We Started a Farm: One Year Later (Or, Assessing Our Midlife Crisis)

Cocktail hour on a Monday in July seems like the perfect time for writing this blog. (Is blog the right word? Is that what I’m doing here? Hasn’t blogging become totally passé at this point? That seems about right.)

It’s been one year since we started our flower farm. That’s twelve months since, on a whim, we tilled a 60’ x 60’ field, ordered thousands of seeds, registered our fictitious name, printed up business cards, signed up for several local farmers’ markets, and—just like that—dove into the cut flower game. For the past year, I’ve thought of little else. Nearly all my extra energy, time, and pennies have gone into this endeavor. So a few meditations on its success seem appropriate at this moment, our anniversary.

Has it been a success?

Yes and no and yes, I think.

The biggest successes have been on the craft side of things. I’m pretty psyched and proud about that. We grew forty-one kinds of flowers—only a few of which I’d grown before (very few; all the annuals were completely new to me). Among those forty-one, there were hundreds of different varieties. None failed. NOT ONE! Unexpectedly, every crop I tried to grow, grew beautifully. We’ve been mostly victorious in our battles against insects and weeds, all of our plants are thriving, and now that we’ve arrived at mid-summer I’m bringing in buckets and buckets of gorgeous, heirloom quality cut flowers every day. I wasn’t sure that would happen. It’s happened. That’s a huge success.

There’s less to celebrate on the business side, which is at once surprising and not.

I’ve sold lots of flowers. It’s not been a bust. We’ve got some regulars at the market and I’ve got a little subscription group going. It’s been manageable and really encouraging. But now that the field is in full rolling summer bloom, my buckets are overflowing and I just haven’t got the customers to take them. I’ve been giving bouquets away at all the nursing homes, to lots of local restaurants and businesses, and I think my friends and neighbors are actually tired of getting free flowers. It feels a bit like I’ve dramatically overestimated the demand for beautiful, chemical-free, locally-grown cut flowers. And that’s my main bummer. I’m not so sad that I’m not selling every stem, but I’m super sad that so many people around here don’t seem to care about flowers at all. I’ve got to admit: I didn’t expect that!

I’m bummed because people should care about flowers, but I’m also bummed because I really, really like to be right and I truly thought that if I could somehow manage to grow these magical blooms, OF COURSE people would be lining up at my door to buy them. Nope! Nope, nope, nope. That’s not happened.

How can that be? Really, how can it be?

Here’s a mystifying and rather frustrating scenario we’ve lived over and over at the farmers’ markets this year:

A person walks by our booth, looking at the flowers and our signage and mumbling to themselves “Specialty cut flowers? Huh.”

         Then, to me, more audibly: “Your flowers are so pretty.”

Me (in my head): “They’re not pretty, you imbecile! They’re *$@&ing miraculous! Each of these stems is a total miracle! When you look at this bloom are not most of your questions about birth and death and God and the meaning of life answered?! Get away from my booth, you moron!”

Me (in real life, as this person moseys away): “Thanks so much! That’s very kind! I’m glad you like them—they’re actually for sale…”  (womp, womp)

I guess I didn’t realize there’d be so much heavy-lifting in terms of changing the flower culture here. There’s a lot. Of course I knew that, despite the success of the local flower movement in places like California and the Pacific Northwest and New England and the hipper parts of the South, it would be a challenge to help bring the movement to western Pennsylvania. People here can be pretty set in their ways (I know; I’m a local and I’m certainly set in mine!). But I guess I thought my flowers would be so uncommon and so beautiful and so undeniable that they’d be exempted from this regional trend. No dice.

I’m learning that around these parts cut flowers are pretty strictly things to be bought for weddings or funerals or hospital visits. When people need to buy flowers for a funeral, they call up a mega-florist (you know, one of those scammy FTD, Teleflora, 1-800 jobs), when they need to buy flowers for a wedding they enlist the local florist (who is likely sourcing flowers from the same foreign giants as the 1-800 guys), and when they need to buy flowers for a sick friend, they swing by the suuuuuper hurtin’ floral department at the nearest grocery.

And that’s that.

People don’t care that the flowers they’re buying aren’t fragrant or that they were grown in humungous commercial greenhouses in South America or that they’re drenched in fungicides and pesticides. I’ve got to think they don’t care because they just don’t know. So there’s also more educational heavy-lifting than I’d planned on.

On my way home from the farm yesterday, I stopped at the store for a baguette (I’ve been making fresh pesto on bread almost every day this summer; it’s becoming a problem). On my way to the bakery, I passed two women inspecting some truly heinous bouquets in the flower cooler. They seemed okay, these women. They weren’t wearing any sort of identifying insignia or patches to indicate their inanity, anyway. And yet there they were, buying cellophane-wrapped bunches (“3 for $12!”) of the ugliest, nearest to death flowers I’ve ever seen). I wanted to grab them by the arms and shake them both and say, “You’re better than this! PLEASE BE BETTER THAN THIS!” and then invite them out to my car to see some real flowers, which I would’ve gladly given them for free just to keep them from perpetuating the horror show that is the grocery store bouquet industry. But, alas, I didn’t. I did briefly consider dedicating a few hours every week to loitering around grocery store floral departments armed with educational leaflets and my righteous indignation, but this quickly led to serious questions regarding my own mental health, and I decided I’d better just get my bread and get the hell out of there.

I went home, made the pesto, put the kids to bed, and took a long bath, during which I thought about the future of our little company. Here’s what I decided:

First: I’ve got to find my people. I know they exist because I meet them here and there. They’re cool and enthusiastic, but is there no way to find a whole bunch of them at once except among my own friends? It’s going to be slow going, I’m afraid.

Second: Certainly there must be cool local florists who fall into the category of “my people.” I’ve heard designers’ tales of foreign-bought peonies picked so tight in bud that they never open and roses that arrive so dehydrated they barely resemble a living flower. Aren’t these people just desperate for real flowers grown by a real local person who will be accountable for quality and who can grow to order?

Third: the biggest hurdle to overcome, I think, is that flowers aren’t widely considered an everyday luxury around here. I don’t know how to change that, and I’m open to suggestions.

Fourth: I need help. I’m not a person who likes to need help and I certainly don’t ask for it, but it’s clear to me now that there are absolutely no shortcuts in building a business and I need all the help I can get. My friends have been so great. Without them making introductions, promoting my work, and spit-balling ideas with me (often drunkenly! Cheers!), I probably wouldn’t have sold a single stem this season. I’m very grateful to them, and I need them to keep it up.

I’ve certainly learned a lot this year—about myself and others and flowers. The question I’ve been wrestling with most lately is this one: Has this been worth doing? I knew it would be a lot of work. It is. It’s a lot of work and most of it isn’t very beautiful or glamorous. I’m exhausted and stressed and beat-up. I’m covered in insect bites and various weeding-related rashes, and I haven’t bothered to put even a swipe of make-up on my face in weeks. I can’t see my laundry room floor, my children are often going to bed unbathed, and we’ve been eating more Chipotle than ever. On the other hand, every table and mantel and shelf and nook in our house holds a gorgeous bunch of flowers I grew myself. I love that. And though my fridge holds almost no food, it’s stuffed beyond capacity with this week’s subscription orders. And I’m very excited to deliver them in the morning.

 

Mary Beth McConahey