Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Interview with flower farmer Molly Culver

Molly at The Youth Farm at HSPS
Molly Culver is a floral designer, Farm School NYC instructor and co-farm manager at The Youth Farm at HSPS in Brooklyn, New York. The Youth Farm is a one acre educational production farm that grows organic food, flowers, and future leaders through its training program for youth and adults. With the help of her team at the Youth Farm, Molly started the city's first urban-grown flower CSA in 2011. I got in touch with Molly for an interview and the following is what she had to say about growing flowers in the city:

FF: Why flowers? 
MC: I grow flowers for the joy of it. I farm for the joy of it - so that's the first reason. I got into farming when I was 23; I was hooked from the moment I first volunteered. That's a longer story! I first was introduced to growing flowers at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems' 6 month apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture at UC Santa Cruz in 2008. Across their 14 acres, cut flowers were incorporated into the fields and beds both for their ecological benefits and as a revenue source. We learned about growing many varieties of "specialty cut flowers" -- flowers not considered commodities (like Roses, Tulips, and Lilies) -- under the brilliant tutelage of Orin Martin and Christof Bernau. I learned about the Association of Specialty Cut Flowers and the environmental and social justice issues surrounding today's global cut flower industry. After completing my Certificate at UCSC, I went on to intern at Live Earth Farm, an 80 acre organic farm in Watsonville, CA. Tom Broz, the head farmer there, empowered me to put my trainng to use by planning and cultivating on 2 acres of his land. The first year I stuck to what I knew best - vegetables. In 2010, I decided to grow flowers; he had abandoned growing cut flowers about 10 years earlier; they were too time consuming and labor intensive for his developing small farm. He was excited to see their return, and so I began starting seeds in January 2010... That year, my sixth year into my farming career, was the first year I grew solely flowers. When I finally made my move back to NYC, I knew I wanted to keep growing flowers, not only because I really preferred growing them and arranging them to vegetables, but because I knew their was a niche I could fill. 

80% of the flowers we purchase in the U.S. come from overseas. Our local domestic flower growers have essentially been obliterated, save a few holdouts like Rose Meadow Farm on Long Island, Dutchmill Gardens in NJ, and River Garden in the Catskills. I teamed up with Bee Ayer and the Youth Farm in Febuary 2011; Bee had also been through the UCSC program, shared an appreciation for flowers, and we both agreed it would bring a great new educational opportunity to students and adults training on the farm. We started the city's first urban-grown flower CSA that year, and also sold our flowers to restaurants and at our farmers market. It was a huge success - we learned that cut flowers were 25% more valuable per square foot compared to vegetables; we also observed how some students (old and young) really enjoyed the creative process of arranging, and the meditative quality to the task -- quite different from the cut and dry hustle of harvesting and washing vegetables. We could also bring more awareness and discussion around the many relevant issues regarding the environment, social justice, human rights and racism present in today's flower growing industry.

I started a small sustainable floral design company in 2011 with urban farmer Deborah Greig - we both feel passionately about food justice and access to fresh food for all. Both of us manage urban educational farms, but we are also equally in love with arranging flowers. We're excited to offer a sustainable and environmentally conscious option for couples getting married and for organizations running events.

FF: Did you have any training?
MC: I spoke a little to my early training above. At UCSC, there are three areas that you rotate through; in the 2 acre down garden a wide variety of cut flowers are grown, and every friday morning we pick over thirty 5 gallon buckets of various stems, and then make bouquets for market. The weekly practice of making bouquets - wherein we learned about the law of odds, size, fillers and focals, etc.., was a great foundation for me. I found that when I was finally into my own operation, let's say the 2nd year at the Youth Farm, I found my "voice" with flower arranging. I continue to get training through flower growing mentors in the ASCFG - I've gone to the annual conferences and visiting flower operations all over - I try to visit farms on most of my trips and vacations. I've honed my skills through managing 3,000 sq. ft of flowers at the Youth Farm and by learning by doing. We still run a flower CSA (now in its 3rd year), sell to 5 restaurants, to DIY brides, and to our farmers market customers.
FF: Why flowers in an urban context?
MC: See Q1 for the reasons for why we grow them in an educational context, which is very important. As for the urban context - it's makes sense for people who want to farm but can't access clean, healthy soil (injestion of heavy metals isn't AS much of an issue; although, dust splash of soil particulates will always be the biggest hazard). People in urban environments may have more money to purchase flowers, which are a luxury when you compare them to food. Urban markets are extremely important to most small farms today; being situated right in the city means I can transport at a lower cost to the environment. Flowers are beautiful, and add social capital and interest to any neighborhood. They raise awareness. They make people smile - which I feel a lot of city folk need.

FF: Why cut flowers?
MC: I think I've mostly answered this question in terms of the profitability of them. In addition, specialty cut flowers - i.e. not commodity flowers -- help keep our environment and local ecology diverse. Different flowers (be they perennials, annuals, natives, etc.) attract different types of pollinators. Right now, anything to feed and sustain our bee population is so important. 

FF: How much space do you have to grow flowers? 
MC: The farm grows 70% veggies and 30% flowers so 3,000 sq ft for flowers and 7,000 sq ft for veggies.

FF: What are the personal and environmental benefits of choosing seasonal and local flowers over imported, conventionally grown flowers?
MC: There are so many environmental benefits - I am not the most well versed in terms of the statistics: it would be better to refer to Favored Flowers, or Flower Confidential for some concrete data. It goes without saying that flowers shipped daily from overseas on airplanes are exponentially more costly to the environment than their locally-grown and marketed counterparts. As for the personal reasons: I have, I think like so many others, gotten turned off by the cookie-cutter, mass-produced feel of industrially-grown flowers that are what we see at grocery stores, bodegas, and the like. Many of them have had their scent literally bred out of them in favor of enhancing their capacity to store food over long distance travel -- aroma takes a lot of energy from the flower. Garden roses, expensive and difficult to grow in rainy climates (and ouchy to harvest) have all but disappeared from the market, replaced by hybrids that are thornless, scentless, and in my opinion, stripped of what makes them special. I think a lot of people feel turned off by this aspect, but they aren't sure exactly what happened to locally grown flowers - ones their Grandmothers might have grown in their gardens. Growing and selling my own flowers has allowed my a glimpse of the excitement and satisfaction from customers over a bouquet of unique, special, unfamiliar flowers. These flowers feel REAL to them. We grow our flowers organically - without use of pesticides and herbicides or huge inputs of Nitrogen, all of which can be harmful to the surrounding environment and the people harvesting them. When I work with my own flowers, or flowers grown by other local, organic growers I am feel inspired by the individuality of the blooms, grateful for the lack of pesticide residue (all over most wholesaled flowers on 28th st), and happy to be investing and supporting a local grower, like Queens County Farm, Brooklyn Grange, or the growers I mentioned above who sell at Union Square. Having that direct relationship is powerful, and I think enriches the experience of investing in flowers. While they are a luxury, flowers are also food for the soul. But I wouldn't say commercially grown flowers feed my soul as much.

FF: Thanks, Molly!

Photos: Molly Culver

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.