ESSEX — When Melissa Glorieux lived in San Francisco she went to a lot of farmers’ markets, since two of her favorite things are eating and local produce. She loved being around the farmers — the dirty hands, the worn jeans, the sunburned noses: “That casual, hands-on feeling about what they’re doing.”
So Glorieux, a Falmouth native, decided to move back to Massachusetts and become a farmer. The fact that she’d never grown anything except a cherry tomato plant didn’t faze her. She was sure she could do it.
Last year Glorieux and her husband, Alec, bought a 345-year-old farmhouse in Essex which came with nearly 7 acres of land. She thought growing flowers would be more manageable than growing vegetables, and made it official in a blog in March 2011. “Can you imagine 7 acres of flowers out your door?” wrote Glorieux, who has two small sons. “I can and I love the way it looks!”
Now here she is a year later, a newbie 41-year-old farmer with dirty hands and a sunburned nose, pigtails, and a farm called Aster B. Flowers with ¼ acre under cultivation — so far — including rudbeckia, bachelor’s button, giant African marigolds, nigella, butterfly weed, and celosia, and other blooms she acknowledges she doesn’t know how to pronounce yet.
She also has several eager clients and vendors — wedding planners, a restaurant, farmers market, a gift shop — who signed on to buy her flowers even before she had any.
Glorieux, whose upbeat, entrepreneurial spirit matches her name, may have caught a wave, even several waves. The weather may not be cooperating with independent flower farmers this year, but a lot of other things are. These include an enthusiasm for sustainable production (she uses sustainable and organic growing practices), and a growing appreciation for the farm-to-table movement and for artisan production, which in California, she said, spilled over to a demand for local flowers.
“People in the Northeast don’t value the local thing as much as the West Coast,” she believes. “But it’s coming.”
Her clients agree. “There is growth and demand within this market of knowing where your food comes from, knowing where your flowers come from, and getting to know the person behind that product, ingredient, or whatever it is,” said Julia Frost of Chive, a sustainable event design company in Beverly. The fact that Glorieux had no track record as a flower grower didn’t bother Frost at all. Another trend she’s tripped on is supporting local farmers.
“This is a trial year but she needs that support to make it through,” said Frost. “We are not saying, ‘Get a year under your belt and then come back to us.’ The only way a business like this can succeed and grow is if they can grow from the beginning.”
Glorieux seems to have also tapped into another emerging trend, this one in the wedding industry. It’s a demand by environmentally conscious brides for locally sourced flowers. “It’s a much more natural look,” said Becca Olcott of Petal Floral Design, a boutique design studio in Newburyport specializing in “Bohemian” floral arrangements. “It goes along with the idea of recycling and being conscious and thoughtful and mindful of where we are, where we live, and our growing seasons.”
It also goes along with an appetite for artsy, unconventional wedding bouquets and table arrangements.
“Some people want their flowers to look a little more eclectic than homogenous,” said Missy Bahret, co-owner of Old Friends Farm in Amherst, which grows organic flowers and produce.
“I’m not afraid to use things like a garlic plant flower or other things that are totally accessible to any designer but they haven’t thought of picking them up and using them. When I do wedding work, I might need a boutonniere for a toddler and can go out and pick a tiny calla lily that otherwise might have gotten lost.”
Flower farming — like other traditional endeavors such as knitting and sewing — has even recently acquired a coolness factor on the part of younger women who enjoy farming, and who avidly follow cultish flower blogs like “Florette” and “The 50 Mile Bouquet.”
“There is definitely a hipster element to it ,” said Glorieux, who wrote in her own blog about the “simple pleasantness” of getting to know women farmers on Apple Street Farm in Essex where she rents greenhouse space.
“The conversation flowed — mostly around farming and food — so I can only guess how much fun it will be once we know each other better and the conversation gets deeper — or maybe sillier,” she blogged. “It’s just a really nice way to spend some time. Very “chop wood, carry water.”
There’s nothing new about flower farming in Massachusetts. “This has always been a good horticultural area, and in the 1950s there were a lot of cut flowers grown and this was considered the carnation capital of the world,” said Bob Luczai, executive director of the Massachusetts Flower Growers’ Association. But with the advent of suburbia, “communities started to push them all out,” he said. “That occurred in the ’60s and every decade after that, it got worse and worse.”
The cut flower industry moved West, much of it to California, but flowers were still largely American-grown.
In 1971, 96 percent of flowers sold in the United States were grown domestically, according to Lynn Byczynski, author of “The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower’s Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers.”
But today, it’s only about 12 percent, she said. Most cut flowers sold in the US come from Colombia, Ecuador, Holland, and other countries. “The cut flower market in Massachusetts has shrunk to practically nothing,” said Luczai. He’s aware of a handful of greenhouse producers in the state; the Ohio-based Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers lists 15 Massachusetts growers on its website. Most of them are small and grow flowers along with other produce.
But if Aster B. Flowers is any indication, this may be changing. “It’s definitely a growing business, if you’ll pardon the pun,” said Byczynski, noting that flowers are comparatively profitable. “Within a 16-week selling season, a decent growing year when most crops produce well . . . you should be able to bring in at least $15,000 from a half-acre.”
“I think there’s a certain segment of the population that has an idyllic image of a farmer and working the land and what a worthwhile and noble calling it is,” said John Hendrickson, who coordinates the Wisconsin Cut Flower Growers School, a training program for aspiring commercial flower growers (including Glorieux, who took the course).
“People with green thumbs, who like to garden, and why not turn your passion into a business instead of sitting in an office all day and looking forward to weekends to work in a garden?”
This was pretty much the way Glorieux saw it. In her previous life, she wrote for trade publications. But once she had kids, she began thinking about healthy living, and her direction changed.
“In the Bay area it’s so easy to get passionate about good food because there are so many farms,” said Glorieux. “I started to become hypervigilant of what I was feeding my baby.”
She started yearning for a life that was closer to the earth, fueled by books like “The Dirty Life,” a memoir by Kristine Kimball, a Harvard graduate who abandoned a career in New York to start a farm. “It makes life sound so real and rich.”
She moved to Essex last July and gave herself several months to get her bearings. “I quickly realized I couldn’t do it myself,” said Glorieux, who got assistance and advice from local farmers. Bit by bit, the farm started to take shape. She ordered seeds from seed catalogs in an unscientific way (“I went with what looks good!”), rented space in a greenhouse, and planted nearly 5,000 seedlings.
“Everything here has been planted by a human being crawling on their knees,” she said, as she offered a visitor a tour of the three plots of land outside her 1667 farmhouse. “The day I planted them they looked all sad and floppy. But shortly thereafter, they looked much happier in the fields.”
She’s learned the basics of irrigation, and isn’t sweating the fact that the weather has been perilously dry. “I am not experienced enough to know how nervous I should be,” she said. “But I have the sense that I should be nervous.”
Being a farmer is scary, she acknowledged, “but not scary, scary, scary. . . . When I have doubts, I think: How is this earth covered with plants if they are so difficult to grow?”Linda Matchan can be reached at email@example.com.