In the final episode of our Women in Agriculture series, we drive up to Madison County, North Carolina to meet Emily Patrick of Carolina Flowers. On this hot summer day, Patrick is pounding the stakes that will support the flowers as they grow. She’s determined to make the most of every minute on the farm, whether she’s preparing soil, driving the tractor, fixing equipment, or troubleshooting the health of hundreds of flowers.
“What I like about farming is that you’re physically doing so many different things every day. I’m out here and the birds are singing, there’s frogs and butterflies, or maybe I’m driving around meeting someone new or doing something I haven’t done before,” she says.
When she’s not on the farm, she designs elaborate floral displays for weddings, and also delivers flowers to CSA customers and sells at the farmers market. But before she became a farmer-florist three years ago, Patrick spent most of her time behind a desk downtown.
She was a reporter for local newspapers when she decided to start a business that would succeed in Asheville’s tourism economy. She considered repairing refrigerators for restaurants, opening a pancake cart, and did some training to become an electrician.
“And one day I was planting dahlias and I had this realization that the thing that I’m already doing is probably the thing that I should do for my business. So at that point I had been growing flowers to go along with my husband’s pottery business. It sort of knocked me down that I could just sell the flowers that I already have,” she says.
She had some flower farming in her family history. Her grandfather was a wholesale carnation farmer in Pennsylvania, but Patrick didn’t have much farming experience herself. She says it’s taken a lot of trial and error to figure it out.
“I’m still learning,” she says. “This morning, before you got here, I was trying to fix a piece of equipment that I broke because I don’t think I changed the oil in it as soon as I should have. So you just learn a lot by screwing up, and I’ve certainly done plenty of that in the last three years.”
She’s also gotten help from other farmers in the region. “There are a lot of really good farmers out here, all kinds of age groups and all kinds of backgrounds. A lot of them are transplants like me but we have our friends in Sandy Mush who loaned us a really important piece of equipment when we were getting started.”
Collaborations are common in the farming community here, and Patrick says that flower farmers in particular are open to working together. She points to the region’s limited flat land as a reason that so many small flower farms can co-exist in the mountains.
“That’s just the way it is here and I think that’s nice because you don’t have to worry about anybody coming in and dominating the market. But the flipside of that is I think it makes it even more important for people to find ways to work together because if it’s just a bunch of small people who can’t fill larger orders consistently, that part of the market is closed to local growers. So I think there’s not as much competition, but that makes collaboration more important than it is in other places.”
Patrick is part of WNC Flower Farmers, a group of about 20 local farmers who work together to sell flowers throughout the state. They drive their flowers down the mountain to a wholesaler in Charlotte who sends them to florists in Raleigh. Patrick says it’s not easy to get so many farmers together during the busy summer months, but it’s worth the effort.
There are many Appalachian Grown flower farmers in Western North Carolina. It’s a facet of farming that’s attracting more people, locally and nationally. Many new and established farmers are drawn to the artistry of floral design as well as the challenging physical labor of running a farm.
Patrick is eager to get back to work after our visit. Before I leave, she starts up the tractor, another skill she’s learned on the job. “Let’s see if I can get it in one go. It’s a little bit temperamental,” she says. She turns the key once and the engine roars.
Learn about more local farmers and listen to our entire Women in Agriculture series at https://asapconnections.org/broadcasts/
Aired: September 17, 2018