Jim Povero and Sandy Yahner have owned 10 mules over the past 30 years.
And a donkey, here and there.
“We use them to fertilize the plants,” Povero said. “Sandy rides the mules.”
A mule is half donkey and half horse, by the way. The couple has a donkey too, but Yahner doesn’t try to ride him.
“A donkey pretty much stands there,” Yahner said.
“You expect me to walk?” Povero quipped.
It was only fitting they’d use a life size resin mule to highlight their “Hee Haw Hops” farm sign on Holler Road.
Povero, a retired Marathon school reading teacher, has been growing hops the last five years on the couple’s 212-acre farm.
Last year, he and his wife obtained a mule model. They worked with artist Alice Muhlback of Ithaca, who painted the mule to create a unique sign for Hee Haw Hops.
Yahner, a sculptor and jewelry maker who taught art at Marathon School District for more than 30 years, likes the idea of using art to connect with agriculture.
“We want people to have a surprise when they drive up the hill,” she said.
“I just think it’s a new thing that’s happening,” said Muhlback, a muralist, cartoonist and graphic designer. “And to have art in farm land just draws attention to it. And I believe a farm is an artwork … They are creating and have to figure out a lot of stuff. They have to make do with whatever materials they have.”
When Maureen Knapp heard about the art mule, she thought it was incredible.
The Preble organic farmer with her husband, Paul has a giant mural on the side of their barn, in sight of Route 81, which promotes Organic Valley Cooperative, of which they are a part.
“I wanted to attract attention to the fact that we are a farming valley,” she said of the 2014 mural. “It’s got that big cow on it. ‘We are bringing the good,’ it says. That’s was we farmers are trying to do.”
“Scott Hagan from Ohio did it. He’s a barn artist. He goes around the country painting these things on barns,” Knapp said.
“It attracts a lot of attention. Not only to our farm. It’s a gateway to Preble,” she said. Knapp researched how many cars go by her farm: 28,000 a day.
“The more art that we can bring into what we do, the better we are. It’s all about community,” Knapp said. “Over the past decade, farmers have become more isolated and segmented. They used to be the center of community.”
Not anymore. The small farm is getting more difficult to operate in the corporate world, she said.
But there’s power in art. She noted an Organic Valley Cooperative farm in Cashton, Wisconsin, that had three dramatic murals on the side of their barn.
They were a centerpiece in the 300-acre dairy farm owned by Tucker and Becky Gretebeck, which included a pumpkin patch that brought in 4,000 people a year.
The murals were stunning. But an August 2018 flood took the centuryold barn, several buildings and pieces of farm equipment.
Knapp saw the story on Facebook and said people are gathering boards to try to bring the mural back.
“A guy brought me a board yesterday,” said Tucker Gretebeck, taking a break from his 50-cow grass fed dairy. “Some boards are eight miles away … A lot are shattered. Some not.”
A Gofundme page to support the couple is seeing dismal results, he said, but the need in the valley is so high after the 14 inches of rain and a wrecked dam. A recent fundraiser helped the couple.
An Organic Valley organizer of the mural project is collecting the boards in his barn, said Gretebeck. “It’s unreal. Everyone knows about it.”
The mural idea was to connect people from the city to Gretebeck’s farm.
“We signed on to the program. We didn’t know what they were going to put up and we agreed to it.”
The result was amazing. The mural can’t be rebuilt, but artists are trying to figure out how to work the found boards into a new piece. Gretebeck would like the artists to come back.
“Their art added wholeness and community to our farm,” he said.
“We have all kinds of art in our business,” said Vincent Pedini, who owns Dragonfyre Distillery in Marathon with his wife, Donna. “We have dragons in our tasting room. We have a hobbit hole. Yes, we have a painted fairy.”
“You should see our bathroom. We have 3D branches sticking out of the wall,” he said. Twinkly lights are in them.
Donna Pedini is a mixed media artist who is doing the magic. The pair started their 1062 Leonard Road distillery in 2015. The art has a huge effect on their business, Pedini said. “We try to make our distillery not just a distillery, but a destination.”
Povero has 2,100 plants and four varieties of hops and sells them to breweries around the Finger Lakes.
“The coolest of the four are the wild hops. I tracked down two locales in Cortland County with wild hops in their hedgerows. One in Marathon. One in Virgil,” Povero said.
He made cuttings from mother plants and has incorporated 200 plants into his hop fields. Every plant ought to make two pounds of hops — “If I don’t goof and mother natures doesn’t go ‘na, na, wah, hah,’” he said.
Povero and Muhlback attended a workshop on agritourism and came back determined to make an artistic sign.
“I found a life-sized mule that could be shipped to us,” Yahner. said “I talked Jim into it.”
Made of resin, she bought it on eBay from Colorado. Then she talked Muhlback into painting images on the mule, which now graces the side of the hops field in Virgil.
The model weighs 100 pounds and at the top of the ears, it’s six feet high.
“I feel the mold was made from a mule. It’s very lifelike,” Muhlback said. “It’s not like a carousel.”
“Somebody knows mules. I can tell you that,” said Yahner.
“I would do a double take seeing the mule from 30 feet,” Muhlback said.
“Foxes stop and look at it all the time,” said Yahner.
“I decided to use spray paint, which is pretty resilient,” said Muhlback.
“And then just make it a celebration of Jim and hops and the mules.”
Muhlback has several outdoor works in Ithaca and got her start with Spirit and Kitsch gallery. She says her art is more imaginative then realistic. The mule features Povero. It notes his tenure as a basketball coach at Marathon. Muhlback calls him “Mr. Hops” on it. One side of the mule has Native American symbols.
Yahner wanted her friend to list all the mules the couple had in the past.
“It also ended up with dogs and cats. Ten mules and two donkeys,” Povero said. “Alice painted it in the basement and the garage. When it was ready, we had a parade from here to the hop yard. It’s perfect.”
“Now that we have Alice’s art out there … we could connect with micro breweries,” Povero said. He’d like to see a tour of a hops or brewery trail.
“Sandy has floated the idea of you having a show using the poles of a hop yard to display things,” Povero said to Muhlback.
“Yes,” Muhlback said. “And Hopshire can serve beer.”
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