Just weeds? Dandelions are this farmer's bread and butter

Adrian Wells of Wilton, Maine has a problem unique among gardeners: He can't keep the grass out of his dandelions. Or, to put it another way, Wells grows edible dandelions as a cash crop; he just can't get them to grow where he wants them to. Oh, sure, the pesky perennials prosper on his lawn—where he doesn't want them. But they haven't exactly been flourishing in his three-acre dandelion field, where he thinks of them as "nutritious plants" and a good part of his $100,000-a-year revenue. "The trouble is," laments Wells, the world's only dandelion canner, "too much is known about how to kill dandelions and too little about how to grow them."

Wells, 46, lost much of last year's crop because of humid weather that gave the plants mildew and blight (they thrive on hot, dry days and cool evenings). He concentrated instead on blooming fiddleheads, the young
shoots of wild cinnamon ferns, which he also cans. This year he sowed his first dandelion seeds around Memorial Day and, with luck and the right weather, he might surpass his record 1973 crop of 2,600 cases. Before the plants blossom and turn tough and bitter, Wells cuts them to the ground with a converted radish harvester, leaving the roots, which will produce another crop in 25 days.

Under the Belle of Maine label, Wells' dandelions sell for $22.50 a case. Ninety percent of them go to wholesalers and the rest are bought by mail order, mostly from Florida. " 'Maineiacs' retire there," he explains, "and get a yearning for that ol' familiar taste of dandelions and fiddle-heads." (Pricey Manhattan eateries such as Four Seasons and Maxwell's Plum have fiddleheads brought in fresh during the four-week season. They are sautéed or served with other vegetables, rack of lamb and Chateaubriand.)

Dandelions (from the French dent de lion, meaning "lion's tooth") are a versatile delicacy. Says Wells: "You can use the leaf for salads, the blossom for wine and jelly and the root for coffee." They are high in vitamins but low in calories (only 200 to a pound). "I could use additives to make the product more attractive," he says, "but if people are going to eat my goods, they're going to eat the real McCoy."

His company, W.S. Wells & Son, did not start with such esoteric eats. When Adrian's grandfather, Walter Scott Wells, founded the firm in 1896, he canned everything that grew under the sun, including corn, beans, peas and apples. Then the company was passed down to Adrian's father, who built most of the Rube Goldbergian canning equipment still in use today. After World War II, competition from large canners grew too fierce, so the firm began specializing in dandelions. Adrian worked in the cannery as a boy and studied food preservation at the state agricultural college in Morrisville, N.Y. Eventually he returned to Maine to work as a die man in a tannery, until he was fired for drinking. "I was as bad a drunk as you could find," he confesses. "At night I'd go out to the barn and talk to the cows." His father (who died in 1978) made him a partner in the family enterprise on the condition that he stop drinking. "I've had 13 years of sobriety," he says proudly. "I've gone from being an alcoholic to being a workaholic."

Wells works on his canning and harvesting 14 hours a day, seven days a week, 24 weeks a year. His wife, Jean, helps with the books and son Adrian Jr., 21, is a fourth-generation dandelion farmer. From October to March Wells repairs skis in a local shop.

Wells is trying out some new, more conventional crops (such as string beans and carrots) for Maxwell's Plum. He has a strawberry patch too. As he showed it to a visitor on an early summer afternoon, Wells spotted—of all things—a dandelion growing amidst the budding berries. He promptly tore it out of the ground, threw it away and grumbled: "Darn weed."