Flower Power

How business continues to bloom despite a year-long pandemic

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It’s a brisk day in February, and Polly Hutchinson gestures to the land carved out in the side of Hammond Hill. It might not look impressive now: Cold dirt, bare stalks, and dried stems. But in another month, it’ll start to bloom.

Polly and her husband Mike own Robin Hollow Farm, two-and-a-half acres nestled in Saunderstown. While neither grew up in farming, they fell in love with it; both are certified organic vegetable growers who helped historic Casey Farm get back into active agriculture in 1993.

“It’s an amazing combination of working with your hands and creating things from the magic of seeds,” reflects Polly. When they established Robin Hollow in 2005, according to Polly, there were no other full-time flower farmers in the entire state. Today, there are seven flower farms in South County alone, and all across Rhode Island, that number is growing – even a pandemic can’t stop them.

Like many flower farms, Robin Hollow operates within the realm of wedding and event design. “It’s phenomenal how well-aligned the growing season is with the wedding season,” Polly notes, referring to the March through November bloom period. “There’s a lot of amazing places to get married in our tiny little state, and as a floral designer, that is such a wonderful opportunity.”

Despite the picturesque landscape, Robin Hollow is not a wedding venue itself; in fact, the farm is only open by appointment. Behind the scenes, it’s a flurry of constant activity: Planting, harvesting, researching organic growing methods, bouquet-making, budgeting. As soon as the flowers – think baby snapdragons, anemones, eucalyptus, stocks, tulips – begin to bud, they’re clipped for maximum vase life for customers.

“If you see a flower farm full of flowers,” says Polly, “chances are, they’re losing money.”

When we first met Polly late last winter, it was the tail-end of a bustling engagement season, so they were busy building proposals, booking clients, and prepping for the “wild ride” that is spring: Weddings and farmers markets almost every weekend, peppered with open houses, floral design classes, and pop-up events.

Of course, she could’ve never predicted quite how wild of a ride spring of 2020 would be.

“We were very lucky to find that flowers matter to people,” says Polly, who, along with every local business in Rhode Island, had to make pandemic pivots –  in their case, expanding home delivery and “bringing the love to relatives and friends through the beauty of flowers.” This has been so successful that Polly plans on keeping delivery and contactless pickup even with a full wedding schedule.

And Robin Hollow is not alone in finding surprising success amidst what, at least for the global floral industry, has been some of the hardest hit times.

You might be familiar with Wicked Tulips, the flower farm owned by Keriann and Jeroen Koeman, who last year transferred their operation to Exeter (and recently added a second location just over the border in Preston, CT). Typically, between the middle of April and beginning of May, their fields will be a sea of giant, colorful, aromatic tulips, and the throngs of people who come to pick them.

“We’re part of agritourism,” Keriann explains. The couple is no stranger to the business; Jeroen comes from a long line of Dutch flower farmers, and together they ran a successful farm and online bulb store in Virginia. It was there they tried their first U-Pick event – but it wasn’t until the move up north that it was a true success.

“When we came to Rhode Island, it was like coming home,” remembers Keriann. “After the first three days of our first season here, we’d made more than our best year in Virginia.”

At that time, Wicked Tulips was much smaller; it was run by a little crew of employees, family members, and volunteers and charged visitors just $1 per stem. Today, it’s a large-scale operation with nearly 50 employees and online-only tickets that sell out quickly. While the tulip season is short – on average, two weeks – the farm is a year-round affair. In summer, it’s time to break down and dig up bulbs. Fall means planning for next season, prepping the land, shipping bulbs to customers, and planting. Then, in winter, they’re plotting out paths and parking, thinking about the next U-Pick event, and marketing through their website and e-newsletters. Finally, spring returns, which means hiring, selling tickets, crafting “Bloom Reports”, and the tulip experience itself.

So how did such an event-centric business survive the pandemic? According to Keriann, with a complete business model flip – and quickly. “We pivoted to a touch-free curbside bouquet pickup,” she says, but it came with a learning curve: None of their staff were trained to pick this way. “This was not a ‘going into the field and leisurely picking a bouquet’ but more of an assembly line.”

However, the pivot found success, and Keriann and Jeroen continued to keep customers engaged through an online virtual tulip experience and Tulips For Love And Hope program that donated more than 10,000 tulips to frontline workers, nursing homes, food pantries, and more. “It was a tough year but we ended up making a lot of people happy,” says Keriann. In addition to keeping the virtual and donation programs, she reveals plans for a smaller, socially distanced U-Pick in tandem with curbside pickup.

“Demand for local flowers has been on the rise, and I don’t see COVID stopping that,” says Keriann.

The Farmer’s Daughter in Wakefield has been a long-established garden destination since it opened in 1998. Much of the year, it’s abuzz with activity. There’s their Seedling Sale in May, classes and workshops, a summer veggie stand, the Fall Harvest Festival, and their Christmas Tree Farm with lush handmade wreaths. The cut flower fields are just one part of the business for owner Sarah Partyka, but it’s grown exponentially since its start five years ago.

“We thought it was a natural extension of our love for flowers and internal drive to always try new things,” says Partyka. The Farmer’s Daughter has four cut flower fields; two are used to source flowers for their bouquets sold at the shop, while the other two are open to the public in the summer to cut their own dahlias and fillers.

“People are looking for an experience,” says Partyka, reflecting on the families and DIY brides that come to clip their own blooms. “They want to touch, feel, and smell the flowers, and bring that beauty home.”

That desire only strengthened during COVID, she adds. They welcomed scores of new customers who were using the time at home to learn to garden, and family units that wanted to spend time cutting their own flowers to bring back. It was a popular socially distanced activity, Partyka explains, and it prompted her to expand those cut flower fields this year to accommodate more visitors. “Out of the bad came some good.”

Partyka finds South County to be extremely supportive and appreciative of what she dubs the locally grown movement. She’s also impressed with the variety of “niches” local flower growers fall into, from wholesale and weddings to U-Pick and cut-your-own – and there’s room for them all.

Thanh Luu runs the small but mighty Petals Farm in West Kingston. While the operation is modest in size, the work is not; Luu can be found in the greenhouse sowing seeds in winter and planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, and designing in spring, summer, and fall. Amazingly, all of it is done by hand.

Luu had no experience in agriculture when she started the flower farm. Instead, the former algologist was inspired by the joy a bunch of sunflowers brought to her aunt suffering from Stage 4 lung cancer. In 2013, Luu decided to move to Rhode Island from Maine and broke ground on the one-and-a-half acres of silt loam soil.

“No seeds or plants are sowed or planted with negative feelings, thoughts, or intentions,” says Luu, “only positivity.” Her process is rooted in sustainability and natural balance; she’s also a soil conservationist at the Natural Resources of Conservation Services in Warwick. She harvests flowers for wedding bouquets, wholesale, farmers markets, and flower share subscriptions – all of which were halted when the pandemic hit.

Luu describes COVID as a domino effect which left her business struggling; even though farmers markets eventually resumed, it was two months later than usual: “Our business had no cash flow for those two months, plus four months of winter.” This was only compounded by the revenue lost due to cancelled summer weddings.

But the savvy young entrepreneur sought solutions: She promoted and expanded their CSA schedule, added another farmers market, continued the cut-your-own dahlias program (safely, with limited numbers, time slots, and contact tracing), and even collaborated with her friend and local yogi to offer one-hour yoga and meditation classes. “We focused the business around health and wellness, both mental and physical,” explains Luu.

Since she started her business, Luu notes that the popularity of flower farming has swelled. “The trend for sustainable, locally farm-grown veggies and flowers has continued to grow,” she says. “The realization of fresh product is quality, and quality leaves a sweeter taste.” And, she notes, the appreciation for local growers has only increased with imported flowers being wasted, unable to ship, during COVID.

“Membership in our CSA flower shares has almost doubled,” says Nancy Viseth, owner of South County Flowers in Charlestown. “We’ve always enjoyed the way people’s smiles light up the room when they pick up their weekly flowers, but this year even more so.” 

South County Flowers was once a family horse farm; today, you can still see barns, fenced paddocks, and hay fields alongside a heated greenhouse, two hoop houses, and two acres of flower fields. “That first year, we grew just a few rows of sunflowers and zinnias,” Viseth remembers. “We harvested them in buckets, put them in the back of a truck, and drove around South County introducing ourselves to florists.” Fast forward just over a decade, they also grow all their own foliage, host summer bouquet shares, and offer cut flowers May through October, including DIY bulk orders, à la carte florals, and full-service wedding design.

“[The industry] evolved as an extension of the farm-to-table movement,” says Viseth. “The appeal of local flowers is that they are vibrant, fresh, local, eco-friendly, offer variety and seasonality and a direct connection with the farmer and designer growing them.” And the increased demand for local products during the pandemic, she points out, may have actually helped the local flower industry in ways like flower shares, curbside pickups, delivery services, and micro weddings.

“Farmer-florist is a title well-known now,” Viseth observes, “but barely heard of just a little more than a decade ago.”

And that farmer-florist community is strong. Viseth shares about the close relationship she has with other local flower farmers, whether it’s exchanging growing techniques or occasionally grabbing specific colored blooms when running low – “and they know they can count on me for the same,” says Viseth. “We really do have a great sense of community and collaboration.” 

 

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