By Karen Volckhausen
I had the pleasure of attending the flower workshop at MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer Conference in November, presented by flower farmers and florists Carolyn Snell from Snell Family Farm in Buxton, Maine, and Polly and Mike Hutchison from Robin Hollow Farm in Saunderstown, Rhode Island. I was so inspired by their talk at last year’s New England Vegetable and Fruit Conference that I couldn’t wait to hear more. And this was the only workshop attended by a Volckhausen at FTF due to the 18-inch snowfall that we had to attend to at home, in Orland. It was an exciting trip to Lincolnville, to say the least, due to the close-to-universal electricity outage on the way and an almost empty gas tank.
Luckily I made it and as always picked up valuable information about flower varieties, cultivation practices, marketing and more – including some helpful tips I plan to try – as well as increased conviction that organic flower farming is a growing, important enterprise that needs more support.
Regarding those tips, Snell has an interesting dahlia growing practice. She brings her tubers into a heated greenhouse on March 1, divides them after they sprout and plants them in crates. From there she can pot them or plant them in the ground outside or inside. I have struggled with growing dahlias, especially with late plantings due to annual cold, wet springs. Snell’s method would give much more flexibility and predictability.
Another tip – the idea of planting a mixture of marigold, dill and alyssum in 1- to 2-gallon buckets in the hoophouse as forage plants for beneficial insects – was brilliant and will be part of my plan this year.
An interesting alternative or addition to weekly CSA flower shares was mentioned: a bouquet-of-the-month club.
And good news: Old Friends Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts, is working on a technique for making organic pelleted seed. We are waiting!!
Indeed, the heartbreak of being a certified organic flower grower is the flowers you can’t grow because they are conventional pelleted, film-coated or otherwise treated seeds, treated plugs, bulbs, etc. Most uncertified flower growers I have spoken to grow in a sustainable manner without synthetic chemical pesticides or fertilizers but can’t get certain seed and plant varieties that would be NOP-approved. Some don’t see the advantage of certification: “You don’t eat flowers!” But sometimes we do, and how we farm and what we use affects both the soil we work in, the customers we deal with and, of course, ourselves. And if you share land and hoophouses with a certified organic vegetable farmer, you have to toe the line.
The time is right to get together and start pressuring for the products we want. The increase in organic growers is already having an effect. I am starting to see more organic flower seeds offered, plus non-GMO and untreated seed pledges in catalogs that did not have them in the past. But we could do more. An effort exists to form a group of flower growers within MOFGA. A statewide flower growers’ group already exists, has met and talks online. Nationally, the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers works hard to get U.S.-grown flowers into the market. That is a major focus, but the association recently polled its members to see who was organic. The potential exists for having a strong voice for more choice of NOP-approved products. Let’s go for it!!!
About the author: Karen Volckhausen grows MOFGA certified organic flowers on Happy Town Farm in Orland, Maine.