Flower Farming in the Valley

By – Sep 5, 2019

When Missy Bahret started her farm in Amherst 16 years ago, she wanted to grow flowers; she’s a proponent of their therapeutic properties and chose the Pioneer Valley for its rich soil and relatively temperate climate.

Today, the 28-acre Old Friends Farm, which is certified organic, focuses mainly on salad greens for its core business, and only three of its 16 employees work on growing and harvesting flowers. But it’s Bahret’s favorite part of the job, she said.

“There’s a lot of joy in growing flowers — it continues to be magical, working with seeds and brown soil and ending up with these amazing colors,” Bahret said.

Bahret has always enjoyed making bouquets, she said. When she invites friends to help the farm harvest flowers, they’re often surprised at how therapeutic it is to walk with an armload of flowers. Even in farmer’s markets, passerby will ask if they can pause and stand next to the flowers, she said.

“It’s providing nutrition in a different kind of way,” she said. “They provide little gifts too, like when someone’s pausing because they’re struck by beauty.”

In addition to selling them directly to customers through local farmers’ markets, Old Friends sells their flowers through a distributor, where their bouquets can end up in stores like Whole Foods and on tables for restaurant displays.

Bahret had the idea to start her own farm after moving to the Valley and being disappointed by the pay and working conditions she saw at other farms, which she tried for a couple years. Until she started the farm at Old Friends, first on her own, then recruiting a few friends who became business partners.

The farm was also founded around the time when the nonprofit organization Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) was new and still taking shape.

“There seemed to be the makings for a lot of support,” Bahret said.

Indeed, the proliferation of local markets are an easy access point for small farms to sell to customers and develop their business, she said.

The Pioneer Valley is an ideal place for farming food and flowers in the northeast because heat pools here, extending the growing season longer than on the other side of the watershed (across the Quabbin), Bahret explained.

Old Friends’ land has a fair amount of sandy soil, which somewhat limits the types of flowers that can grow. But there are plenty that do well; in early August, the farm was harvesting sunflowers by the bucket, which are one of the farm’s best-selling flowers and are sold wholesale through a distributor. Mixed bouquets are also sold wholesale to stores like River Valley Market, Atkins Farm and others.

The farm harvests flowers on a mechanical scale, using machinery and planting flowers in rows like with vegetable farms. And they work fast — two employees making mixed bouquets are able to make 400 in a day, Bahret said, working with specific color combinations and themes that she often thinks of while harvesting and carrying the flowers down from the fields.

Bahret is so thorough with her harvesting, her friends call her a “color vacuum” in the field, making sure no flower is left behind, she said.

The farm has also been selling more buckets of loose mixed flowers over the last few years as more people are turning to DIY projects, both for events and for personal use. In that case, the farm has a two-bucket minimum, costing $80 per unit and amounting to five to seven bouquets per bucket, according to the farm’s website.

Flowers are harvested nearly year-round; the only month the farm isn’t producing is in January, in between the holiday lilies grown in a greenhouse and harvested in December and the ranunculus, which bloom in February, Bahret said.

The weather also affects farm and flower production. Last year, there were heavy rains, while the year before that a drought drained the farm’s nearby water supplies and farmers had to buy water for the crops.

This year, there was a drought for much of the summer until a few storms in early August. And environmental stressors, like droughts, make plants go into flower sooner, which can result in shorter flower stems (stem length is an important quality for cut flowers), Bahret said.

If the climate was more predictable, Old Friends would pare down the selection of flowers grown at the farm. But in the different extreme weather conditions, there are always some types that still do well, so the farm diversifies the types of flowers planted for harvest, Bahret explained.

The flowers, like the farm’s veggies, are certified organic. This is another important part of the farm’s practices in order to protect the surrounding land, watershed and animal species like frogs, whose permeable skin make them susceptible to harm from non-organic pesticides, Bahret said.

Organizations like the Association of Specialty Cut Flowers Growers help link farmers with others in the industry, including designers and other potential customers, and offer advice, from growing to marketing strategies. Bahret used to serve as the organization’s regional director. She described the other farmers she’s worked with as a “great community of fun, wonderful people.”

Mal du Pays

Emily Brennan, owner and artist behind Mal du Pays designs, has been growing and curating flowers for three years. She studied the psychology of scent in school and has a soft spot for fragrant flowers — her first favorite was Lily of the Valley, she said. But her favorite flowers to grow are dahlias, which just started blooming when Hampshire Life toured her gardens in early August.

Brennan does event design for weddings and parties, displays for spaces like the Pie Bar in Florence, and offers subscription flower shares (prices vary depending on weeks participated) and individual bouquets ($20 each) at Kestrel in Northampton, where she works full-time.

“My aesthetic is unique to the area,” Brennan said of her bouquets. Her designs feature whatever blooms are in season; customers particularly like the way she blends colors, they’ve told her.

She tries to make her bouquets unique by making them curated, working with a certain color palette every week. She’ll sometimes supplement with other local flower growers, she said.

When she’s not working at Kestrel, she’s dedicating “every spare minute” – often 20 hours per week – to growing her quarter-acre flower farm in Hadley on her father’s land (Pioneer Valley Planning Commission director Tim Brennan, who will be retiring from that position in September). Brennan lives in Florence, but spent much of her childhood in the Hadley house.

Like at Old Friends, Brennan’s farm land has sandy soil. Since it had never been used for farming before, the first challenge was getting the soil healthier in order to sustain flower crops, she said.

Brennan first started gardening 13 years ago. Before cultivating her land in Hadley, she had a plot in the Northampton Community Gardens, but decided she wanted to invest in more perennials, which she now stores inside over the winter.

Tubers can also be cut, like a potato, into even more plants for the following season, she said, and she currently has nearly 200 tubers. Seeds aren’t as much of an investment. And it’s harder to grow flowers from bulbs, like ranunculus, since the bulbs are more tender; for those, she uses a special grow crop protection to keep them warm over the winter.

She also strategizes her timing. For instance, with daffodils and tulips, the whole bulb can be pulled out of the ground, for instance while the tulip is in a closed stage, and can be stored that way for up to a month.

Some flowers, like dahlias, have a shorter “vase life,” or time they look good in a bouquet before wilting, which can be as short as a couple days. Vase life can be extended by adding homemade flower food and by storing flowers in a cool, dark room, Brennan said. Fragrant flowers tend to deteriorate faster when picked than non-fragrant varieties, she added.

In terms of color, Brennan’s favorite color palette to work with is brown. Brennan said she particularly liked the lightly browning foliage of the columbine leave accents, tying the earthiness of the flowers together.

Another bouquet color combination she was working with had blue and raspberry colored flowers, like Redbeckia (also known as “Cherry Brandy” Black Eyed Susans) and light blue Cosmos.

For many of her tabletop bouquets, Brennan uses custom made holders from Florence-based Tandem Ceramics. The process includes adhering a “floral frog” holder to the inside of the vase, then layering chicken wire and waterproof tape on top in order to hold the bouquet’s shape, allowing the flowers to drape. Brennan prefers to work foam-free, as opposed to using foam-based flower holders that turn crumbly later and are harmful to the environment, she said.

Brennan’s bouquet designs are “full but airy.” She doesn’t describe her style as minimalist, but said she uses some restraint in her designs, editing as she goes to ensure the most beautiful parts of each flower are visible.