Melon farmers press on after burglars stole seed money, dimmed sons' passion for farming
DIXON — Ten months ago, Harley and Joey Hettick were winding up their busiest season yet since they sowed the first seeds of Dixon Melons, Inc., 21 years before. The family’s melon venture had grown from a backyard garden plot that Harley tilled by hand to a booming business with faithful customers all over Western Montana.
In fact, the harvest was so busy that one Saturday in August, the Hetticks sent truckloads of their tasty fruit to eight farmers markets from Butte to Dixon.
It was on a similar chaotic weekend that the unthinkable happened. While the Hetticks and sons Guy Silvernale and Faus Silvernale were gone selling melons at farmers markets, burglars climbed through an unlocked basement window in their home. After ransacking the house and collecting some loose change, prescription pain pills and bottles of alcohol along the way, the robbers found the Dixon Melons safe.
The three thieves, who all had worked in the Hetticks’ fields at one time or another, made off with around $60,000 cash — the entire summer earnings of Dixon Melons. In just a couple more weeks, the family would have moved the cash to the bank, but in the chaos of last season, they hadn’t even had time to count all the money yet, Joey explained.
And in a second tragic twist, the safe, kept in the basement and always locked, wasn’t locked the day of the robbery. One of the Hetticks’ sons had opened it earlier to grab some cash for a trip to pick up a friend at the airport in Spokane, Wash. In the moment’s haste, he shut the safe door but didn’t double-check the lock, Harley explained.
Nearly a year later, the Hetticks are still feeling the aftershocks of being violated in a way that Harley described as “just devastating.” The burglars left Dixon Melons without seed money for a 2010 crop, and it was only through the support of a large melon-loving community — including Dixon, Missoula and Hamilton — that two Dixon Melons benefits raised enough money for the Hetticks to plant another crop.
“They gave us our operating cash, and it was overwhelming,” Joey said.
Still, there was no way to plant as much as the year before and hire workers to weed and pick melons. A late frost wiped out about 4,000 plants, so after replanting, Joey estimated about 28,000 plants are in the ground — less than half of last year’s crop.
“We did what we could,” Harley said.
While Harley and Joey are thankful for the community support that allowed them to keep the business going, their vision for Dixon Melons’ future has changed. Guy and Faus, ages 31 and 30, remain partners in the business, but both work other jobs now. After two decades on the family farm, the two know well what hard work goes into the melon business. And when robbers stole an entire season’s worth of work from them, Joey says the thieves also took Guy and Faus’ love for melon farming.
“The hardest part is they lost their passion for this business,” Joey said. “They’re doing okay, but they’re working elsewhere.”
This year, the Hetticks hired Joey’s brother to work full time on the farm, but they’re keeping a skeleton crew to tend the fields. Not only is the family short on funds to pay seasonal workers, but Harley and Joey can’t help but wonder if they’ll be betrayed again.
“We’re kind of fearful this year, every time we send somebody out in a truck or something,” Joey said, shaking her head.
The burglary’s impact on Dixon Melons was only worsened by a poor economy, and now Harley and Joey are making their peace with their business dwindling.
“I can see the day when it’s just gonna be me and Joey (growing melons),” Harley said.
“Just as a hobby,” Joey added. “I think Harley and I will always do some, because we like it.”
Some measure of closure came in early June as sentencing for the three burglars, William Weatherwax, Trevor Nault and Dylan Rude, finally ended. All three were convicted of one count of felony burglary and sentenced to 15 years, with 10 suspended, with the Montana Department of Corrections. Nault, who turned 18 five months after the burglary; Weatherwax, who was 16 at the time; and Rude, who was 18; were also ordered to jointly pay $54,310 in restitution to the Hetticks.
“It just seemed like (the trials) went on forever, but (investigators) did an awesome job, I think,” Joey said. “We feel really confident that we got really good (treatment).”
The Hetticks have yet to see any of the money repaid but are glad the thieves are behind bars.
“They got (the burglars) off the street, and there hasn’t been any crime in Dixon since they’ve been in jail,” Joey said.
For now, the first of the melons are less than a month away from harvest, and Harley and Joey are hard at work on the farm. Dixon’s annual Melon Days festival is still on for the last weekend in August, and melon-heads can expect to sample plenty of their favorite homegrown cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon.
“People still love to eat melons, so that’s good,” Joey said, smiling.