I came to farming through vegetable gardening. It was the exposure to the art of bouquet making, and the overall power that flowers have in creating a diversified and ecologically sound farm system, that drew me to become a flower grower. Our first year in production, Kara, co-owner and co-operator of Vibrant Valley Farm, got married and we decided to try flower farming ourselves. We grew all of the flowers she needed for her big day and had so many more that we were able to start a small bouquet subscription program or CSB (Community Supported Bouquets). We were also able to sell our bouquets locally at Pastaworks and furnish cut flowers to New Seasons, two grocery stores in Portland, Oregon. In Vibrant Valley Farm’s second season, our flower program expanded to include harvesting thousands of stems, packing them very delicately and transporting them all over the Portland metro area, now including most New Seasons locations. We are currently preparing for our third season and plan to grow hundreds of varieties of flowers and sell bouquets and wholesale cuts to individuals, restaurants, tasting rooms, florists, event planners and other grocery stores.
The pace of flower production is very similar to vegetables. In the winter we plan what types to grow and order seeds. In the spring, summer and fall we plant and tend to many different flowers from statice and acroclinium, to mignonette and snapdragons. The flowers come in all sorts of colors, shapes and heights for mixing and matching to build dynamic bouquets.
Our flowers are grown in rows of their own and interspersed with other vegetable crops to add biodiversity and natural pest control. Flowers, like sweet alyssum, sunflowers, calendula and marigolds attract and feed beneficial insects that battle pests helping to create a more healthful and diverse ecosystem on the farm. A bright summer day on the farm is like an orchestra of buzzing and humming. In the morning, the bees wake from their sleep when we cut the flowers, and later in the day we watch them climb into the snapdragons to harvest pollen.
Not only are local flowers important to the health and beauty of our farm, they are also important to the health of our local economy. Today, most flowers in grocery stores are from abroad, mainly from Ecuador and Columbia. For those of us that are concerned about our carbon footprints and the miles it takes for our food to travel, we often don’t think about it in terms of how we get our flowers. About 75% of flowers found in the U.S. are imported from Latin America.
Free trade agreements and the first world’s thirst for cheap flowers have destroyed food sovereignty and communities in what are now flower producing countries. Due to these trade agreements and the subsequent opportunity for massive profits by concentrating a labor-intensive industry, labor is most effectively exploited. Historically subsistence farmers are often forced to grow cheap flowers reliant on pesticides, monoculture practices, and child and slave labor. The flowers are dunked in liquid preservatives to allow for their long journeys around the world, and the pesticides used on most imported flowers have been known to cause an array of life threatening diseases and ailments for the workers who handle them.
To learn more about the flower industry I highly recommend Amy Stewart’s Flower Confidential. She discusses the flower industry from a number of interesting perspectives: from the eccentric breeder in Humboldt County responsible for the star gazer lily as we know it (it didn’t have a straight stem before he bred it), to a laboratory obsessed with producing the first blue rose. She travels to Holland’s flower markets where a huge auction decides what the hottest new flower will be and to Ecuador where the majority of the world’s organic and nonorganic flowers are grown. She ends the book around Valentine’s Day, which is the second largest day for flowers after Mother’s Day, discussing Costco’s recent vow to support ethically grown flowers and then moves to a small floral shop in Bonny Doon, California that strictly sells locally and sustainably grown flowers – showing us a possible and brighter future to the flower industry.
Supporting Vibrant Valley Farm and other community growers who bring you locally and sustainably grown flowers guarantees that you are not supporting this often overlooked and corrupt industry. The beauty that flowers provide, the sense of place they can help foster, and all the loving sentiment they can convey, can all be had without thousands of miles of transport or a bevy of chemical preservers.
For ecologically and responsibly grown flowers in the Portland area, please go to Vibrant Valley Farm.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Elaine started learning and educating in gardens both in Oregon and California. Inspired to find alternative food systems and projects focusing on social justice, she traveled to South America and Spain volunteering on WWOOF farms and educated with San Francisco’s CommunityGrows’ green job training and afterschool programs as well as the city’s Juvenile Hall garden project. After completing the six month apprenticeship at the University of California Santa Cruz's Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) she came back to Oregon to farm with Kara Gilbert and start Vibrant Valley Farm. The farm has been in operation for three seasons, and offers a vegetable CSA and a flower CSB subscription program as well as products to restaurants and grocery stores in Oregon’s Multnomah and Yamhill counties.