Mountain Fresh Flowers

Big, beautiful poppies waver in the breeze at Flourish Flower Farm in Candler, North Carolina. Their peach, orange, and off-white petals are just beginning to unfurl.

“As you can see on this one, the bud is just starting to crack. That’s perfect harvest time, but I’d have to be here round the clock to get every single one like that,” says Niki Irving, owner and farmer at Flourish.

This is her second year growing flowers for local weddings, farmers markets, and small grocery stores. Her field is dotted with spring flowers just about to blossom, and summer flowers growing to maturity.

Her flowers are grown without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, and are typically harvested the same day they’re delivered. Irving leases two acres of outdoor growing space at Southeastern Native Plant Nursery. Her locally grown blooms will have a very different journey than the flowers found at many chain grocery stores and large florists.

Nearly 80 percent of cut flowers sold in the United States are imported, primarily from South America. Most roses, for example, travel more than two thousand miles in refrigerated airplanes to get from Columbia to North Carolina. They are typically harvested days or even weeks in advance of delivery, and companies rely on preservatives to keep them fresh.

Yet domestic flowers are making a comeback. There was a 20 percent increase in the number of U.S. farms growing cut flowers between 2007 and 2012, according to the USDA. We’re seeing similar trends in Western North Carolina, where new flower farmers are growing blooms that thrive in the mountains.

“The seasonal, local flower movement is really just taking off right now and kind of exploding,” says Irving. “It’s a really exciting time to be a part of it because I think as people are more interested in where their food comes from, that’s happening with flowers, too.”

Katie Grear, co-owner of Lady Luck Flower Farm in Big Sandy Mush, has been farming flowers since 2008. She’s seen several new flower farms enter the marketplace, especially this year. “I think that many people are diving in because the lifestyle looks really dreamy. It’s the perfect mix of tough and tender,” she says.

Grear, who farms with her husband Mike Adams, cautions that it’s not as easy as it might look. She not only grows the flowers, dealing with unpredictable weather and the many trials of being a farmer, but she’s also running a small business by answering emails late at night and feeling the pressure to be profitable. She can’t rely on a big team of workers, refrigerated airplanes, or preservatives to keep her flowers fresh. “When the peonies start coming on, which they are right now, we have to just hustle,” she says. “We’re harvesting like three times a day.”

You might think an influx of new flower farms would put established farmers on edge, causing concerns about competition. Yet farmers like Grear are working to welcome new growers. This year, 14 Western North Carolina flower farms, including five newly established farmers, came together to encourage collaboration over competition.

They named the group “WNC Flower Farmers” and launched a website that connects local farms with wholesalers, event planners, and florists. The site offers updates on which flowers are in bloom and shares essays from each farmer.

“It’s nice getting to meet the other farmers,” Grear says. “That’s something with the collaboration part that feels really good.”

Back at Flourish Flower Farm in Candler, Niki Irving bends down to harvest more flowers. As she fills her bucket, she talks about what she wants the bouquets mean to the people who receive them. “I think it feeds people in a different way,” she says. “Obviously, everyone has to eat, but flowers just kind of feed your soul.”

Learn about dozens of local flower farms and where to find their blooms in ASAP’s Local Food Guide

Aired 5/22/17.

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