“Flowering in the North” Conference Report

As a new flower farmer, I am constantly looking for ways to learn from other growers. I have books written by and for flower farmers that I practically inhaled when I first received them in the mail. I read other farmers’ blogs, and I lurk around in several online forums where farmers are constantly exchanging information. I’ve even offered free labor to nearby farms in exchange for hearing their stories and learning how they do things–it’s always worth it! Plus, it’s usually fun.

Another thing I did, right away, was join the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, a fantastic group discussing all things flowers. The ASCFG hosts several conferences a year, and I was thrilled to learn that one of them was in the Northeast. This conference, called “Flowering in the North,” was specifically designed for growers who work in cold climates, like me. I bought my conference ticket and started planning my road trip to Portland, Maine.

Sea Change Goes to Maine!

I’d only been to Maine once before, so I gave myself an extra day before the conference to explore Portland. I walked around the waterfront, admiring the boats docked there, some of them snuggled in plastic wrapping for the winter. I found the most delightful gluten free bakery and ate too many things. I met a lot of nice people who all seemed to have moved out of Brooklyn five years ago to open their own cafe/shop/restaurant in Portland.

It was a blustery 8° on the morning of the conference, so I can’t really explain why I chose to walk there from my airbnb. By the time I walked the half mile to the University of Maine, my skinny-jeaned legs were numb and I’d cinched the hood of my jacket closed around my face so tightly that I had only a narrow hole through which to see the world. Through my little hood peep hole I saw signs for “Flowering in the North” and many, many cars driving into the parking garage behind the building.

Inside, it was like flower farmer heaven. The large, bright atrium was filled with people, mostly women, mostly wearing the farm version of “business casual”: Carhartt jackets, solid-colored chunky sweaters, plaid flannel, pull-on work boots. All of them looked like people I wanted to befriend.

I got my name tag and welcome packet and made myself a hot tea from the beautiful breakfast spread. Around the hall were displays from various seed and plant suppliers, along with their catalogs and some branded things like pencils and t-shirts.

I sipped my tea and (awkwardly?) joined a conversation two women were having nearby. It turned out that they each worked on a vegetable farm, and wanted to add cut flowers to the crops their farms grew. “I think there are some empty growing beds in the field I can use, but I hope they give me some greenhouse space, too!” said one of the women. As I listened to their stories, I thought about how different it would be to be in their position, acting as a champion for flowers on an existing farm with mentors and bosses, instead of starting out on my own.

Starting from the Ground Up

The clock struck 8:30 and we shuffled into an auditorium with the rest of the attendees. We listened to some brief introductions and a warm welcome message given by local flower farmer Stacy Brenner of Broadturn Farm. Then, a representative from the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension, Jason Lilley, got on stage to talk about soil health.

“We were worried that if we offered soil health as a breakout session, no one would come,” Stacy had said in her introduction. However, as Jason started talking, all around the room bags zipped opened, notebooks snapped out, and pens started scribbling. The instant studiousness in the room rivaled even the rushed, desperate note-taking I remember from my hardest college class, Theory of Algorithms.

Once Jason invited the audience to participate, the questions poured in.

“When is the best time of year to take soil samples?”
“Can you touch on calcium and magnesium balance?”
“Is it possible to have too much organic matter in the soil?”

This crowd took their soil health seriously!

The participatory format of Jason’s keynote talk set the tone for the rest of the day. I was overwhelmed by the openness of this community of farmers. Everybody was generous with their knowledge and experience. Nowhere did I encounter guardedness, or a holding-back of information for competition’s sake. It was truly wonderful to feel such support from other people in the same industry.

Morning Session: Woody Crops

Next on the schedule was a choice between three different breakout sessions. I chose a talk succinctly titled “Woody Crops.” Woody crops are cut flowers that have thick woody stems, like hydrangea, and this talk included three different speakers sharing their experience with such crops. I managed to snag a seat for this talk, but the room was so full that people were standing in the back!

The first speaker up was a no-nonsense, business-minded, straight-talkin’ woman named Cindy Creps who went through different varieties of woody-stemmed crops that she grows on her flower farm in Maine. She urged us to learn as much as we could about these crops before growing them. “I can’t stress enough to research this stuff before planting,” she said.

I recognized the next speaker, Carolyn Snell, from Instagram, and from the ASCFG–a farmer celebrity! She was bubbly, funny, and dead honest in her advice. “It’s better to put a $10 tree in a $100 hole than a $100 tree in a $10 hole,” she said, to emphasize the importance of preparing the right planting site for valuable perennial crops.

The third speaker was a small pixie-like woman with an academic demeanor named, no joke, Dr. Smart. “Call me Alicyn,” she said, “I only make my dad call me Dr. Smart.” Alicyn is a plant pathologist, and her slides were an encyclopedia of the various viral, fungal, and bacterial diseases that affect woody-stemmed plants in our area. She spoke about fungal spores with an intense fascination that could only belong to somebody who spends hours looking at these things through a powerful microscope.

I took four entire pages of notes about woody crops listening to these speakers. It’s too much (and probably too incoherent) to post here, but my major takeaways are below, if you’re interested.

“Woody Crops” Notes

– Forsythia’s flowers are boring, but it has great foliage.

– Some people are allergic to the sap in Smokebush, wear gloves!

– Start woody crops as soon as you can, they take years to establish.

– For short-term (3-5 years) growing, Hydrangea paniculata and Ninebark are worth their cost, plus they often transplant well.

– Pruning height affects stem length and flower size, research and experiment.

– When cutting woodies, sterilize pruning shears with rubbing alcohol between every cut to avoid transmitting diseases between plants.

– Local cooperative extension offices have plant disease specialists who will accept samples from your diseased plants and diagnose them for you.

Reading list:

– “Woody Cut Stems for Florists and Growers”
– “Postharvest Handling of Cut FLowers and Greens”

Afternoon Session: Hoophouse Crops

In keeping with my theme of short-titled talks, I chose an afternoon talk simply titled “Hoophouse Crops.” Since I’d just ordered my first-ever growing structure–a caterpillar tunnel, yay!–I wanted to get some more information about growing in structures.

“Hoophouse Crops” featured the dynamic duo of Julia Shipley from East of Eden Flower Farm and Grace Lam of Fivefork Farms. These women were a dynamite tag team. Their wry, sarcastic humor made their talk as funny as it was informative.

Both women use heated and unheated growing structures extensively on their farms, and traded stories about their successes and failures with them. Grace talked about stubbornly putting the same high tunnel in a high-wind area, even as it got repeatedly blown over in storms. “Everything needs some excitement on your farm, right?”

In addition to being season extension pros, these ladies are amazing at getting funding for their farm’s projects. Grace in particular had gotten tons of grant money for structures that allow her to offer flowers throughout the year, and also for solar panels to power her greenhouses. I learned a lot in this talk about the government programs that support farmers like me–when the government isn’t shut down, at least!

Again, I took a ton of notes! Here’s a sampling.

“Hoophouse Crops” Notes

– Use structures for early spring and late fall crops! It’s a LOT more valuable to extend your season than to have slightly more perfect flowers in summer, when everybody has flowers.

– Heating costs are lower for late fall than early spring.

– Late fall crops: mums, ornamental kale, dahlias, lisianthus, dusty miller

– Early spring crops: tulips, ranunculus, anemones, Iceland poppies

– For earlier tulips: plant them in the ground where hoops are set up for a tunnel (no plastic). Once spring is near (~February), put plastic on the tunnel, so the tulips start to warm. They will bloom about 8 weeks after covering.

– Dead plant matter in the high tunnel leads to disease!

– An east-west orientation for a hoop house gets the most sun.

– The National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is a great source of grant funding–especially for “minority farmers,” like women.

I Can’t Wait to Try ______ !

After listening to these talks, I felt a bit saturated with new information. I took a snack break and pondered my notes. My head spun with ideas to bring back to my farm. Again, I felt so thankful to be part of this community of people who care so much about helping and teaching each other.

In the evening, there was a mellow social hour at a bar nearby with a seed swap where I traded some columbine seeds I’d collected for cosmos and starflower seeds. A truly lovely group of farmers from Robin Hollow Farm adopted me for the night and invited me out to dinner. I was so happy at the end of day one of this conference that I imagined day two would only get better!

Unfortunately, I got quite sick that night and missed the second day of the conference entirely. Being sick alone in an airbnb room isn’t a great experience, but I was more upset about missing what I am sure was an even better day of knowledge-sharing with this new farm community.

The talks I did get to see were absolutely worth the trip. I would absolutely recommend conferences like this to other new growers, or any growers looking for new opinions and advice. I hope I can go again next year!

Samantha is the farmer and owner at Sea Change.

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