Flower farmers find a niche
June 18, 2014
With the season of farmers market and weddings entering full bloom, local flower farmers are busy.
Demand for local and sustainably grown flowers is on the rise, and farmers in the region are filling that niche by supplying a colorful array of hard-to-find varieties for events, direct customer sales and wholesale markets.
"It seems like organic flowers are becoming more popular as people think about where conventional flowers are coming from and how they are grown," said farmer Deena Miller of Sweet Roots Farm.
Miller, like other flower farmers in the region, depends on a diversity of crops to make a living.
She and her partner Robbie Martin grow a full line of produce for their CSA and loyal BriarPatch Co-op customers.
They first delved into the floral world at University of California, Santa Cruz while studying at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems.
This year they are growing 40 different varieties of flowers for arrangements that will grace 16 weddings and two large events.
More people are seeking out locally grown flowers because they want the assurance the flowers on the table are grown without harmful chemicals.
There is rising concerns for the conventional cut flower industry and the social and environmental impacts it has worldwide.
Books like Amy Stewart's, "Flower Confidential" unveiled the heavy use of pesticides and fungicides in the floral industry and Debra Prinzing's, "The 50 Mile Bouquet" ushered in a new awareness and appreciation for cut flowers grown close to home.
"It seems like local flowers are more and more sought after. A lot of folks are just learning how toxic conventional flowers are, especially those shipped into the U.S. from abroad," said Molly Nakahara of Dinner Bell Farm.
Unique flowers for the designer's eye
Besides growing flowers in a way that is gentler to the land, local farmers provide designers with varieties that go beyond the standards.
"A lot of the old fashioned, unique varieties that are hip with the designers these days are not available on the wholesale market but can be sourced from local farms and gardens," said flower farmer Angie Tomey of Little Boy Flowers. Growing flowers since 2001, Tomey's business is one-third CSA, one-third wholesale and one-third weddings.
Maisie Ganz and Willow Hein started Soil Sisters Farm, a small diverse operation dedicated to sustainable practices in 2010. Besides a flower CSA the farmers sell to downtown Nevada City's Farmers Market on Saturdays and increasingly more special events as their business expands.
"We specialize in old-fashioned, garden varieties that you often won't find at a florist because they are more delicate and don't ship as well," said Hein whose favorite flower right now is the bright blue Nigella for the complexity of the blossom and use of seed pods, too.
"I find the most beautiful arrangements contain something interesting or unexpected such as a few curls of garlic scapes or a bright blue bachelor button amid an orange and red bouquet," Hein said.
Flower farmers enjoy the satisfaction of spontaneously creating something beautiful from the land that changes with the seasons.
"No two flowers are ever alike and so, as a farmer florist, my palette is constantly shifting. Shifting with the seasons, with the maturity of a plant, with the selection of blooms ripe on a particular day," said Nakahara.
"Thinking about colors, textures, and aesthetics are all part of the process and I enjoy expressing myself in this way. It's such a pleasure to work with flowers we grew ourselves, to be involved in the whole process from seed to bouquet," said Hein.
Brides who choose local farms for their fresh flowers get the added bonus of getting to know their farmer and paying a visit to the field.
"I think I do a really great job of helping people hone in on the aesthetic they are wanting for their event. I have a Flower Guide that helps people visualize all of the details of each arrangement," said Nakahara.
Deena Miller's customers can pick out blooms with an on farm consultation.
Flowers are harvested in the cool of evening or morning and are handled with care for a long vase life.
"Brides who are seeking local and organic flowers contact me to bring the lush real look of farm fresh flowers to their wedding," said Miller who also sells wholesale to BriarPatch Co-op, The Magikal Florist in Nevada City and Flora Fresh in Sacramento.
Diversity and making a living
Nakahara and her farming and life partner Paul Glowaski are aiming for 10 to 15 full weddings this season. Glowaski ran the program at the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz.
Nakahara's childhood memories are filled with a grandmother with a love for flowers who often arrived with a big bundle of cymbidiums or chrysanthemums wrapped in soggy newspaper.
In addition to specialty cut flowers, the Dinner Bell Farm specializes in heritage breed chickens and pigs and a variety of fruit and vegetables on their 30-acre diverse farming operation in Chicago Park.
Flowers can be a profitable enterprise but take a lot of work said Nakahara.
"You can grow a ton of flowers on just a fraction of an acre and with some savvy marketing, make a profit," she added.
Flower farming is similar to growing vegetables. Much of the field prep is similar – there's planting, irrigating, weeding, greenhouse propagation and harvest, said Hein.
To an outsider, it may appear that flowers are more profitable, since they take up less space in the fields compared to produce, but flowers require much more time, said Deena Miller of Sweet Roots Farm.
Despite the hard work, long hours and getting up at the crack of dawn, the rewards of meeting the demands are worth it, say farmers.
"Almost everyone loves and appreciates flowers. They make people happy. So even with economic shifts, we are lucky to be producing something that simply makes people happy," said Maisie Ganz.
Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at 530-913-3067 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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