KNOX, Maine — On a misty, cool July morning, Maine’s produce season was in full swing, but farmers Adrienne Lee and Ashley Savage took to their rolling green fields to harvest a different sort of crop: flowers.
They gathered armloads of cheerful zinnias in shades of orange and red, showy black-eyed Susans, verdant flowering tobacco and deep purple larkspur. The colorful blooms stood out against the gray day and were destined to add their cheer to an important upcoming celebration: a wedding. Lee and Savage run Belladonna Floral, a field-to-vase floral design company that specializes in unique, seasonal floral arrangements for farmers markets, weddings and other special events. The flowers that were starting to fill plastic buckets at the edge of the field at New Beat Farm in Knox soon would become table decorations, floral sprays and beautiful bouquets for the bride and her attendants to carry.
Lee, who co-owns the horse-powered, organic farm with her husband, Ken Lamson, said the new floral venture is a good complement for the farm’s other products.
“It’s a nice combo to do with the vegetables,” she said. “Exercising that creative part of your brain is really fun — and we get to hang out with the bees.”
In recent decades, nearly 80 percent of the cut flowers sold in America have been grown overseas. Walk into any grocery store, and chances are better than good that the brightly colored, perfect bouquets of flowers wrapped in cellophane for sale there started their lives thousands of miles away. A large majority of cut-flower imports come from Colombia, according to Modern Farmer, with the rest coming from Ecuador, Africa, China and Europe. But Belladonna Floral and an increasing number of other flower farms in the state are doing their best to bring more Maine-grown flowers to the table.
One farmer who has been growing flowers seriously for about a decade is Stacy Brenner of Broadturn Farm in Scarborough. She said that although produce was the first main crop at her family farm, she kept planting more and more flowers because she thought they were beautiful.
“My husband said, ‘We’ve got to do something with all these flowers,’” she remembered.
They were hosting weddings at the farm and decided to offer flower design, too. Brenner, who describes herself as a “yes” person, remembers telling clients that, sure, she could make wrist corsages. Then she would hurry to YouTube to figure out how, using her farm crew as guinea pigs.
“I would make my farm crew wear them around all day,” she said. “Whatever looked best at the end of a hot day, we would go with those.”
Even with the steep learning curve, the experiment was so successful that this year for the first time the farm is not offering a community supported agriculture share, or CSA, for produce so they could focus on flowers instead. Broadturn Farm now has about 4 acres of flowers under cultivation and grows enough blooms to use for the weddings they host at the farm as well as for weddings all over New England.
“I think the trend with flowers follows the trend with food,” she said, adding that people are starting to ask themselves more questions before they buy. “Where are all the things that are alive in my life coming from? My flowers, my house plants, my garden plants?”
Where flowers come from can be complicated, she said. Flowers are imported from South America in such huge numbers because in 1991, the Andean Trade Preference Agreement eliminated tariffs on certain products from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador in Peru. The trade agreement was part of the War on Drugs and was meant to encourage farmers in these countries to grow flowers instead of coca, a cash crop which becomes cocaine. Brenner and her family visited flower farmers in Ecuador several years ago and saw that the industry is important there.
“It is feeding towns,” she said. “People are making a life out of it. When you support that industry, you are supporting a town.”
But as labor is becoming more regulated and expensive in these countries, a lot of the flower-growing companies are moving even farther afield to countries in Africa, which poses additional problems, Brenner said.
“When you get a dozen roses from Ethiopia, you’re basically exporting water, the most precious resource that Ethiopia has,” she said.
Out of the box
In Maine, where flower farms are small, family-owned and often women-owned businesses, Brenner said, consumers do not have to worry about labor practices and growing practices. Still, using Maine-grown flowers for special events like wedding forces designers and customers to think out of the box a little. If a bride has her heart set on armloads of pink roses and thick swaths of garland, regardless of the month they are getting married, that would be a big challenge for Maine farmers to provide. Instead, Brenner’s clients can look forward to beautiful surprises tucked into their bouquets.
“We’re always trying to push the envelope a little bit with produce or something foraged in the woods or gathered off the highway,” she said. “In the fall we scout out the most beautiful crabapples, and if we see a tree in the mall parking lot we’ll grab a branch. We’re always gathering stuff.”
One memorable bride wanted a wedding that featured only non-invasive, foraged flowers and plants.
“We wrapped her bouquet in birchbark. It was super sweet,” Brenner said. “I think people have to open up their minds to what beauty is and have a flexible notion of how their design needs can be met. And also feel really good in their hearts about supporting Maine flower farms.”
At Belladonna Floral, Lee and Savage also love to forage in the woods and fields to find beautiful additions to the half acre or so of flowers they grow at New Beat Farm.
“We do a lot of wild foraging,” Lee said. “Lupines, hawthorne, raspberries, native vines, willow branches. Usually at any wedding, we have a bunch of things we’ve wild harvested. We like to celebrate those wild flowers and the beauty of nature.”
A shared appreciation for the beauty of flowers is one thing that brought Lee and Savage together in their business venture a few years ago. Longtime friends who met through the burgeoning Waldo County farming scene, they decided they might work well together.
“We share a strong work ethic and we knew we could try and make a go of it,” Lee said. “This could be a good partnership.”
And it has been, they said. They did flowers for their first wedding together four years ago. In addition to flowers for special events, they sell bouquets at farmers markets and area restaurants, including The Lost Kitchen in nearby Freedom and Neighborhood in Belfast. They also sell bulk flowers to other restaurants, wholesale accounts and even to brides who want to design their own arrangements. For full service weddings, where they decorate the tables, make the bouquets and boutonnieres and do all the delivery and set up, their starting price is $1,200.
Most of the brides they’ve worked with have an idea about the colors they want and the style they would like, and are happy to learn more about the flowers available seasonally in Maine, they said.
“I ask them to give me a starting point,” Savage said, adding that they often will set up a joint Pinterest page on social media with their clients to share photographs and brainstorm ideas for wedding flowers. “Brides want to know that you’re going to do a good job, to be in their color palette and follow through, so they don’t have to worry about it.”
In general, Lee said, Belladonna Floral arrangements tend to reflect how the flowers are grown.
“It looks like they were picked from a garden,” she said. “We tend to do more whimsical and more flowing arrangements, trying to celebrate the flowers.”
Growing flowers can provide different challenges than growing vegetables because there are so many varieties which need different strategies. There are perennials, which return year after year on their own, and annuals which need to be planted every year. Some flowers grow from bulbs that are planted in the fall and some, like larkspur, from seeds that they plant and then keep in the dark for a month before they start to grow. Lee and Savage said they have learned more about growing flowers from other flower farmers in the area and also resources such as slowflowers.com, an online directory that supports domestic flower farming. They’re happy to be part of what they believe is a growing movement.
“I definitely think there’s an increasing awareness of locally grown flowers,” Lee said.