Wednesday, Oct 18, 2017
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Gardening

Business is blooming at local flower farms

Buy local movement helps growers meet demands of florists

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    Fairest Flowers owner Lindsay Daschner, cuts Dhalias to sell from her specialty-cut flower farm in Ottawa Lake, Mich.

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    Garden View Flowers of Grand Rapids, Ohio, selling flowers at the Toledo Farmers' Market.

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    Tater the beagle sits in the front seat of the truck with Fairest Flowers owner Lindsay Daschner, right.

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    Garden View Flowers of Grand Rapids, Ohio, selling flowers at the Toledo Farmers' Market.

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    Fairest Flowers owner Lindsay Daschner, right, and greenhouse tech Maria Liedel, left, cut sunflowers to sell from their specialty-cut flower farms in Ottawa Lake, Mich.

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    A bee flies toward a sunflower at Fairest Flowers, a specialty-cut flower farm in Ottawa Lake, MI on August 3, 2017.

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    Maria Liedel, left, and Fairest Flowers owner Lindsay Daschner, right, put cut sunflowers to sell from their specialty-cut flower farms in the cooler.

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You can find them heaped on caskets, clutched in the hands of wedding attendants and clustered in room-brightening bunches in tabletop vases.

But where do those brightly colored bouquets come from?

GALLERY: Business is blooming

It’s a question that more and more customers at Swesey Florist are asking, according to Lin Geiman, who manages the Maumee shop. And it’s one that she likes to answer by describing one of several flower farms in northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan whose specialty-cut blossoms supplement the imported flowers on which shops like hers rely.

VIDEO: Locally grown flowers at Barn Swallow Farm

“People really appreciate knowing things came from your own community,” said Mrs. Geiman, who prefers, when possible, to use local flowers in her arrangements.

In peak season, she estimated, regional growers supply about half her flowers.

Local operations such as Barn Swallow Farm in Grand Rapids, Ohio, or Fairest Flowers in Ottawa Lake, Mich., thrive in a niche in a fresh-cut flower industry that’s dependent on foreign blooms. The Society of American Florists indicates that more than 60 percent of flowers sold in the United States, by dollar volume, are imported from major growers like Colombia and Ecuador.

Those sort of numbers mean that local growers often steer clear of easily imported flowers like roses or carnations, which tend to ship well under conditions that might damage other blooms. But their specialty-cut stems — dahlias, zinnias, lilies, and more — meet a local demand from florists and direct customers that’s both practical and, more recently, influenced by a wider “buy local” movement.

Jenny Van Houtte sees the latter in the brides she consults through Garden View Flowers, a 60-acre farm her family has been running in Grand Rapids for about 30 years. She and her father, Jerry, sell their flowers at area farmer’s markets and use them to supply a parallel floral design business that’s taken off under Miss Van Houtte in recent years.

She estimated that three-fourth of her bridal clients, who come to the farm for consultations, tell her that they love knowing that the flowers she uses are local.

Jane Berry, of Posey Jane in Ottawa Lake, and Laura Brewster, of Barn Swallow Farm, said they hear similar positive comments about their locally grown bouquets at farmer’s markets.

“We’re kind of following the paradigm of local food,” said Lindsay Daschner, who supplies area florists with a comparatively larger operation in Fairest Flowers. “People are like, ‘I want to know where my food comes from.’ The next thing is: Where do my flowers come from?”

But there are practical reasons to look local, too, as growers like Ms. Daschner and florists like Mrs. Geiman are quick to point out. Local growers can often provide a wider variety of blooms, including more delicate ones that would not weather an overseas journey well.

Vibrant and multi-petaled dahlias, which have been blooming in local fields and greenhouses recently, stand as one example.

Local growers can also test out less-than-common varieties, and in turn offer those to florists at a reasonable price, with a versatility that larger overseas farms often cannot.

“Maybe we can grow just a little patch of something that might be expensive to ship in,” Mrs. Brewster said. “For us it’s no big deal. [Florists] can afford to play with it.”

And, as both florists and consumers tend to appreciate, local growers can generally offer fresher and consequently longer-lasting blooms than their out-of-country counterparts. Whereas an imported flower might be cut immaturely, so that its petals will be ready to open by the time it’s unpacked from a dry box, growers like Ms. Daschner or Miss Van Houtte can afford to wait for ideal conditions.

“Our flowers are at peak ripeness,” Ms. Daschner said. “There’s no compromise in color or fragrance or vase life.”

Local operations range significantly in scope. Fairest Flowers, which began under Dean Miller about 30 years ago, operates as a full-time business year-round through heated greenhouses. Ms. Daschner, who works with Mr. Miller, said they supply about 75 area florists.

That compares to Ms. Berry, of Posey Jane, who first planted her half-acre or so of flowers beside her home three years ago. Her interest was piqued when she and her sister did their own floral arrangements for a handful of family weddings. Ms. Berry sells primarily at farmer’s markets and considers her flower business something of a hobby and side job.

Somewhere in between those two is Barn Swallow Farm, where Mike and Laura Brewster tend fields totaling 2 to 3 acres with the help of their five children. The children range in age from 5 to 15, and each keeps an eye on their own special crop.

The Brewster family has been supplying local florists since the late ’90s and, this year, began selling their own bouquets at a farmer’s market in in Whitehouse. (Mrs. Brewster and 10-year-old Rosemary are the family floral designers.) It’s a full-time operation for the family in the summer, when Mr. Brewster, who is a science teacher at Otsego High School, can dedicate the time to fields of dianthus, lisianthus, celosia, and the always popular sunflowers.

The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers has seen an increase in the number of specialty-cut flower farms in Ohio in recent years, said Executive Director Judy Laushman. It currently lists 55 members in the state.

For Miss Van Houtte, of Garden View, flower farming is a way of life. She grew up in between the rows of colorful blooms and, after a stint at Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design that influenced her shift toward floral design, she said she’s happy to be back.

“You’re taking farm flowers and either selling them at markets or creating beautiful weddings,” she said. “It’s rewarding and inspiring.”

Contact Nicki Gorny at ngorny@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.

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