Flower Hill Farm
Cut flowers come in from the fields at end of a long day at Flower Hill Farm near Beaufort.
By Jonas Weir
About ten years ago, Vicki Lander started renting land at Mueller Farm in Ferguson. She had received her master gardener certification from the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1991 and had learned organic farming from mentor Paul Krautman at Bellews Creek Farm in Cedar Hill, thirty miles south of St. Louis. Vicki now wanted to continue on her own, but she was a city dweller.
“I lived in the city and didn’t have enough space, so I started renting land, about a half an acre,” Vicki says.
On her rented acreage at Mueller Farm, Vicki began harvesting organic vegetables and flowers. In 2007, a farming group moved into the plot next to Vicki and began organic farming. Eventually, the group became known as Earth Dance Farms—the well-respected nonprofit, organic farming school that offers season-long apprenticeship programs.
Vicki started helping out with Earth Dance, and eventually, she was asked to be the farm manager. During her tenure as farm manager, Earth Dance was invited to the Terra Madre International Gathering in Turin, Italy. The biannual event gathers farming communities from across the world to share ideas and resources about sustainability and is tied to the roots of the slow food movement.
Founded in 1989 by Carlo Petrini, Slow Food is an Italian organization that pioneered the idea of farm-to-table. Carlo Petrini and Slow Food both helped establish the Terra Madre gatherings. The year Vicki attended, Carlo Petrini invited more than 150 elders and native farmers from Italy to speak. Finally, Vicki found the encouragement to stop renting and become a full-time farmer and landowner.
“We always wanted to live in a country setting and do some farming,” Vicki says. “I was so inspired by this, I just thought we had to do it right then. After that, we got really serious about looking, and we found a really beautiful piece of property in Beaufort. We’ve been working on the soil ever since.”
The land Vicki has been working on for the past five growing seasons is now known as Flower Hill Farm in Beaufort. Being a first-time landowner, Vicki was able to take advantage of the Missouri Beginning Farmer Entrepreneurship program for financial assistance. Accordingly, she had to write a business plan. That’s when she found a new focus in her sustainable farming efforts.
“At the time, there were no flower vendors at any of the farmers’ markets in St. Louis, so I thought it was a niche that we could fill,” she says. “I had also just finished training thirty organic vegetable growers, and I didn’t want to be competing with my students.”
Thus, Vicki started using the farm’s acreage and greenhouses to grow flowers, and coming from a slow food background, she found herself at the base of a blossoming movement.
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Andrea K. Grist
The flower fields at Flower Hill Farm are home to many butterflies.
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Andrea K. Grist
Flower Hill Farm is home to acres of flowers.
Slow flowers is a movement that, like Vicki, is rooted in the slow food movement. It’s taking the same ideas that helped propel slow food into the culinary world and applying them to the floral industry. Instead of farm-to-table, it’s field-to-vase.
“All of it is about buying local,” Vicki says.
Right now, 80 percent of the cut flowers sold in the United States are imported, according to the California Cut Flower Commission. It’s an $8 billion industry, according to the Society of American Florists, but the USDA Floriculture Crops Summary shows that only about $500 million of that is going to US farms. On top that, of the 20 percent of cut flowers that are grown in the United States, 76 percent come from California.
One reason to buy locally grown flowers is to support your local economy. Several studies show buying local directly benefits the community by keeping more of the money in the local economy. Another reason, which specifically relates to flowers, is because a majority of imported flowers come from South American countries that do not have regulations on herbicides, pesticides, or working conditions.
Andrea Grist, owner of Andrea K. Grist Floral Designs in Kansas City, was shocked when she read a book that exposed the dirty truth.
Published in 2007, Flower Confidential is author Amy Stewart’s investigative report on the global floral industry. Among a wide range of topics, the book looks at the working conditions in places like Ecuador, where the average monthly wage for a worker is $150 and children work to dip cut flowers in harmful fungicides that can cause neurological issues. After learning these facts, Andrea started sourcing more of her flowers locally.
“As a consumer of those goods, I was contributing to that,” Andrea says. “I started self-educating. I wanted to understand where my floral product came from.”
Andrea is an industry veteran of sorts. She’s been a floral designer for twenty-two years and owned her own business for the past sixteen years. Although she has no brick-and-mortar store, Andrea gets a majority of her business catering to weddings and corporate events. Increasingly, she’s becoming involved in the slow flowers movement.
“This is a movement where floral designers and event planners are thinking about where they source their flowers from and how that can impact local farms,” she says.
Primarily, Andrea has been reaching out to farms around the state to find more places she can source from. However, she’s also worked with the MU Extension office to host events on the subject, and she recently spoke at the St. Louis Art Museum about the topic, along with others involved with the slow flowers movement. With the help of people like Andrea, a Missouri floral network is starting to take shape. Still, the fact is the slow flower movement simply doesn’t benefit from the same infrastructure the slow food movement has.
“The slow food movement is so advanced compared to slow flowers,” says Debra Prinzing, a Seattle-based writer and slow flower advocate. “Flowers are catching up. We have a long way to go. It’s exciting to see people start paying attention to this issue.”
Andrea K. Grist
Floral designer Nora Case of Flora by Nora picks flowers at Flower Hill Farm.
Debra Prinzing has emerged as one of the lead advocates for this movement. After working as a home and garden writer and reporter for years, she has steeped herself in field-to-vase ideas over the past ten years as she began paying more attention to how the product came to be rather than what the final product was.
“I was interested in how things grew, and I started meeting flower growers” Debra says. “I found it fascinating that people were fighting this huge battle against big growers that had flooded the marketplace with imported flowers.”
Debra’s interest stems from a story she was working on for the Los Angeles Times in 2010. She wanted to put together a story on organically grown flowers that Los Angeles consumers could buy for Valentine’s Day. She found that there weren’t many organic farms growing flowers. In fact, there weren’t many local farms growing cut flowers at all. So, she had a new mission: to find as many local farms growing flowers sustainably.
What does sustainable growing mean, though?
“Sustainability is such a moving target,” Debra says. “There are measures and practices we can look at, though.”
In her book The 50 Mile Bouquet, Debra defines the concept: “A product can be considered sustainable if its production enables the resources from which it was made to continue to be available for future generations.”
However, the problem is finding a clear-cut definition of what that means. Debra points to a few key practices to help define sustainable growing, including implementing drip irrigation, taking advantage of cover crop techniques, and using organic fertilizer.
Debra also points to farms that use all organic farming methods but are not USDA-certified organic—such as Urban Buds: City Grown Flowers in the Dutchtown neighborhood of St. Louis—as the ideal farms to buy flowers from.
Right now, on a consumer level, there is not a universal way to tell whether your flowers are grown in the United States. The majority of flower sales take place at the grocery store level, and the labelling in the produce department is much better than in the floral department.
“Bottom line, we don’t eat these flowers,” Debra says.
“Made in the USA” stickers could mean the bouquet was only assembled and not grown in the country. There is an organization, the Certified American Grown Council, that has a red, white, and blue logo you can look for, but only about fifty farms are currently members and none are in Missouri. However, you can do research before going out and buying.
“It just became clear that I needed to start a directory to help point consumers to those resources,” Debra says. “That’s what slowflowers.com is right now.”
Celebrating its second anniversary this month, the SlowFlowers.com directory now includes forty-eight states and more than seven hundred listings, which include both flower-producing farms like Flower Hill and floral designers like Andrea Grist. There are eight listings in Missouri for both farms, designers, and floral shops. However, in the end, it comes down to being a conscious consumer.
“You really have to ask,” Debra says. “If you indicate a preference that you want American-grown or Missouri-grown, locally sourced flowers, you’re asserting your values with your pocket book.”
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Andrea K. Grist
This bouquet was made by a student at one of Flower Hill Farm's workshops.
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Andrea K. Grist
A variety of different flowers grow at Flower Hill Farm.
A New Spring
Over the past thirty years, imported products have increasingly become a part of the US floral industry. However, things are starting to change. The number of cut flower farms has increased from 5,085 to 5,903 from 2007 to 2012, according the USDA Census of Agriculture.
And floral designers like Andrea are seeing a change.
More and more customers are asking for all locally sourced flowers, and Andrea has no problem satisfying their needs. However, Andrea can’t source all of the flowers required to meet all her clients’ demands from Missouri growers, or even US growers for that matter.
“This is definitely an avenue where farmers need to do better,” Andrea says. “I want to purchase from you, but I can’t purchase from you if I don’t know you’re there.”
Right now, Andrea primarily works with Urban Buds and Flower Hill Farm. Mossy Creek Farm in Troy and Dragonfly Dreams Flower Farm in Lamar are two more growers that head the pack when it comes to slow flowers in Missouri. The movement is just beginning to take shape in Missouri, and, likewise, florists and producers are only now beginning to make an impact on the public, just as the slow food movement did twenty years ago.
“The slow flowers movement really depends on the customers,” Vicki Lander says. “We’re just finally starting to see people requesting locally grown things, and we’re very grateful. It’s a relationship between a producer and a consumer.”