In the Fall of 2016, Laura Beth and I were at a crossroads. Our oldest son was about to graduate high-school. Our two youngest were 5 years and 9 months respectively. In the evenings, we seriously discussed “what’s next?”. We spoke, and listened, and researched details whenever possible. What could our life look like in this next chapter? Would it be here? Would it be there?
I’ll save the gushing retrospective for future posts. In short, we both deeply desired to be in a pastoral setting; to give our family the chance to run and enjoy the outdoors. We were set on the idea of building a family business which allowed us to spend more time together. The goals were simple:
- Find a space — an area of land — not too big, but not too small. It must be both financially and physically sustainable.
- Create an enterprise that generates income; income is to be measured in dollars and sense.
- Give back to our local economy and community. Add value — where ever possible.
So we decided to take a chance on a small idea and a big dream Laura Beth was pursuing — flowers…farming locally grown cut flowers. The name of our tiny farm is Tiny Fields Farm and this is just the beginning.
Locally Grown Cut Flowers
Laura Beth and I share a deep love of gardens. Gardens are a space where we can connect, unwind and play. The writing was on the proverbial wall when we met — our first date was spent prepping vegetable beds in my backyard. But let’s be honest — gardening is not farming. The space requirements and the intensities are vastly different. The scale to produce flowers for one’s table pails in comparison to growing flowers for multiple markets for as long as one can extend the season. Yet, as the world often proves, when you set out on a journey the guiding lights soon follow. At some point in 2012 or 2013 — I can’t remember — Laura Beth discovered the work of Erin Benzakein of Floret. In Floret, Laura Beth found a model and inspiration for what our future might hold — farming a small space using sustainable practices, growing beautiful flowers for local and regional markets.
In the years that followed, nearly every square foot of our small yard was packed with annuals and perennials. Our sideyard became neatly planted rows of sunflowers. The vegetable garden was sacrificed to rows and rows of Strawflower, zinnias, delphinium, and herbs. Laura Beth spent days, weeks, months researching, testing and learning as much as possible about tending flowers.
The Case for Flowers
Over the past 50 years, US flowers production has declined in volume and stature. Today, a majority of cut flowers are imported year round; And consumers have grown accustomed to buying roses in the dead of winter or Sunflowers in the early spring. Estimates range from 80–90% of all flowers purchased in the US are flown in from Columbia or the Netherlands. This wasn’t always the case. The article The Secrets Behind Your Flowers (Smithsonian, 2011), details the journey the US took from large domestic producer to massive importer of flowers. The tale is rife with intrigue, political violence, drug wars, etc.
In 1971, the United States produced 1.2 billion blooms of the major flowers (roses, carnations and chrysanthemums) and imported only 100 million. By 2003, the trade balance had reversed; the United States imported two billion major blooms and grew only 200 million.
Politics and global trade aside, we believe there is a vibrant space for locally grown flowers. Similar to the passionate cries in support of local food, locally grown flowers offer benefits beyond just a bouquet. Local flowers travel 20 miles instead of 4000. They’re grown and harvested by farmers you know — faces you see. They support local florists, farmers and other businesses. Locally grown flowers support native species and increase biodiversity where monocultures dominate. Locally grown flowers mean you can have sweet southern favorites like Dahlias, Peonies, Gladiolus within hours of harvest at the time when they’re fresh and seasonal.
A Space to Grow
My family moved to the Shenandoah Valley in the early 90s. My mother, father and two siblings carved a home from 5 acres of forest north of the tiny town of Churchville. I spent my early teens cutting a driveway by hand, pulling stumps and cutting trees. When not at school, we worked on the house — an 1800s style log cabin. Even then I spent time walking the forest of white oak, black oak, smoke cherry & hickory. A perfect place for the emotional challenges of youth.
Fast forward twenty years, as Henry & Jasper grew older, Laura Beth and I placed more importance on having a space for them to wander, to explore. From our research, and budget, we knew needed a plot of earth between 3 and 10 acres. Enough to produce the volume of flowers needed to generate income with room to expand if we decided to add crops. As it turns out, as we neared our milestone my parents were in a state of transition as well. After 30 years of life in the woods, maintaining a 3 bedroom home on 5 acres, my parents were ready for the next chapter of their lives.
With a plan in hand, we discussed the idea of transitioning the property to a farm and multi-generational home. Laura Beth, I and our two boys together — with my parents — would build something new on 5 acres.
While we kept our plan simple and realistic it was not without expected obstacles.
- The property was entirely wooded.
The largest physical obstacle to starting flower production were trees. Everyone knows you need a good 8–10 hours of sunlight to grow anything. Most flower varieties in particular are full sun or, at best, partial shade. With the consultation of a professional forester, we decided to timber 2 of the 5 acres to open up space. The decision was hard, but necessary. The proceeds from the timber cut would be invested back into the home for necessary repairs. The space it created would be devoted to flower production and family vegetables. Note: if you ever decide to timber a property call a professional forester to value your trees. The information they provided was incredibly helpful.
After the timber operation was complete, the number of large stumps remaining was significant. With a measuring tape and a large sheet of graph paper, Laura Beth set out to create a systematic planting pattern. Soon, the stumps became a creative driver for incorporating permaculture concepts into the growing space. We capitalized on the idea of hugelkulture beds to transform stumps into viable planting spaces. We set aside areas with closely spaced stumps for woodies, grasses and/or farm materials. All this combined allowed us to plan nearly an acre of annual and perennial flower production for the 2018 season with another acre planned for 2019.
- Building Soil
The forest floor is rich in humus. It’s soft, untouched. It’s black and smells of sweet leaves decomposing. However, after numerous tests, we found the soil to be severely deficient in nitrogen and other micro nutrients. It would take time and attention to build the soil fertility through compost and natural amendments.
Yet, what we originally viewed as obstacles became driving forces of creativity; Facts of life we could work with, adapt too, and make our own. After 9 months of planning and improvement, countless conversations with our mentors, we’re ready to open Tiny Fields for the 2018 season. Learn more about our flowers. Follow us on Instagram.
Thanks for reading. We look forward to sharing more.
Sean & Laura Beth
Tiny Fields Farm