On Bees Wing Farm, a flower farmer is right at home

On 12 acres in Bluemont, Virginia, Graves and her husband are running Bee’s Wings Farm where they grow scores of flower varieties that they sell wholesale, by subscription, for weddings and at farmer’s markets.

Photography: @meganreiphotography
Bride: @grayems

Although she’s back where she started, Graves did not map out her life that way – to be back on her home turf being what she calls “a joyful and hopeful farmer.” She went off to college, earned a degree in horticulture and civic agriculture at Virginia Tech and worked on farms growing mostly vegetables and some flowers before circling back home.

During her eight-plus years of working on farms, she learned two important things: She really liked flower growing and working for other farmers was not a viable career path.

“I loved working for these other families, but I knew if I ever wanted to have my own family, I wasn’t going to be able to sustain myself and others on 10 bucks an hour,” she said. “Farming is hard on your body, and I felt like if I was going to break my back, I was going to do it for myself, not someone else.”

After starting and working for an urban farming cooperative in Roanoke, Virginia, she felt the time was right to strike out on her own and return home. Her parents invited her back to the old homestead where they continue to live in a farmhouse built in 1819. Graves and her husband, Chris, live in a newly built cabin on the property with their baby boy who was born in June 2020.

In 2014, Bee’s Wings Farm was born. In deciding to grow flowers, Graves could see that a lot of other people in the area were growing vegetables and that there was a good demand for flowers. All that time working for other people gave her a foundation for her own farm.

Bee’s Wing Farm Map

“I worked for farmers who were willing to take big risks and I worked for farmers who were very conservative, very careful with their money and resources,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been able to look at their experiences, and through trial and error, take a middle road. We haven’t expanded our business at an exponential rate but we’ve haven’t played it too small either.”

Graves had the growing part down but the business component was something new. She’s relied on word of mouth and some social media to bring in customers.

“My husband and I are both from the area and we are blessed with having a very supportive family and community,” she said. “And we’re really committed to growing and styling really high-quality products. I feel like oftentimes the flowers speak for themselves. And when we get them into the hands of some people, they really spread the good word.”

She has focused on doing weddings, selling at farmer’s markets, offering flower subscriptions, dropping bouquets at local shops and doing some wholesale. It’s all very time-consuming – growing, designing, selling. And with a new baby, she is looking at doing more wholesale, which would keep her closer to home. She’s excited about being part of a new co-op of 20 local flower growers who have banded together to sell their products wholesale.

“We’re trying to find ways of still making the same amount of money, but being able to be on the farm more, which means we can be with our son in a bigger way,” she said. And looking to the future, that means having time on weekends to attend Little League games or music recitals.

The timing, too, might be right, she said.

“I feel like we’re kind of in a transition phase,” she said. “And with the conversations that are going on around the floral wholesale market on a larger global scale, I think there’s an opportunity for us to jump in, in a bigger way.”

Stewardship of the land and organic practices are part of the fabric of the farm. In joining Certified American Grown, Graves sees those kinds of bigger issues she wants to support.

By supporting American growers, she’s also supporting land stewardship and social justice principles that aren’t necessarily followed in other countries whose imports dominate the flower trade in the U.S.

“I think American-grown has this awesome capacity to meet a lot of demand, and have some really big growth,” she said. “Obviously, we’re teeny tiny, and we aren’t going to be able to meet the demands of big accounts. But I still think it’s important that those big accounts are supporting American growers that are making the right choices for people and the environment. So, I’m excited to be a very teeny, little sliver of that conversation and part of that movement.”

In western Michigan, a farmer spreads the word about local flowers

At Creekside Growers & Flower Farm in a small town in western Michigan, owner Sue Dykstra is trying to kickstart a local flower movement.

She hopes that one day, local florists will seek flowers first from local growers rather than relying on distributors who fly flowers in from all over. Where she lives, it’s an uphill battle.

Photography: Kelly Lewis

“I think there’s a big disconnect,” she said. “When you talk to florists, they like the idea of buying local, they’re just not ready to commit. They are so used to working with flowers that can only be shipped. We’re trying to educate people that there is beautiful stuff right here that they haven’t been using, that can’t be shipped on an airplane. But in Michigan, it’s hard because they’ve never needed to.”

Dykstra has been in the plant business for more than three decades and has been growing cut flowers since 2016. She is in her 21st year of owning Creekside Growers and has a loyal customer base in the area of Middleville, Michigan, a town of about 3,400 people that’s part of the metropolitan area of Grand Rapids, which is 20 miles away. Those customers helped her weather the downturn of 2008 and the slowdown brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photography: Kelly Lewis

Dykstra started Creekside Growers after working for other growers for 10 years. She started as a wholesaler of perennials and annuals. She soon started adding structures and realized she needed more revenue to justify the additions. That’s when she opened her retail garden center.

Photography: Kelly Lewis

She now has two acres of greenhouses and another acre of outside space. She tends her operation with one full-time year-round employee and a seasonal workforce of up to 20 people. Creekside Growers has built its business on perennials and annuals but in 2016, Dykstra expanded into cut flowers; hydrangeas, lisianthus, zinnias, snapdragons and dahlias are among the many varieties she grows. Creekside Gardens also hosts potting parties, community events and offers bouquet subscriptions.

Photography: Kelly Lewis

In the process, she has embraced the slow flower movement and all it stands for – seasonal flowers that are grown locally, ethically and in ways sensitive to the environment. She has worked to learn all she can about the local flower movement and has taken online classes from local flower advocates Ellen Frost and Jennie Love. It’s that ethos that she’s trying to spread in her area.

“We’re a little behind other places with buying local,” she said. “It’s different here. We’re just not there yet.”

But Dykstra is doing her part. On her website above her bio are the words “cultivating a passion for growing a stronger community through local flowers.”

Creekside does its own bouquets, but Dykstra wants to build relationships with local florists. She has reached out to them by taking them samples, hosting a flower design event and inviting them to come see for themselves.

Photography: Kelly Lewis

“We want them to know that we can meet their goals and give them what they need. We might not be able to give them an exact flower because we’re not shipping it in. But we can definitely give them a beautiful flower. We keep sending them things and showing them all the different things that will work. And they’re starting to pick up on it and understand it. They say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you could use that in a bouquet.’”

She said she wants florists to know “that we’re your friend, we’re your partner, we want to work with you.”

“We’re working to get them to understand why it’s a great idea to buy from your local flower grower, to buy American Grown and to really understand the whole idea of where flowers come from.”

Photography: Kelly Lewis

That’s one reason Dykstra recently became a Certified American Grown grower. She’s looking to become part of a network of like-thinking growers. She also wants to connect with growers who can provide flowers in the cold winter months of December through February so her customers have American Grown sources they can rely on.

She sees signs that her work promoting local flowers is paying off and is optimistic about the year ahead. She’s in it, she says, for the long haul.

“I’m just really excited for this year,” she said. “I feel this is a big, positive step for me. I’m expecting a lot of growth and positive things to come this year.”

Photography: Kelly Lewis

Flower Lovers, Experience The Flower Fields Live!

Save Your Seat by April 16th to Include Delivery of Farm Fresh Florals

Treat yourself to an evening of floral entertainment and education during the American Grown Field to Vase Virtual Experience live from The Flower Fields in Carlsbad, California, on April 24, 2021 – all from the comfort of your home. During this magical evening, you’ll meet flower farmer Mike A. Mellano of Mellano & Company and learn about his family’s flower farming history, while enjoying a special farm tour that will take you through the 50-acre ranunculus rainbow!

 

 

As Mike explains the growing process and digs deeper into the science flower farming, he’ll touch on how Mellano and Company’s crops are grown using the most advanced scientific and environmentally responsible conditions. He’ll also share their strict post-harvest guidelines designed to ensure you always receive the highest quality, fresh flowers.

 

As part of the experience, you’ll make a virtual visit to The Flower Fields, which will be alive with blooms! The hillside where the farm is located overlooking the Pacific Ocean is one of the most spectacular and coordinated displays of natural color and beauty anywhere in the world. And its home to the Tecolote® giant ranunculus, also known as the Persian buttercup or Ranunculus asiaticus. Incredibly colorful and beautiful, the ranunculus flower is native to Asia Minor and is a member of the buttercup family.

 

Mellano & Company’s history makes this event even more intriguing to flower lovers like you! Started by Giovanni Mellano in 1925, today Mellano & Company farms more than 375 acres in San Luis Rey and Carlsbad. Year-round, they produce more than seven million bunches of flowers and foliage from these locations in the perfect, temperate climate of coastal Southern California. From these fields that have been producing Mellano & Company’s signature crops such as ranunculus and myrtle for over 30 years, to the newest crop plantings such as hybrid waxflower varieties, their pride comes from the exceptional quality of flowers and foliage they grow and a passion for flower farming.

Mike will also highlight the unique and very special relationship the Mellano family has with the Ecke family, owners of The Flower Fields, and how their partnership has worked to produce such a special farm for the public to experience and enjoy. Due to their continued benevolence and foresight, The Flower Fields continues to be a national jewel, an attraction that will be enjoyed for future generations – and you can experience it!

 

But you’ve got to save your seat to join this one-of-a-kind virtual event! And, if you’d like to include delivery of some of Mellano & Company’s renowned ranunculus in your experience, you’ve got to register by April 16!

SAVE YOUR SEAT!

 

Ticket sale proceeds go to Certified American Grown, a non-profit organization who promotes and advocates on behalf of American flower and foliage farming families across the United States.

 

We’re bringing Field to Vase right to your neighborhood!

Sitting on the sideline is so 2020.

Americans are putting a renewed effort into multi-sensory events this year, and Certified American Grown is excited to lead the way with our virtual Field to Vase flower farm experience on April 24. For this event, guests will be whisked away virtually to sunny Southern California onto the 50-acre Ranunculus farm at the iconic Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch.

It’s a totally new approach that opens these iconic evenings to every corner of the country. No plane tickets, no rental cars, no hotel costs. You can immerse yourself in the most spectacular moments nature has to offer in a matter of moments.

Guests will log on and participate in a live virtual program that includes a welcome reception with live music and a tour hosted by farmer Mike A. Mellano of the fully bloomed field, giving a behind-the-scenes tour of all things Ranunculus! Next, you’ll be treated to a fabulous design demonstration with Shawna Yamamoto of Shawna Yamamoto Event Design whose imagination will fill your need for beauty in your everyday life.  A sunset serenade will wind down the sure to be memorable evening.

Best of all, ticket proceeds go towards supporting Certified American Grown, a non-profit organization promoting and advocating for flower and foliage family farms across the United States.

It’s a sensory-rich evening, and Certified American Grown provides everything you need in this customizable adventure. We ship the appetizers: a cheese and charcuterie delight from Venissimo Cheese Shop in Del Mar, California, that contains three cheeses, three meats, Marcona almonds, dried fruit and local honey. And don’t forget the wine! Your package comes with 375 ml each of a red and white wine locally sourced from small boutique wineries in the Golden State. It’s enough to satisfy two to three people. We recommend grabbing friends, neighbors or family to enjoy as a group! Also, the perfect virtual date night!

You’ll also receive a farm fresh bouquet featuring ranunculus. We invite you to follow along with Shawna’s floral designer presentation and design your own fabulous arrangement using your favorite vase.

This unique Field to Vase evening offers three packages to choose from:

 

Option 1: Full Floral Experience with Wine + Wine

  • Wine, cheese and floral shipped to home.
  • Collateral and supporting documents.
  • Includes welcome reception, farm tour, floral demo, and sunset closing remarks.
  • $225

 

Option 2:  Virtual Experience + Floral Delivery

  • Floral delivery shipped to home.
  • Collateral and supporting documents.
  • Includes welcome reception, farm tour, floral demo, and sunset closing remarks.
  • $100

 

Option 3: Field to Vase Virtual Experience Only

  • Digital of collateral and supporting documents.
  • Includes welcome reception, farm tour, floral demo, and sunset closing remarks.
  • $50

 

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to mingle with top professionals in the floral industry and have your questions answered directly. You are free to join and rejoin as you please throughout the duration of the program as well. It’s OK to create the experience that resonates with you!

To register, visit our event page HERE!

We look forward to hosting you from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. PST on April 24!

Pyramid Flowers and B-Fresh Floral give a boost to Certified American Grown

For Fred Van Wingerden, the Certified American Grown organization has provided the strong voice that flower growers need in order to address the barrage of challenges they face.

From competition from foreign growers to government regulation, American flower growers need the organization to represent them, said Van Wingerden, president of Pyramid Flowers in Oxnard, California.

When California Growers voted out the California Cut Flower Commission this spring, we were very concerned about who would represent the domestic growers and thus started the process for an independent Certified American Grown organization.

“Unless we had another organization representing the cause of American growers, it would be, like they say, united we stand and divided we fall,” he said. “We needed to step up to the plate and make sure that the new organization received strong support. I’m a true believer in Certified American Grown because we need it to represent us as growers.”

Pyramid Flowers and its affiliated company, B-Fresh Floral (owned and operated by Fred, Rene, and Winfred Van Wingerden), all became supporters when Certified American Grown was reborn as an independent trade association representing flower and greens farmers nationwide. The companies made donations to the association’s Formation Fund to support its programs and help with operating expenses.

“It’s very important that the organization gets proper funding at the start so it’s strong right from the get-go,” he said.

In addition to representing growers, Van Wingerden said, it’s important that the association’s grown-in-America message continues to be conveyed to consumers. Imported flowers dominate the American marketplace, accounting for 80 percent of sales.

“That in itself is critical,” he said.  “We need to push that message into the marketplace even stronger. Studies have shown that when consumers are given a choice, they want to buy American. And unless we stand together and fund efforts like this, we cannot get that message out there.”

Van Wingerden has been in the flower business since 1979, and he comes from a long, long line of flower growers. Flower growing in his family extends back 15 generations to the 1600s in the Netherlands. In 1967, four Van Wingerden brothers, including Fred’s father, emigrated from the Netherlands to California to take advantage of the optimum flower growing environment along the coast between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

Pyramid Flowers was founded in 1991 grows eight types of flowers on 80 acres along the coast in Oxnard. It employs over 120 people.

Fred’s son, Marcos, now works alongside him and is part of the next generation of family flower growers. Having his son in the business has been invigorating, he said. “He brings new ideas and energy,” he said. “For me as a father, having a son in the business gives me more to work for as well. It’s like a shot of adrenaline.”

Van Wingerden is steadfast in his support of Certified American Grown, and while not on the association’s board, he intends to be involved.

Flower growers face many challenges and the association plays a vital role, he said.

“It unifies growers,” he said. “We learn from each other, we share with each other, and whatever problems come along, we can address them together. Each company by themselves would be very challenged to address all the things that an organization like Certified American Grown can.”

Ball Horticultural Supporting Certified American Grown as a Founding Member

When a company has an over 100-year history, you can bet it has seen (and withstood) just about everything. Market changes. Innovations. Recessions. Reinventions.

That’s why the fact Ball Horticultural Company has signed on as a founding member of the reimagined Certified American Grown makes all the difference.

As President and CEO Anna Ball puts it,

Cut flower growers need our help right now. I say let’s give it to them.

Ball, a third-generation leader at Ball Horticultural, notes that her grandfather was a cut flower grower for 40 to 50 years, making cut flowers part of the company’s DNA.

Launched in 1905 as a wholesale cut flower operation, Ball Horticultural has grown into a global family of companies that includes breeders, research and development teams, seed and vegetative producers, and distribution companies. Among those operations is Ball SB, known to cut flower growers as an innovative supplier of cut flower propagation material.

Ball Horticultural supplies cut flower growers in the U.S. and around the world with seeds, cuttings, plugs and tissue cultures for flowers, including snapdragons, lisianthus and delphinium – all the unique varieties that make a bouquet special – through its distribution companies like Ball Seed, which serves North America.

Today, the company is the only American-owned and family-owned global horticultural breeding company. And it’s a company that believes in giving back.

“We believe in organizations like Certified American Grown because we think it’s important to support the industry. If you can afford to give, you should. And I hope if we were ever in the position of needing help, people would give to an organization that could do so,” Ball says.

In addition to supporting the new Certified American Grown, Ball Horticultural has sponsored the American Grown Field to Vase Dinner Tour since 2015. Ball says the event provides everything you want in life: “flowers, wonderful people and a unique environment.”

“And the dinners expose the cut flower industry to people who really don’t know where flowers come from,” she adds. That’s key to the future of the industry.

Ball Horticultural has also supported the cut flower industry through advocacy efforts. “During the first few months of the pandemic, some members of our team worked full-time, along with trade organizations, to have flowers deemed essential with various governors,” Ball says. “When things get rough, you depend on your trade organizations and that’s why we support them.”

This support takes place in tandem with innovations at Ball Horticultural Company that will also bolster the cut flower industry. The company is currently building an R&D advanced technology center in West Chicago, with an expected completion date in March 2021. As a central hub for horticulture research, it will also support the company’s partnerships with research, breeding and production locations worldwide.

“Our main investments are currently in R&D, that’s where we’re putting our resources right now,” Ball says. The focus is on creating more flower varieties and products that are even more interesting, easier to grow, and more disease resistant.

Proof, once again, of Ball Horticultural Company’s commitment to a healthy, resilient cut flower industry.

No Shortage of American Grown Roses 

Get Connected to the Domestic Farmers Who Can Fulfill Your Rose Dreams 

It’s a topic that comes up almost every year: a shortage of roses. Natural disasters, labor issues and, this year, COVID-19 and the related supply chain challenges, can disrupt the availability of roses in the U.S. 

Menagerie Farm & Flower

While there are fewer weddings happening this summer due to the pandemic, there’s still a lot of demand for roses from wholesalers, florists and consumers who appreciate the variety, fragrance and beauty of the rose. 

Not only are American flower farmers growing gorgeous, fragrant roses, there’s been a renaissance of craft rose growers in the U.S. who are providing specialty roses in a range of varieties and colors – particularly the popular garden rose. 

Getting your hands on them is a matter of relationship-building, and knowing the rose farms by name or the wholesalers that buy from those farms.  

Kelly Shore, a renowned wedding florist that serves Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland, encourages florists and rose aficionados to establish relationships with American rose growers right away. 

About 34 U.S. rose farms grow 28 million stems a year, with several new craft rose farms emerging. 

“As wedding, event and retail designers, we must educate ourselves on where our flowers come from. We can’t wait until the last minute when supply chain disruptions happen and go into a tailspin about where to confidently source roses,” Shore notes. “We have an abundance of flowers that grow 365 days a year in the U.S., roses being one of them. Garden roses, spray roses and hybrid tea roses are grown domestically in a variety of popular and in vogue color palettes.”  

You can use our list of Certified American Grown rose growers to connect with farms that can deliver exactly what you have in mind year-round, something that will be particularly important when weddings and other in-person celebrations return. 

Shore’s advice: Don’t wait. Get connected to U.S. rose growers. Be an advocate for American Grown roses and look for distributors that support domestic producers. 

Menagerie Farm & Flower

Wild Lark Farm: First Oklahoma Farm Certified American Grown

For Terri Barr, making the leap from civil engineering technician to flower grower was a natural move. She had farming in her blood, a lifelong love for gardening and a desire to work outdoors.

The result is Wild Lark Farm in Claremore, Oklahoma, which she started in 2018 and is building from the ground up. She’s growing specialty and heirloom flowers – mums, old-school lilacs and sunflowers among them – on about an acre of the 40-acre spread where she lives with her husband and their three children. It’s a former cattle pasture with clay-like soil that she’s slowly transforming into an organic, sustainable growing operation.

But her path to becoming a flower farmer, and earning Certified American Grown status, is decidedly indirect.

She grew up on a farm in Kansas where her family grew corn, wheat, milo and soybeans. She went to college in Oklahoma and graduated with a degree in interior design. But instead of designing rooms, she went to work as a technician in a civil engineering firm. She put her drafting skills to work in designing infrastructure – water lines, sewer lines, parking lots.

But despite working for a company she liked and with “fantastic” colleagues, she knew she wanted to be outdoors. The turning point came in 2017 when she attended a floral workshop in the Mount Vernon area of Washington. It was there that she found what she was looking for. She was with flower people from all over the United States and enjoyed hearing their stories. Everything about it was a good fit.

Photos provided by Wild Lark Farm.

“This is what I want to feel. This is perfect,” she recalls thinking at the time. “There was really nothing like that in Oklahoma. So when I came back here I just decided to give a go.”

As a daughter of farmers, she knew what she was getting into.

 

 

“I didn’t go and start this farm with the idea that this is going to be amazing and I’ll be dancing in flowers every day,” she said. “I knew it was going to be hard work. It’s hot and humid and when it rains, it rains too much or it doesn’t rain enough. So, I knew going in that this is hard.”

But it’s where she’s found fulfillment.

“Last year was the first year I really increased what I was growing and really put myself out there. I just wanted to gauge how much interest people had, if they were receptive or if they thought it was just the craziest idea that they’d ever heard. But people have loved it. That’s been really positive.”

 

She got her first customer by walking into a new florist shop in Claremore with some of her flowers in a bucket.

“I said, ‘These flowers are just for you to use. If you like them, great.’ And I gave them my card. They loved them and they posted them on Instagram.”

The response was almost immediate. Three florists in Tulsa who saw the Instagram post reached out to her to ask if she sold to other people. Her response: “Yeah, sure.”

 

 

Those florists have given her a foot in the door and something to build on. In the meantime, she’s building an organic, sustainable operation.

Although she could draw on her farming background, she knew she couldn’t farm like her parents. Practices had evolved and she was adamant about it being organic.

“For one, I have kids and I don’t want all the chemicals and the pesticides out there. I want people to be able to walk out there and be able to touch and can smell everything. So they know what they’re getting is the real deal.

“And since I’ve worked so hard to get my soil in good condition, I want to make sure that it’s sustainable.”

In addition, she feels an obligation to Oklahoma tradition to leave the land better than she found it.

 

“One of the slogans in Oklahoma is ‘Keep the land grand,’” she said. “People are really conscious that we humans aren’t here forever. You want to keep the land nice, you want to keep it sustainable for people who come after you. A lot of people here have that mindset of make it better than you found it. So, that’s what I try to do.”

Three to five years down the road, she would like to have a farm she can share with the public.

“What I would really love to do once I get things established is to open it up and make it accessible to people. Not necessarily a you-pick thing, but just so people can come out and physically enjoy it, to see how it works and see where flowers come from.”

She follows other farms on Facebook and Instagram and sees that many of them keep their operations closed to the public.

“I get that it’s hard to do what you have to do and have people around. At the same, I want to be able to share as much as I can. I don’t want my farm to be closed off. There’s so much out there, there’s so much beauty, that I just want to share as much as I can.”

 

 

Mellano & Company Achieves BloomCheck Certification

Mellano & Company, a prominent presence on the landscape of California flower farming for more than 90 years, has recently achieved their BloomCheck certification for their sustainable practices on their farm in northern San Diego County.

Mellano & Company recently received their BloomCheck Certification, recognizing their farm for their commitment to sustainable flower and green production.

For CEO Mike A. Mellano, being BloomCheck-certified helps make his business stronger both inside and out.

From the outside, it differentiates Mellano & Company’s flowers in the marketplace and certifies them as sustainably grown based on a set of domestic production standards.

From the inside, it strengthens the company by bringing its practices into sharp focus.

“Pursuing the BloomCheck certification required us to create targets and goals that helped us focus on improvement and be recognized for our commitment to environmental stewardship,” Mellano said. “BloomCheck puts us in a position to promote and communicate all the good things we’re doing as flower and greens farmers in California.”

Flower farmers that become BloomCheck certified have undergone a rigorous third-party audit to ensure they’re using best practices for sustainability when it comes to water, air and soil quality; wildlife protection; and social impacts on workers and the community. That means reducing energy use, recycling water, deploying biological pest management and following the law when it comes to state and federal employment rules and regulations.

Protected Harvest, an independent nonprofit organization that certifies the sustainability of agriculture operations, does the on-site auditing to ensure farms are meeting the standards.

Mike Mellano of Mellano & Company giving a tour of the company’s ranunculus production at The Flower Fields of Carlsbad.  Photo by Carrie McCluskey Photography.

“BloomCheck is the gold standard of sustainability claims within the floral industry,” shared Kasey Cronquist, administrator of the BloomCheck program. “We’re proud to recognize and announce Mellano & Company’s certification and the high bar of commitment to best practices and environmental stewardship it represents.”

Mellano is the third generation to run the family farm. It covers 375 acres at two locations in Oceanside and Carlsbad and produces more than 30 different items. Its ranunculus operation in Carlsbad is also a popular agri-tourism site.

At Mellano & Company, preparing for the BloomCheck certification took about 60 days. It was time well spent, Mellano said.

“I think it sets a path for us so that we can continually improve on what we’re doing,” he said. “That came through during the application process and all the tests. It pointed out the things we do that we don’t really think about.

“All of a sudden you had to think about it, you had to write it down and it creates a path of thinking, ‘Well, what can I do to improve on that?’ It creates some very useful prioritization and focus.”

The BloomCheck process was also a chance for Mellano & Company to publicly demonstrate its commitment to sustainability.

“The engagement and communication with our employees and customers makes this an outward, publicly visible statement that we are committed and passionate about sustainability.”

Photo by Carrie McCluskey Photography.

Meet Boreal Peonies!

Boreal Peonies Is Certified American Grown

Farming and science have always gone hand in hand. But when two biology professors took a summer teaching gig in Alaska, the last thing they expected was to become flower farmers.

“We’re geek farmers,” says Jill Russell, who owns Boreal Peonies, a Certified American Grown flower farm, along with her husband, David Russell. “It’s Mr. Magoo goes to the farm.”

Both professors at Miami University in Ohio, they’d spent their honeymoon in Alaska, and had always wanted to go back. So when Jill found out the University of Alaska Fairbanks needed professors to teach summer biology classes, she leapt at the opportunity.

“We loved it,” she says. “We absolutely fell in love with Alaska.”

While there, they discovered that researchers at the university had been studying peonies for years. It turns out peonies in Alaska bloom at a time of year when they aren’t available anywhere else in the world. Over the past decade or so, as the state explored new agricultural possibilities to potentially replace the oil industry, these popular wedding flowers emerged as a promising crop. Amateur farmers began planting them experimentally—and one of them was the occupant of the office next door.

The following year, upon returning to Fairbanks for the summer term, the Russells found out their office neighbor had presold her entire crop by February. She showed them her business plan and urged them to give it a try.

As scientists do, they started researching. Within a year, they were ready to take the plunge. They bought an old hay farm on 40 acres and planted their first crop in 2013. Boreal Peonies, they decided, would serve a dual purpose as both a production and research facility. Of their 5,700 plants, they would devote 1,600 to science.

“You can’t really have a farm without doing research,” Russell says. “We totally geek out on it.”

Every day they measured the height of their plants and tracked their development. They experimented with soil chemistry in search of the perfect fertilizer. They shared their findings with the local farming community to help their adopted state grow its fledgling peony industry.

“Being biologists has really helped,” she says. “Soil chemistry is so key to success of the growth of these peonies, and we’ve learned a lot that we didn’t know. We’re still working on our fertilizer formula.”

Now in their ninth summer teaching in Alaska—and their fifth year growing peonies—the Russells have become permanent residents there, spending the school year teaching in Ohio before returning to Two Rivers for the growing season. With 16,000 production plants and 1,500 research plants, they anticipate harvesting some 40,000 stems this year.

 

“The industry is going to explode this summer,” she says. “There are a lot of farms like us.”

The farming bug has proven infectious. Two of their kids, both grown, and one of their graduate students also spend summers working on the farm—and they spend the rest of the year looking forward to it.

Kelly Burger, graduate student, is spending her summer doing research in Alaska. Her work on boreal peonies focused on the effects of compost tea on peony growth.

“We wait all year to be in paradise,” Russell says.“Peony farming in Alaska is probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life. Nothing is more satisfying than having your hands in the dirt. You plant something, baby it and take care of it. Watching it bloom and grow, you feel connected to it.”