Written by Emily Glaser
Western North Carolina’s flower farms are in full bloom—for the farmers themselves, for their creative partners in the florist and wedding industries, and for those of us who just want to bask in the beauty.
Flower farming isn’t always pretty. Carolina Flowers’ Emily Copus, feet clad in mud-splattered wellies, her quilted jacket abandoned to the press of an early May sun, strides the perimeter of a southern-facing field in Marshall. Her arm traces shadows across trampled grass as she points out starts and sprouts across the acre: lisianthus, gomphrena, rudbeckia. Today, it’s a palette of muddy browns and scuffed, minute greens, but in a matter of weeks, it will burst into effervescent, multiplicable bloom. It’s not always pretty, but when it is, it’s stunning.
These are scenes echoed across our Appalachian mountains, in fields and valleys, on family acres and borrowed land, usually tilled by the delicate and dirty hands of female farmers. It’s an industry well-suited for this dichotomous congregation: They stand in a sea of dahlias, clad in tank tops and sun hats, to pose for an idyllic Instagram snap, then dig elbow-deep into tilled soil to fish for tubers and flick unflinchingly at grubs. These modern flower farmers are everything at once: business owners, marketing gurus, field hands, savvy entrepreneurs, models, sales staff, born-and-bred locals, city-slicker transplants—and they’re just getting started.
Like that aforementioned field in the coming months, the local flower farm industry has recently burst into full-fledged, verdant bloom, a regional trend that’s reflective of the national one. In 2015 the USDA estimated the number of small flower farms across the country had grown by some 20 percent in five years. That same year, our own North Carolina clocked in as one of the top five producing states in that industry. (The total value of such enterprises across those five states? $3 billion.)
Copus, the last in a trickle-down lineage of flower farmers, is quick to point out that the popularity of small-scale flower farming isn’t necessarily new, but it is different. Her great uncle was growing flowers in Pennsylvania, like his father before him, when the then-booming industry was disrupted first by the ‘70s fuel crisis, followed by the War on Drugs, which incentivized South American growers to replace coca plants with flowers, in turn destabilizing the American industry.
Those crises that affected Copus’ family decades ago still define the industry today: According to the USDA, 80 percent of flowers sold in the States are imported, primarily from South America. But those industrialized foreign farms represent a bevy of agricultural practices that consumers are increasingly aware and avoidant of, including chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and exploitative labor methods. Add to that the rapidly expanding market value of local agriculture, and one might say the season is ripe for small scale flower farms. (Not that they ever necessarily left: “There are old timers growing flowers and selling them for weddings on the top of a mountain that you would never know about it,” Copus says, with a laugh.)
So, why here? And why now? Those are questions with answers as intricately multitudinous as ranunculus petals. Spurred by the correlative promise of the farm to table movement, the exodus of suburbia in favor of pastoral rural scenes, a popularized vision of the industry promulgated on social media, a lucrative local wedding industry that’s turning farmers into florists, a lengthy history of agriculture both genetic and inherent to the land, and a community of like-minded and fiery floriculturists, these farmers are making a business out of their passion, one seed at a time.
It’s a movement that begins not with flowers, not with land, but with people. This modern cohort of flower farms is the fruition of a new assemblage of agriculturalists, a diverse community spanning generations and origins but united almost without exception by gender.
“I think there is an interesting thing that happens sociologically, which is that women tend to do what the men are not doing. And so I think that has definitely been the case here,” Copus says of her industry, pausing for a last glimpse over that muddy field and a directive for one of the farmhands working it. “The bottom fell out, the men left, and then the women were like, ‘Hmm, what can we do here?’” Across the country, it’s women—sometimes joined by husbands and partners—who are stepping in to fill the void still echoing with the ghosts of former farmers like Copus’ great uncle and ringing with calls for locally-grown flowers.
Nationally, these small flower farms are perceived as being manned—or rather, womanned—by a unique breed of influencer-inspired thirty-somethings looking to return to the land and embrace a more bucolic lifestyle. It’s a narrative Mandy Hornick of Asheville’s Blue Ridge Blooms expects. “I think personally, people look for better options in life, moving from office jobs and finding other paths, and the pastoral setting of farming is one place folks find solace,” she says (though Hornick herself has worked in the floral industry since 2007 after studying horticulture at Haywood Community College). Such was the case, for example, with Urban Farm Girl Flowers’ Elaine and Bryan Young, former architects who found a new career in farming after moving to Black Mountain 12 years ago. “We came here for the mountains, but flower farming and design fell in place as a way to reinvent ourselves and our passions in a thriving new industry,” explains Elaine.
In Asheville, as with these popularized plots of “city girl goes country” common in the agritourism industry, we’re used to transplants—but that’s not the prevailing story line among these local flower farmers. Many of them, in fact, are Western Carolina natives, like Katie Grear of Lady Luck Flower Farm, Loretta Ball of The Never Ending Flower Farm, Bob McLean of Poppins Posies, who runs the farm with his wife, Judy, and Annie Louise Perkinson of Flying Cloud Farm who, while born in London, has Fairview roots that trail back four generations on her mother’s side.
The popular assumption that these are naive or sophomoric rookie farmers is also debunked by our cadre of local growers who bring decades and oftentimes multigenerational experience to their fields. Many of them grew up in fields and furrows, like Loretta Ball of Barnardsville’s Never Ending Flower Farm. “It was just something we always did growing up: Plant a garden, grow acres of tobacco, and maintain our small flower beds around the house. My first job at 16 was at our local plant nursery, Reems Creek Nursery,” she says, adding that before she was a flower farmer, she had a retail greenhouse for five years. Grear and her husband, Mike Adams, started Lady Luck 11 years ago after working on another flower farm in Marshall. Perkinson’s parents had a large garden, her grandparents a dairy farm, and her grandmother a cutting garden that bloomed punctually and verdantly. And Copus, as we already know, leaned into her heritage and her own parents’ passion for growing when she left a career in journalism to pursue agriculture. These women haven’t so much grown their green thumbs as they have polished them, taking up their fate with equal parts passion and providence.
The roles of these farmers-slash-entrepreneurs take them far off the field, too, as they take on all those tasks associated with running a small business. From planning and ordering, to website maintenance and marketing, to retail and floral design, the farmers are also brand ambassadors for the businesses they literally and dedicatedly cultivate.
It’s passion that marks not just these sunburnt and dirty-nailed leaders, but their employees, too. Each farm employs a team of a few farmhands up into the double digits, depending on the season, part-time and full-time laborers, and their output, most of whom bring with them years of their own farming experience and zeal. When asked about her employees, Copus fingers off a lengthy list of part-time gardeners who fill their free hours with their own farms, while Poppins Posies’ Judy McLean smiles when she says that the people who help till the land and pluck the blooms of her farm (who she refers to as the “dream team”) seem to seek and find healing among their flowers, herself included.
But success isn’t built on kismet, and as with any women-owned business, these entrepreneurs face challenges unknown to their masculine counterparts. “I think that women in this country are miseducated in a lot of ways that pertain to business and physical occupations like this one,” Copus says of her experience as a woman becoming a business owner. “It can be really staggering to me to come across gaps in my experience that have to do with tools or infrastructure. And then also, I have to really be honest with myself about what I’ve been taught about risk and the way I represent myself in business… I look around at the industry and I’m sure that there are many other people who are asking themselves these questions, but definitely see sort of the miseducation of women at large being amplified throughout our industry, in terms of the way we shy away from risk and shy away from growth.”
In order to counter those challenges, Copus is spearheading Sheryl Sandberg-style leaning-in with projects that capitalize on community. “One of the ways we grow is through collaboration and also through merging and finding ways to work together,” she says. Three years ago she was a founding member of WNC Flower Farmers, a collective of local growers. She also frequently brings together multiple local floriculturists to satisfy large wholesale orders they’d be unable to meet alone.
It’s a spirit of camaraderie in the midst of competition that prevails among these entrepreneurial women. “There is truly a cooperative spirit among us,” says Poppins Posies’ McLean. “If there is an order that can’t be filled because of flower type, quantity, or weather issues, we call around and help each other out frequently.” Regardless of their age or experience, these flower farmers—and the bounty of creative agriculturalists in our region—are a community.
Anyone who’s pressed play and watched the first grainy scenes of Gone with the Wind unfold understands the passion land can inspire. “Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts,” Scarlett’s father exclaims in his throaty brogue, his bushy eyebrows jumping in timed cadence to his attestations. For these modern-day flower farmers, it’s the land in which they sow their seeds and reap their dreams, and it inspires that same fervor, and, oftentimes, frustration.
It’s this verdurous, jungle-ish land we call home that inspires so many flower farmers to grow in Western North Carolina, following the muddy footsteps of generations of farmers before them who have long reaped the benefits of our dense, loamy soil. “Our near-rainforest climate allows lush growth of everything!” enthuses McLean, adding that flowers are easier to grow on a small for-sale basis than other crops. And because they’re only the latest in a long line of local agriculturalists, there’s an established infrastructure for these flower farmers to lean into as well as well-fertilized and cared-for land to plant on.
There’s lots of farmland out there for the taking, but procuring it isn’t necessarily easy. Some of our local flower farmers, like the McLeans of Poppins Posies, were lucky enough to inherit the land. Others, like Grear and husband Adams, rented land before buying their own parcel. But most find it most financially viable to rent their fields.
“We have been fortunate to be able to start our farm and build our infrastructure on land owned by my parents in Fairview,” says Annie Louise Perkinson of Flying Cloud. “We have gradually added more land to our operation by leasing fields from neighbors and extended family so that we now have five landlords and five leases for our farm business. All of the land we farm has been put into conservation easement over the last 10 years so that it can never be developed. While not owning the land has some downfalls, such as not having complete control, it also has many benefits. The landowners receive a significant tax break for having the land in agricultural use, and we have the opportunity to grow and harvest produce from land that would be prohibitively expensive to purchase on a farmer’s income.”
Copus, who both rents and owns land with her husband, potter Josh Copus, agrees, adding that farm land is hard to come by (she’s always looking for additional plots to rent). “The amount of rent we pay is very reasonable,” she explains. “Agricultural rents are by the year, and part of that is because bare land doesn’t do anything for you. The understanding is that you have to invest in it, whether it’s sweat equity or whether it’s actual money.” She points out a series of ditches they’ve dug into the land that, while not technically their own, is still worth investing in.
And invest they do, turning dry plots of land into prolific fields of flowers with efforts unimaginable to we layfolk. They dig ditches to redirect the flow of mountain runoff, plant a variety of cover crops that amend different ailments like nitrogen or mineral imbalances, study soil maps and the water table—in other words, they become incredibly intimate with the land from which they’ll pull their livings. And even then, that land can turn on them with flooding, fungus, blight, bugs, and any number of unpredictable and natural misfortunes with disastrous consequences. If all goes according to plan, however, the land provides a living for the flower farmers and their employees.
The magic, of course, is in the flowers.
Most small flower farms grow dozens of species and hundreds of varieties of blooms in a kaleidoscopic spectrum of colors, their nodding heads ranging in size from dinner plate to snowflake. The ground starts warming, waking up tubers and seeds, in spring, and a parade of flowers follow suit beginning in mid-April, a march of pastels that ripens into rich primaries in summer and rubied jewels in fall until the first frost nips buds in mid-October.
There are the ones we all recognize: dahlias, daffodils, tulips, sunflowers, hydrangeas; those we amateur gardeners might know: zinnias, cosmos, phlox, marigolds, peonies, bee balm; and then there’s the rest, a whole slew of florets with Tolkienesque names—celosia, amaranth, scabiosa, larkspur—a seemingly endless list of annuals and perennials grown for bouquets and arrangements and single-stem beauty.
The farmers choose which flowers to grow based on a variety of factors: reliability, shelf-life, diversity, popularity, and, of course, personal preference. Flying Cloud’s Perkinson indicates the importance of other elements: “The flowers that we grow are ones that do well in our area, can be planted at different times of the year to extend the harvest, and many can be cut over and over.” Flowers like dahlias are among local floriculturists’ favorites because they check all those boxes, plus they don’t ship well, giving the local guys an advantage over international competition. Not to mention, they’re beautiful and come in a range of shapes, colors, and sizes.
Most growers study seed catalogues and follow trends, choosing varieties that cater specifically to their clients, which range from local floral designers or small businesses looking for arrangements, as is the case with Blue Ridge Blooms, to wedding clients (more on that later), to special use, like local distillery Oak and Grist, which tapped Urban Farm Girl Flowers to grow chamomile exclusively for their brews.
All the growers note that their plan and the flowers they grow is constantly evolving and adapting to include new varieties, experimental crops, and low-maintenance perennials. When a new flower doesn’t work, the lost investment is minimal: less than $100 and the loss of profit from the flowers it replaced.
It’s not just about what they grow, but how they’re grown. Most small-scale farmers, like Copus, eschew tractors in favor of hands, which allow for a higher density of plantings. The rotation of crops, meticulously planned and executed, encourages a higher yield as well, with flowers blooming constantly from April through October. It’s an intentional approach that requires year-round attention. “There is not a month that we don’t plant flowers,” Copus says. “Making sure that you’re always planting something really helps on the opposite end when you’re harvesting to make sure that you’ve always got something to pick.”
It requires some expert finagling and, in some ways, a direct contradiction of nature. “We direct seed crops in the fall that bloom the following spring, we plant bulbs and tubers, we start seeds in the greenhouse to get a jumpstart on the season, and trick biennials into blooming the first year by starting in the summer, transplanting in the fall, and harvesting the following spring,” Annie Louise Perkinson explains, of her cycle for Flying Cloud. “It takes a good plan, a lot of variety, and knowledge of growing conditions to have blooms every week of the growing season.”
The flower production of each farm is also dependent, of course, on acreage, which varies widely. Ball grows just 1/4 acre of annuals, plus peonies and a 200-foot row of perennials. The McLeans cover nearly every square inch of their three acres with dahlias and a profundity of perennials and annuals. And Copus has spread Carolina Flowers’ operations over some four locations, managing about eight acres with a three-acre footprint of planted space in 2019. Some prefer to be small-scale, local growers; others, like Copus, envision bigger businesses—and more land. “We will be as big as we can possibly be, and it will be limited by the land that we can get access to,” she says, “but if we can get 30 acres, we will grow on 30 acres.” When asked if that’s a scary number, Copus shakes her head: “High density farming has been able to produce incredible yields on a smaller scale; it just requires more people and more of management of people. So, I think if you’re not scared to manage people, then you’re in good shape.”
It also requires a market—and that, Western North Carolina has.
Riding down the narrow blacktop of U.S. 74 that traces the line between Little Pisgah, Ferguson, and Tater Knob’s peaks, traffic slows as it moves across the valley floor. In midsummer, Fairview’s mountains are swathed in shades of green, but here, there’s a rainbow.
Drivers can’t help but press their brakes, some to turn in, others to admire, the land-locked sea of colors that are Flying Cloud Farms’ flower fields. It’s what Perkinson refers to as a “natural billboard,” pulling passers-by from the road to their self-serve, honor system farm stand, where folks can purchase the flowers that caught their eye as bouquets, single stems, and bunches, as well as the fruits and veggies grown on the land.
It’s the charm of it all—the shaded gazebo, the iced greens, the wooden cash box, the breeze that makes the flowers sway—that makes the farm stand a viable enterprise, but it’s also the practicalities. “I feel like buying local, organic flowers is just as important as buying local, organic food as it helps save the world in multiple ways,” Perkinson explains. “It keeps dollars in our local community, it keeps farmland productive and managed organically, it provides food for beneficial insects and pollinators, it has a smaller carbon footprint, and it doesn’t support an industry that grows many of the traditional cut flowers using lots of chemicals and cheap labor. There are many floral needs in this community, and I think there is room for all the flower farmers—it is just a matter of finding the right niche.”
For the Perkinsons, and for most of our flower farmers, their flowers don’t fill so much a niche as a spectrum of requisites. They have their on-site farm stand, plus a popular CSA program which can include flowers (or you can order a flower share at $200 for the 20 week season), farmers market booths at the RAD and North Asheville markets, “pick their own” cups ($5) and buckets ($20) in the heat of summer, and floral design for weddings and special events.
It’s engaging in diverse and widespread markets that has proved the best bet and success story for these floriculturists.
You’ll find many of them at local farmers markets, including Carolina Flowers at the Asheville market and Urban Farm Girl at the Black Mountain Tailgate market. Others, like Grear, have found that farmers markets weren’t a profitable avenue for her business model.
You-pick is also a popular and endearing retail avenue for the farmers. Lady Luck hosts its community “U-Pick Days” in summer and fall (watch their social media channels to see when), and the Never Ending Flower Farm invites you-pick customers Thursday–Saturday from 9AM to 1PM. Though Poppins Posies doesn’t host you-pick, they do sell flowers by the bucket and encourage locals to come enjoy the beauty of the farm. “We are probably the only flower farm that welcomes visitors to drop by all day long, six days a week, with slightly shorter hours on Saturday,” McLean says. “Everyone feels the magic, especially in the early morning, of being able to experience the sights, sounds, and scents of the flower fields at their leisure, without pressure to buy.”
Agritourism like you-pick is an increasingly appealing concept for many farmers as they consider how to capitalize not just on the beauty of the flowers, but the land, as well. Urban Farm Girl has hosted wreath making and floral design workshops with Looking Glass Creamery and intends to do so in the future, and Lady Luck Flower Farm recently incorporated special events, like weddings, workshops, parties, and classes, into their business plan. In July Copus and husband Josh hosted their first farm tour and open house, Flowers and Clay, where guests were able to explore the fields and the processes behind Josh Copus Pottery, too (they plan to host Flowers and Clay annually). Blue Ridge Blooms and the Never Ending Flower Farm both have plans to expand into agritourism with classes and workshops in 2020. “We are actually building a Sorghum Mill where we will be making Sorghum syrup and inviting the community to our farm to see the process of making the syrup in the fall,” adds Never Ending’s Ball.
Selling direct-to-consumer is a thriving channel for most farmers, but so is business-to-business. They sell to florists, local businesses, restaurants, and wholesale, in bouquets, buckets, and en masse.
All of these are important aspects of the retail chain for local flower farmers, but none is so impactful as the wedding industry. “The strength of the wedding market in Asheville cannot be overstated,” Copus says. “The flower market in Asheville is huge because say there’s 2,500 weddings registered in Buncombe County every year, and if each one of those people spends $2,500 on flowers, which is a small budget, then that’s what, over $6 million? So just for wedding flowers for weddings that are registered in Buncombe County, let alone the whole region, let alone people who are registering in their home county and then coming here. That’s pretty crazy to think about.” (See the July 2018 issue of this magazine for an in-depth report on the regional wedding industry.)
It is crazy to think about, and it’s the monetary lifeblood of these farmers. Lady Luck, Urban Farm Girl, Poppins Posies, Blue Ridge Blooms, Never Ending Flower Farm, and Carolina Flowers all attribute their success—most of their success—to the industry and their in-house full-service floral design. “We never imagined being in the wedding business, but that is 60-70 percent of our business now,” says Lady Luck’s Grear. “WNC is a wedding destination, and there are more and more businesses that have sprung up to serve this market, including flower growers and florists.” It’s the wedding industry that’s preventing the saturation of the small flower farm industry and allowing more and more flower lovers to successfully try their hand at farming.
With a diverse and thriving range of markets, these farmers can turn penny-seeds into big profits. Copus cites a figure from a book that estimates a $35,000 yield per acre for flower farmers. “But that’s an old book, and it’s a very specific model of flower farming,” she explains. “We have a sales outlet from everywhere, from wholesale to wholesale, wholesale to florists, retail at the farmer’s market, retail through delivery, and then value-added for our weddings. So, we have this whole different chain of sales that’s almost incestuous where we’re sort of selling flowers to ourselves. So, our yield is much higher than that.”
But Copus’ dreams are big, and for some of the farmers, it’s more about the small impact. “You’ll see money in the driveway, and the dream team, all of us, get together, and we turn our backs and we throw the money down the driveway to remind us it’s about taking care of the people who come, not the money,” says McLean of Poppins Posies with a grin, pointing out the coins that glitter in her drive like sparkling buds.
It’s an industry uniquely suited to give its proprietors their dreams. For Copus, that’s providing a sustainable living for a cadre of employees; for McLean, it’s offering the beauty of flowers at an affordable price point. And for all the farmers, it’s the quiet magic of turning seeds into something more. It’s standing in a monochrome, chestnut-mud field in early May and the promise that, come summer, it won’t just be pretty, it will be stunning.
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