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INNOVATOR Q&A

What Cheer Flower Farm blossoms on former factory site in Providence

The nonprofit gives away every flower it grows to give people a lift, but its goal is to become a job training center for careers in farming, floristry, and fine garden maintenance.

The What Cheer Flower Farm is located at the old Colonial Knife site in Providence.
The What Cheer Flower Farm is located at the old Colonial Knife site in Providence.Courtesy of What Cheer Flower Farm (Custom credit)/Courtesy of What Cheer Flower Farm

The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com.

This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Anne Holland, co-founder and board president of the What Cheer Flower Farm, a nonprofit based in Providence.

Anne Holland, What Cheer Flower Farm co-founder and board president
Anne Holland, What Cheer Flower Farm co-founder and board presidentCourtesy of Anne Holland (Custom credit)

Q: What distinguishes What Cheer from other flower farms?

Holland: You can’t buy flowers from us – we give them all away for free. What Cheer is one of the only flower farms in the world that gives away its entire crop.

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Flowers bring joy, solace, and healing. Flowers are even scientifically proven to reduce anxiety and help with dementia. So, we’re a 501c3 charitable farm that grows, rescues, and gives away flowers to help the people in our community who need a lift.

In 2020, we distributed more than 50,000 flowers, and it’s only our third year. Our goal is to ramp up to 200,000 flowers per year – equaling more than 15,000 bouquets – by 2025.

Instead of selling flowers, we rely on generous grants and donations. We also sell honey from beehives at the Farm, and paintings created by artists inspired by our fields. In a normal year, we also run fun events such as our late August Flower Festival.

Q: To whom do you distribute your bouquets?

Holland: We partner with dozens of Rhode Island nonprofits who reach directly into the community. For example, Meals on Wheels drivers hand out our flowers along with meals to seniors in need. We give bouquets to local food banks to distribute with groceries. We also deliver bouquets in bulk to recovery centers, homeless shelters, services for domestic violence victims, hospices, at-risk teen centers, and senior services, among others.

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Some of our favorite partners are nonprofits, such as the PACE Organization of Rhode Island, that create programs using our flowers – such as flower arranging and art workshops for seniors – and then they hand the bouquets on to bedridden seniors. That’s pretty cool.

Q: Why is the farm named What Cheer?

Holland: It’s inspired by the City of Providence slogan, “What Cheer?” It’s a great name, and it’s an urban farm. When the Roger Williams family came down from Massachusetts, they were greeted by the local residents, the Narragansetts, and the greeting was “What cheer, netop?” – a 17th century greeting that basically meant “Hi, how are you doing?” Even if you don’t know the story behind the slogan, you still get it. The whole point is we are here to provide cheer.

Q: How has the pandemic affected What Cheer and how has the organization responded?

Holland: First, we expanded our deliveries to include free bouquets for healthcare heroes working at local hospitals. So, we’d set up a table outside the staff entrance and hand out bouquets as tired doctors, nurses, and other staff were leaving after long shifts.

We also expanded our Art in the Fields program, inviting more artists and writers to come to work safely outside in our fields for free. We keep folding tables, chairs, and easels on hand for them.

Sadly, the pandemic meant we couldn’t run our big Flower Festival last August, which is a major source of funds for us. So we had to cut back on hiring plans. We now have a tiny staff of three, but volunteers helped out a lot.

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Q: Tell us about the site you occupy on Magnolia Street in Providence.

Holland: It’s amazing. Thanks to a generous donor, we bought the former Colonial Knife factory, which is just one block from bustling Olneyville Square. It’s a 2.7-acre site, which is enormous for a site so close to the center of the city.

With help from Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and environmental consultants Wilcox & Barton, we have begun remediating the land, turning urban blight into an organic flower and floristry center. It’s a huge job. Each year, we turn more of the parking lot into fields. This winter, we will begin asbestos removal on the derelict factory prior to pulling most of it down. We’re continually fundraising to help make this happen.

We chose this urban site because our goal, aside from giving away flowers, is to be a job training center for careers in farming, floristry, and fine garden maintenance. These employers are already looking for trained people, and the jobs won’t leave the area. About 50,000 people live within a mile of the Farm, many of whom are underemployed. They can come check out possibilities and training in their neighborhood, which is also on a major Rhode Island Public Transit Authority bus line, much more easily than they could go to a place outside the city.

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Plus, honestly, it’s super cool to have a flower farm in the city.

Q: What is the flower rescue program?

Holland: It’s a little known fact that Rhode Island is a regional center of flower farming and floristry. In part, that’s because we are one of the top wedding destination sites in the United States. What Cheer is friends with our local community of farmers, florists, and floral wholesalers, such as The Floral Reserve. So, when they have leftover, unsold flowers, they often donate them to us so we can give them away. This year we rescued about 10,000 stems this way.

Plus, in non-pandemic years, event and wedding planners and florists often partner with us to donate still-fresh flowers after events to charity. Many wedding parties in particular are interested in this service.

Q: How much do you rely on volunteers and how can someone participate if they are interested?

Holland: This year, more than 80 volunteers helped with field work, harvesting, bouquet-making, and deliveries. Next year, we are opening new fields and hoping to raise our output to 75,000 stems. We’ll need help starting in April. If you sign up at our site now at WhatCheerFarm.org, we will add you to our list and let you know when there are openings.

Plus, we are always interested in artists who want to come to the fields for inspiration. You can sign up at our site. It’s free but we do need reservations due to our tiny staff and the fact that we are not otherwise open to the public, because we’re too busy working with the flowers.

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Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.