EMILY -- It’s in a small hayfield hugging a picturesque country road -- a secret garden obscured by a grove of trees.
Rows of petite cosmos, feathery amaranth, wispy zinnias and stately gold and maroon sunflowers dance in the breeze, spreading their petals wide to gulp in the sun’s rays. It’s here where Abra Hawley nurtures a patch of more than 100 varieties of blooms destined for the arms of lovers and the centers of dinner tables.
Hawley Hill Gardens is one of a growing number of cut flower farms blooming in the Brainerd lakes area and surrounding communities, part of a reemerging domestic floral market riding the wave of renewed consumer focus on supporting local economies.
“One of the big drives behind the local American grown flower movement is to minimize the environmental impact, minimize the carbon footprint, keep things more local, keep dollars in the community, support growers that are using environmentally friendly growing practices,” Hawley, 28, said from her kitchen table in mid-July. “It’s employing local folks and bringing back the industry of cut flowers to the United States.”
It’s a lofty ethos derived from humble beginnings for Abra and husband Tim, both the products of families immersed in gardening and small-scale farming. For Hawley, the urge to grow flowers began as one of a number of do-it-yourself projects she pursued for the couple’s 2016 wedding reception. Two years of consideration and research later, the first seeds were planted for what would become a tiny farm offering locally grown cut flowers and greenery.
It wasn’t an easy task, converting a portion of the field to a flower garden. Tilling the land, digging a well, acquiring electricity, installing a fence and a drip irrigation system -- the couple undertook all of these jobs, on top of taking care of seedlings that would fill the space. Hawley faced numerous challenges in her first year, including an unexpectedly clay-like soil in an otherwise sandy field that led to drainage problems and a seed starting mix that lacked the nutrients necessary to encourage healthy growth in the young flowers. Some varieties she tried to grow failed.
It was a year filled with lessons the Hawleys took into this growing season -- one that’s so far been markedly more successful, she said, although still what she would consider a “trial” year.
“A lot of people will tell you the best advice is to maybe pick fewer varieties and grow a lot more of each variety, but it’s really hard to narrow down the selection. Once you start looking there are so many gorgeous varieties of flowers out there,” Hawley said. “There are some things that I tried last year just really didn’t work for me, and I didn’t do them this year. Some things that I tried last year didn’t really thrive for me, but I thought I’d give them one more try and see. … Some things I know like it here, so those I kind of tried to plant a little more of this year.”
In good company
At first, it appeared Hawley Hill Gardens might be the only farm of its kind serving the Brainerd area, with the potential to corner a market brimming with destination weddings and a healthy tourism economy. But it soon became clear Hawley was among a community of women striving to provide a local alternative to a large-scale market of cut flowers imported from fields thousands of miles away in South America.
“There being more flower farmers in the lakes area than I thought there were? Yeah, sure, that poses a challenge because obviously then there’s people competing for the same market,” Hawley said. “But I think the market potential here is big enough that there’s room for all of us.”
Among those seeking to get their flowers into the hands and noses of lakes area consumers is 18-year-old Mary Schaefbauer of Brainerd, proprietor of Sonnenblume Flower Farm and Design who said her business is a perfect blend of interests in floral design and farming. Then there’s Veronica Geisenhof, the 22-year-old daughter of Nelson-Shine Produce’s Ron and Barb Nelson who began growing cut flowers two years ago in her Country Sunshine greenhouses.
To the north, 29-year-old Chantal Netzer of Pequot Lakes expanded her locally grown herbal tea business The Sweet Leaf Farm to include cut flowers with the goal to begin edible flower production in the near future. With a background in high-end floral design and a lifetime interest in gardening, Rachel Bredemus runs House of Alouette along with young campers on the grounds of Camp Birchwood for girls in Laporte. To the south, floral farms Beezie’s Blooms and Pluck Floral Farm operate harmoniously in Milaca, including a recent collaborative event inviting visitors to tour both farms on a Saturday in July.
It’s a varied field of entrepreneurs adding their own flavors and backgrounds to a marketplace in which old is new again. They’re a burgeoning group in the mold of the “slow flowers” movement led by American grown flowers advocate Debra Prinzing, author of “The 50 Mile Bouquet” who launched an online directory helping consumers connect to local flower farmers. And it’s a community in which Hawley said she’s found inspiration and support during the trial-and-error beginnings of her flower business.
“Other growers I have met here in the lakes area but also beyond, everyone is, I would say, really supportive and enthusiastic of the industry,” Hawley said. “We all want each other to do well. … They’ve all been really open to sharing information and tips, their growing strategies and stuff that has worked well for them. Everyone’s been really welcoming. I try and share information with them, too, for things that I figured out work well for me that would maybe be helpful for them and their farms. It’s a really positive community overall.”
This collaborative spirit has opened doors for Hawley in her second year. A newly formed partnership with Schaefbauer has the pair traveling together to pitch their blooms to area florists. Schaefbauer was nervous at first, she said, upon learning of another up and coming flower farm in the area. But a lunch meeting revealed an opportunity to capitalize on one another’s strengths and provide a wider variety of local flowers from the back of Schaefbauer’s family van.
“We’re both growing some different things,” Schaefbauer said. “We keep track of whose stuff sells and it’s an opportunity for us to work together and maybe make a little more money. And it’s easier to have some company. … It’s an interesting balance between the competition and working together. We’re very friendly with each other. We’re friends and we share our knowledge and experiences. If I need flowers that I don’t have, I’ll just buy some from her.”
Why they do it
Over the past decade, the sources of food, clothing, energy and other goods have become elements to which consumers pay more attention. More and more people know where the vegetables and meat on their tables spent their lives, who made their soap or handcrafted their jewelry. Floral bouquets, however, might just be one of the last frontiers.
The vast majority of bouquets found on the shelves of grocers, big box stores and both brick-and-mortar and online florists are imported -- approximately 80% of all flowers sold in the U.S., according to Slow Flowers. Of these, 65% are grown in Colombia and another 17% hail from Ecuador. The industry got a huge boost in the early 1990s, when a trade agreement meant to dissuade production of illegal drugs offered duty-free access to a wide range of exports from Andean countries, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
At the same time, domestic flower farms faced economic hardship in the wake of low-cost imports in the floral marketplace. Slow Flowers reports 58% of American flower farms have gone out of business since 1992, attributed mostly to the inability to compete.
While there are certainly benefits to point to for South American residents, concerns abound over other potential consequences stemming from lax environmental regulations and chemical applications, a lack of worker protections for those who work the fields, and the unavoidable carbon footprint of transporting the flowers by plane to the U.S. Purchasing flowers grown in the United States doesn’t necessarily avoid all of these impacts -- hothouse greenhouses, for example, consume a high amount of energy -- but it’s a step toward increasing awareness of where one’s dollars go. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. consumers are unaware of where their cut flowers originate, Slow Flowers reports.
In her own little corner of the world, Hawley focuses on growing her flowers organically, without any use of harsh chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.
“As you’ll see when we go out to the field, there’s lots of weeds,” Hawley said. “We don’t kill anything with chemicals. That’s important to us. We don’t want to be part of adding more of that to the environment.”
Knowing the growing practices is one positive benefit Hawley points to in making the decision to purchase from a local farmer. But there’s more: the variety of flowers available isn’t possible to obtain through imports. A number of blooms offered by lakes area flower farms are far too delicate to withstand shipping in the way the hardy and ubiquitous carnations can, for example. Showstopping dahlias and zinnias generally aren’t available from wholesalers, but can be found among the bouquets Hawley sells at the Ideal Green Market Cooperative farmers market, the downtown Brainerd market and at the Crow Wing Co-Op.
Buying direct from local flower farmers also cuts out a huge number of tasks for florists required to spruce up imported flowers, she said.
“If you’re ordering flowers from a wholesaler, they’re going to come to you dry in a box and you have to unpackage them, recut them, treat the stems, put them in water, give them time to freshen up,” Hawley said. “Being shipped without water for any period of time, they’re looking pretty sad, they need some time to recover before you can do anything with them.
“That’s a time consuming thing for florists to have to do, to process all those flowers. They appreciate that there’s not that processing involved (with local growers).”
Spreading the joy
Beyond the nuts and bolts of the industry, many lakes area flower farmers expressed the simple joy they find in sharing the beauty of the blooms with others.
Geisenhof of Country Sunshine operates a flower subscription service, akin to a CSA or community-supported agriculture share. She delivers bouquets to these customers on a weekly or biweekly basis.
“Flowers just bring happiness, and that’s why I like flowers more than I like vegetables,” Geisenhof said. “You can’t eat flowers. People ask, ‘Why do you grow so many flowers?’ It just brings a sense of happiness to me and if I can share that with other people, I will.”
Netzer, who cleans homes and works in gardens for people as another source of income, said she gives clients bouquets of her flowers as gifts. She often sets up a small stand along the road in front of her home to sell stems to those who happen upon the spot.
“When I first started, they thought that they were so nice because they’re different than the flowers you can get at the grocery store,” she said. “A lot of people will say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you could grow these kinds of flowers here.’ Some people are really surprised and really happy to find them.”
Inspired by the Lonely Bouquet movement, Schaefbauer has left bouquets around Nisswa with her contact information for unsuspecting people to find. Doing so served a dual purpose, she said.
“I was kind of looking at it as partly a way to brighten someone’s day and partly a way to market my products in kind of a unique way,” Schaefbauer said. “The best way to market my flowers is just for people to see them.”
Bredemus, whose farm is located at a girls camp she and her husband run, said involving the campers is a way to spread the satisfaction of growing and caring for the plants to a new generation.
“Part of the gardening and flower thing is I hope girls will have an appreciation for how to grow stuff,” she said. “Out in the farm where the flowers are growing, they just love getting their hands dirty. They would play in the dirt all day if I would let them.”
Hawley is also taking an interactive approach, partnering with local businesses to offer “flower bars.” The events invite participants to build their own bouquets from a selection of blooms, either on their own or with some guidance. Two such events scheduled in August were set to take place at Serendipity Art Gallery and Gifts in Pequot Lakes and Luna Women’s Wellness and Birth Center in Brainerd.
As for Hawley Hill Gardens, Hawley said she’s looking forward to achieving some goals: erecting a high tunnel to extend the growing season, learning more about the wedding floral industry and establishing more contacts in the floral design world. This, all while she and Tim are expecting a baby boy in September. Despite what many of her customers think, she’s far too busy to think about her own yard, she said.
“I get a lot of comments from people like, ‘Oh, I bet you have such a beautiful yard,’” she said. “My yard and my house get neglected during the summer. My yard is lucky to get mowed once a month. … Everybody assumes we have this gorgeous landscaping and that’s not quite how it works. All of our energy and work in the summer goes into the flower field and growing and selling those flowers and not so much into beautifying our yards.”
Neglected yards aside, the future seems bright for the local flower industry, farmers agreed, as more people are exposed to the concept of slow flowers and buying locally grown bouquets.
“I would love to see local flowers more visible and available. I would like to see local businesses with locally grown flowers as table decorations or if it’s a gift shop, maybe they’re selling bouquets of locally grown flowers,” Hawley said. “I would like to see more lakes area weddings featuring lakes area flowers, and definitely I would love to see floral designers and retail florists using more locally grown product and kind of promoting that, too, to their customers.”
For your info
Hawley Hill Gardens, Emily -- hawleyhillgardens.com or find on Facebook or Instagram @hawleyhillgardens.
Sonnenblume Flower Farm and Design, Brainerd -- sonnenblumeflowers.com or Facebook/Instagram @sonnenblumeflowers.
The Sweet Leaf Farm, Pequot Lakes -- thesweetleaffarm.com or Instagram @thesweetleaffarm.
House of Alouette, Laporte -- houseofalouette.com or Instagram @sweetalouette.
Beezie’s Blooms, Milaca -- beeziesblooms.com or Facebook/Instagram @beeziesblooms.
Pluck Flower Farm, Milaca -- pluckflowerfarm.com or Facebook/Instagram @pluckflowerfarm.