.
After spending an hour with them while my husband and I contemplated our summer garden, they shared with us their new winter venture of raising fresh vegetables and herbs to sell at their stall at the Royal Oak Farmers’ Market.
I was honored to capture a portion of the following interview amidst Denise and others working, laughing, and sharing in the conversation. They moved through the greenhouse gently carrying by hand the jalapeño seedlings to their new home in the veggie garden area. I sat at a table in the center of the greenhouse with an incredibly wise and grounded woman Denise calls “Ma B” (Frances Baldus). We placed tiny jalapeño seedlings into trays in a “quilting bee fashion.” Denise and Ma B’s bond touched me in a profound way. I realized in that moment that the heart of this operation is not just the business of farming-horticulture, sustainability, or raising beautiful flowers and edible plants for all to eat and enjoy. HillTop is a precious family heirloom sewn tenderly together with weathered hands, commitment, resilience, hard work, and a supportive community of “friends.” This is the legacy they will leave for their three children and future generations.
Angela Madaras: What is the nature of your relationship with “Ma B”?
Denise Prielipp: Ma B, I met her through her son, Ken. He was a sales rep for the greenhouse — seeds. I was looking for a reference for a seamstress to make a christening gown [out of my wedding gown] for our daughter, Lindsey. Ken introduced us. I physically met her at JoAnn Fabrics while dropping off my wedding gown. It pained Ma terribly to cut up a wedding gown. To this day, I have my wedding gown, but an heirloom piece for my children also, all sewn together with love from a woman I admire and a story they also know and can share as time passes.
As our family grew with David, my dear friend made David's entire christening suit. So a beautiful gown and a suit for our family to treasure for all time. Ma B is a dear, dear friend. She's one I hold closest to my heart. She is a mentor, teacher, and woman through whom I've learned how to become a better person, wife, life lessons, and motherhood. We share an enormous amount of time together laughing, and sometimes in silence, just being in the greenhouse and all the beauty surrounding us. Knowing that each day is a gift to have such a special woman in my life. [Denise gets teary just talking about Ma B and it is contagious as I found myself welling up with tenderness.]
Angela Madaras: Tell me about your beautiful “Three Little Farmers”.
Denise Prielipp: David, age 9, raises chickens. He received his first six chickens for his fourth birthday, of which six ended up being roosters. We then replaced [them] with egg laying hens. That was the birth of his fledgling business, David’s Eggs. We found another home for the roosters and bought other eggs that are the best sellers at the market. Courtney, age 13, plans on selling her meat goats, Sweetheart and Leia, at the Washtenaw County 4-H fair in July. She's planning on saving her dollars for college from the sale of the goats. Lindsey, age 10, is collaborating with David in growing and selling sunflowers.
Angela Madaras: You used to have a nine to five job, working for G.M.A.C. Finance 13 years ago, that you left after you met your third-generation-farmer husband, Ken. Would your children prefer you work “a normal” nine to five job, as you did then?
Denise Prielipp: That’s right. I met Ken at the Royal Oak Farmers’ Market, I was working a second job after I got off work at G.M.A.C. in the evenings selling for a farmer and Ken was at the stall next door. We got married and purchased 42 acres to start the greenhouse together. That was the end of nine to five. And my kids love that this is our life.
AM: Are you inspired by your grandfather, also a farmer?
DP: Absolutely. I saw his hard work and his dedication my whole life, from when I was a young child until the day that he passed on. He worked on a hobby farm and sold vegetables at his roadside farm stand until he was no longer able to do that. It was in Bruce Township.
AM: How do you think about what you do?
DP: We actually talk about that daily. “We feed families,” David says on a repeated basis. Courtney, in particular, is passionate about saving farmland. She told us that, "People want to move to the country next to the farmer, but they’re taking space to grow food for them and others when they buy farm land. It’s a big circle. Land equals food. No land, no food." So says a 13-year-old wise beyond her years.
Lindsey — she's my girl who wants to run in a field. She says, “Mom, I could never live where there are close neighbors. I want to be able to run and play without worrying. Climbing trees and making forts in our barn, things my friends don't get to do.”
AM: What inspired you to become voluntarily MAEAP certified?
[Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (www.maeap.org) is a recognition by the State of Michigan as a sustainable farm working in service for environmental protection. HillTop is the first greenhouse in Michigan to receive certification.]
DP: We have one land. Ken and I care about the land that we farm and live from. The land provides our family our way of life. Land is a gift; never take the land for granted. Recycling plastic, down to the plant tag, is just what needs to be done. MAEAP Certification was just a simple way to publicly acknowledge our family’s efforts to the community that we care about. It's for our family, as well, our children, and our community, and to our state. MAEAP is a voluntary program. It took us three years, and thousands of dollars — of our own — to finally put all the pieces together to become certified. Well worth the time and dollars to rest at night knowing that we are valued by the State of Michigan as an environmentally friendly farm.
AM: Do you have any hints or ideas for first time gardeners?
DP: Don't overload yourself. Start small. Grow what you will eat. Plant colors that you enjoy looking at if you’re planting flowers. Most importantly, know yourself. If your lifestyle doesn't fit into a watering schedule, be honest. Success is key. From the newest and littlest gardener to the most elaborate of gardens, it's always a learning experience. It takes time to grow a garden, and it takes time to grow in learning what best suits a gardener.
AM: To which organizations do you donate?
DP: There's a whole list, but most importantly we give back to the communities that shop with us. We're in Chelsea with the Boy Scouts for a fundraiser in the spring, Dexter Schools for a mum sale, plants for science projects, Oakland County Habitat for Humanity, and The Ann Arbor Garden Walk. We've also contributed to Food Gatherers’ Auction and Ele's Place.
AM: Did you receive any grants or assistance financially?
DP: No grants here. Sacrifice, sweat, sacrifice, tears, struggles, support, and love from friends and family and days we were carried through by a higher power to make this dream live.
Most importantly, what I personally want to share is gratefulness. During the downturn in the economy those who only had a few extra dollars in disposable income came in and supported us. Just one basket or one flat. Sharing that they couldn't afford to plant as they used to, but they still wanted something in their yard, and they made a conscious effort to make our business their destination of choice. We are not located on a main road. Our “friends who shop with us,” as Ken and I call our customers, are intentional each year to remember us. We don't spend dollars advertising. So every new face, every friend over the years is made via another friend.
AM: What do you enjoy doing on your off hours?
DP: Watching my children run together. Their smiles, hearing their giggles. Looking at my husband’s hands with the toil of the day’s work out in the fields, feeling his calluses as I hold his hands. The flicker of a campfire when all of us can sit and share.
Most evenings in the Prielipp household, while sharing dinner, we ask the children the following questions: what was the worst part of the day, then the best part, and something to be thankful for. In that order. Always ending on thankfulness.
Denise, Ken, and their children bring people together; sowing seeds of gratefulness for those who are drawn to support them, and of course, the greenhouse and picturesque farmland that sustain their livelihood.
Their gratitude and joy are palpable and extremely contagious. I, too, share the belief that being thankful for every moment on terra firma is the key to authentic joy and that deep reverence for the fertile land which sustains each and every one of us is a grander family heirloom.
HillTop Greenhouse and Farms is located at 8996 West Liberty Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48103. You can visit their website at www.hilltopgreenhousea2.com. For more information, call them at (734) 302-4233, or email them at HilltopGreenhouseA2@yahoo.com. Shoppers are welcome on a seasonal schedule starting in late April, with seasonal hours updated on their website and Facebook. Mother’s Day is a favorite time to buy plant starters there, with the greenhouse filled and open to the public.