rainbow dried flower wreath

The Maine Flower Collective Wants You to Pick Locally Grown Bouquets

Farmers across the state are banding together to take on the hegemony of imports in local flower shops. If they succeed, Maine floriculture could hit full bloom.

By Katy Kelleher
Photos by Kelsey Kobik
From our February 2024 issue

In the early days of February, when the world seems shrouded in shades of gray and summer feels as distant as the Caribbean, the store at Snell Family Farm, in Buxton, becomes an odd little oasis of color. Customers come in wearing their heavy coats, and root vegetables fill the produce crates, so there’s still no mistaking the season. But thanks to the wreaths of dried flowers that line the walls and the bouquets wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine, a nearly equatorial palette prevails. Flower farming is something of an unlikely business in Maine, since more than 80 percent of cut flowers sold in the U.S. come from abroad. In the 1960s, American politicians and businessmen began fostering connections with Colombian flower farmers as part of a Cold War program designed to strengthen economic ties with South America and stave off the spread of communism. Large-scale production spread throughout South American countries where climates were balmier than in places like Maine. There, farmers could grow flowers year-round, and they were aided by new pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers coming out of American labs.

Today, most of the flowers transiting north to the U.S. pass through Miami, where they’re stored in refrigerated airport hangars. Years ago, I visited one of those facilities, with its endless rows of cardboard boxes stuffed tightly with uniform roses, chrysanthemums, daisies, and carnations. But there was no floral aroma inside the hangar. The flowers had already lost their essence by that point in their journey. At Snell Family Farm, even the dried flowers look (and smell) more vibrant than the imported stems.

Clockwise from top left: At many Maine flower farms, other crops grow in the winter too — at Seek-No-Further Farmstead, in Monroe, spinach is also on the menu; Carolyn Snell selects dried flowers from her barn’s rafters; at Seek-No-Further Farmstead, Angela Baglione gathers a winter crop of freshly cut tulips, which make for popular Valentine’s Day gifts; Snell heads out to collect willows; Angela Baglione moves a batch of emerging tulips.

In Maine, hoop houses and grow lights can help counter the short outdoor season, and many farmers now offer fresh flowers throughout the year. But the other hurdle, according to farmers, is getting consumers interested in locally grown flowers — the locavore ethic that has helped revitalize the state’s agricultural scene has been slow to trickle down to floriculture. At her Meadow Ridge farm, in Hebron, Cindy Creps started out in 2003 focused on potted perennials, but she has transitioned to cut flowers because they’re more profitable, easier to transport, and, unlike potted plants, in steady demand outside of just the spring planting season. The biggest reason people don’t think to look for local flowers, she says, is because they don’t automatically associate them with Maine in the same way they do, say, fir wreaths and pine boughs (which she also sells at the holidays).

Still, every winter, Creps keeps planting bulbs in her greenhouse. “I do think people are becoming more aware of how far imported flowers have come,” she says. “Once people know about local flowers, they love them. People come to us because we have things that are different — not just the same varieties grown en masse in South America. Our flowers can be more diverse, and they’re fresher.” In addition to her distinctive tulips — she raises some unusual, showy varieties — Creps sells huge single-stem heirloom mums, delicate little checkerboard-patterned fritillaries, and moody hellebores. For her, flower farming feels like a calling. “You don’t get rich,” she says, “but it’s something I love.”

Clockwise from top left: tulips emerge in a greenhouse; Carolyn Snell carries willow branches she uses in her arrangements; Angela Baglione hauls fresh tulips that are ready for CSA pickup; one of Snell’s dried bouquets.

Last year, Snell and Meadow Ridge were among the first growers to join Maine Flower Collective, launched by farmers to help raise the profile of their blooms. Their hope is that by streamlining the ordering process for retailers and floral designers, they can get more Maine-grown flowers into shops and in front of consumers. Melissa Law, who co-owns Bumbleroot Organic Farm, in Windham, helped lead the push to get the collective off the ground. For a long time, she says, Maine florists felt that sourcing locally was more difficult and less reliable than sourcing from Boston’s regional flower market, stocked largely with imported plants. No single small farm could consistently provide enough variety to satisfy florists’ customers.

When the pandemic started disrupting supply chains, though, flower shipments were impacted, and Law started to notice more interest in alternatives from shop owners. Climate change, too, has made the South American crop less predictable, with drier and hotter conditions and more severe-weather events. “I think a more localized approach to buying makes it easier for designers to be able to rely on what they need,” Law says. Maine Flower Collective adopted one unified ordering platform for retailers to use. Orders get aggregated from member and affiliate growers — there were 35 of them last year — then picked up and delivered the next day by the group’s driver. “Everything is super fresh and all the logistical legwork is done by the collective,” Law says.

The hope is that, over time, consumers get hooked on local flowers and create a reliable audience for the product — and that the collective’s roster of farmers and retailers (both of whom pay dues to help fund the project) continues to grow. “Flowers are a high-value crop — if you have the marketplace for it,” says Adrienne Lee, who owns New Beat Farm, in Knox. “I think the flower-farming world needs to do what the small vegetable farmers have been doing for the past 40 years, which is create a marketplace for their crops.” For florists, one major barrier to selling local flowers is that many people are familiar with only a handful of mass-produced varieties, and that’s what they say they want for their centerpieces and bouquets: pink Sarah Bernhardt peonies, long-stem Rhodos roses, and the ubiquitous moth orchids. Everyone is used to broccoli, and they haven’t branched out to try brussels sprouts yet.

“There can be a disconnect between what a client wants and what is available,” says John Sundling, a floral designer who owns Plant Office, in Portland. “People get fixated on certain types of flowers. I try to be clear from the get-go about what I make.” Sundling likes to ask clients about colors and “vibe” rather than specific plants. Like heirloom tomatoes and Maine potatoes, local flowers might look a little different from their imported counterparts. But this can be a part of the charm. “I’ve learned to be flexible,” Sundling says. He’ll mix dried flowers with fresh, use structural touches like branches of curly willow or pieces of broom corn, and add foraged elements like fern rattles or spruce tips. “All the local farmers have weird, different things that they grow on their farms, some of which I could never find at a flower market,” he says. A tassel flower from Chase’s Daily farm, in Belfast, is now among his favorites to work with. “It’s this small, orange flower that looks kind of droopy,” he says. “I love them, and I don’t know anyone else who grows them.”

Clockwise from top left: Janet Baglione, Angela’s mom, picks tulips; once picked, tulips get de-bulbed; at Seek-No-Further Farmstead, buckets of compost are transported via sled; Snell plants anemone, which will be ready by the spring.

Flowers from small local farms are also less ethically fraught. From an environmental perspective, the carbon footprint of each plant is considerably lower when international air freight is cut from the equation. Plus, they’re untethered from the complexities of geopolitics, drug trades, and labor and land exploitation. “When I talk to people who don’t know about the complexities of the global flower industry,” Sundling says, “it’s a much bigger and scarier issue than people want to face.”

Of course, another alternative to buying mass-produced flowers from abroad is to not buy cut flowers at all. Don’t send bouquets to ailing relatives. Don’t bring home roses on Valentine’s Day. Don’t decorate during the gray winter months with little bursts of color on the kitchen counter. But flowers are such a longstanding source of pleasure and beauty — studies have shown that they’re one of the few gifts that reliably inspires what’s classified as a Duchenne smile, a grin that reaches right up to the eyes. Flowers are “nourishing,” and local flowers “connect us to season and place,” Carolyn Snell says. “They teach us to love intensely — and to be willing to let that beauty go when it passes.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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