Photography by Daniel Vaughan
Beyond the Blooms with the flower farmers
Word travels quickly in these parts, especially about a new discovery, and one of the hottest topics of the last year revolves around a young flower farmer who set up shop on her family farm just south of Stockdale, on the road by the same name.
“Have you heard of Dahlia May?” was the question in 2015. “Did you see Dahlia May’s post today?” is the new version, because there is a rapidly decreasing number of people who have not heard of Dahlia May.
It is very difficult to write about Dahlia May Flower Farm without including sensation in the same sentence. Dahlia May is talking the world – our world, her world, the flower world – by social media storm. She went from not owning a computer to having more than 28,000 Instagram followers (up 5,000 from the week prior), in two years. Add another 2,700 Facebook followers, and a faithful stream of visitors to her farmgate and market stands.
This flower farmer – Melanie Harrington is the human behind Dahlia May – is one of those once-in-a-generation sensations, and she has built her business on honest and very long days of work, an undying love for her family, and an abundance of talent. Mix in fierce independence, a stunning work ethic, an ability to see over the horizon to what clients of tomorrow want, and confidence to follow her heart. It’s simply a pleasure to watch Dahlia May flourish.
Melanie was born and raised in Stockdale, and still farms the family property. Her parents Russ and Bev bought the beautiful red brick two-storey home, hoping to fill its five bedrooms with children, grow vegetables and flowers, and build on the family’s love of farming. Her grandparents lived around the corner and raised beef cattle.
When Melanie was six months old, her parents’ world turned upside down. Bev was diagnosed with the same rare and very aggressive type of cancer Terry Fox had. It spread to her spine, subsequent surgery left her paralyzed, and Bev has been hospitalized ever since. “This is part of my story,” shared Melanie, sitting at a busy table in the farmhouse, surrounded by pots and seeds and works in progress of her husband Alex. On the sun porch, amid more flats awaiting seeds and designs slept Sampson, the Newfoundland lapdog.
Melanie doesn’t remember a different time, so this is her time. Shortly after her mother’s diagnosis, Melanie’s grandfather passed away. Russ now had a six-month-old, a family farm, a full-time job at the paper mill, and now he was helping his mother with her farm. “We made it through,” recalls Melanie. “Between the rows of vegetables, we’d plant flowers, watch them grow, enjoy them as we readied our produce for the market on the tailgate, and off we’d go. We grew tomatoes for Tomasso’s, we vended at the Trenton market. When Dad was working shifts, my grandmother looked after me. I’d speak with my Mom every day, and we’d have Sunday dinners together at the hospital. That was our definition of family.”
By 10, Melanie was self-sufficient, able to make her own meals and tend the house. “I was identified early on as a problem solver,” she said. “Identify the problem and find a solution. It took a while to accept not everything is my problem to solve, but we weigh the options and keep going. I’m a pusher of projects; I have a vision and I know where I want to go.”
The road home was not immediately clear upon graduation from high school, but Melanie has never truly left the land her parents loved. Realizing her future involved working with plants, in high school she did her co-op placement at Wain’s Greenhouses in Brighton. Out of necessity she had her driver’s licence at 17, and she’d finish her co-op in the afternoon and then work evenings and weekends, through most of high school, and after graduation.
After high school, when many of her classmates went to college, she travelled throughout Europe, experiencing the culture, and loving the tulips and other locally grown flowers. She came home and studied floral design at night school at Loyalist College, where she learned the basics, and a lot of Latin.
“If you’re creative, you just know what works. I’ve always loved art and plants and flowers. Floral design brought it all together.”
After formal training, and stints at local flowers shops – one lasting five years – Melanie remained unfulfilled, mostly because there was little chance to create her own designs. “I was young, passionate, and had a million ideas of how to be creative, and I had an epiphany. I couldn’t change the world, but I could change myself.”
The family farm was calling, as were music and art, and the long hours at the flower shop were consuming her. Five years ago, Melanie’s father passed way, and another realization set in. “I loved flowers, and working indoors all day wasn’t for me. I was a lousy employee,” she laughed. “I’m like a plant. I need seasons and light.”
By that time, Melanie was married to the love of her life, Alex Ferri, whose family has The Garden Network, Natural Themes Nursery, and Heissler Greenhouses in Stockdale. Melanie and Alex were renovating her childhood home, and her vision cleared.
Dahlia May Flower Farm was born, launching in 2015. Melanie’s father always called her mother Dahlia, and May was her grandmother’s name. Honouring those strong women in her life remains important. Her expectations were modest.
“I came home, planted some seeds, and watched them grow. I learned, and I overcame prejudices,” she noted, adding she was never a fan of Facebook, of living life in a virtual space. “I had to get over that, and for a start-up business with zero dollars for advertising, it is invaluable.” She attended a workshop in Washington state and learned vital techniques about flower farming and marketing. “One speaker stressed we needed to be the face of our business, to share our personal story, and make the investment in a professional photographer.” Fortunately, Ashley Slessor, a high school friend, was just starting out as a professional photographer, and the two women have grown their businesses together.
Melanie’s social media content is raw and gripping and personal. She doesn’t pull punches, and she shares as many of the tribulations as the triumphs. “The tough days are when it’s the most important to write.”
That first year, she planted seeds in the spring, thousands of seeds sprouting in every available space in her house, and transplanted them to her gardens, enlisting every pair of available hands she could find.
She was up before dawn, and laughed when she explained she has been known to build bouquets late in the evening, lighting the work space with a headlamp. She is open about the challenges. “Farming is seasonal; utility bills not so much. We have to pay for seeds and supplies in January and February when we haven’t had an income for three months, and our hydro bill is past due. This isn’t easy, but it’s the only thing I want to do.”
Believing in community rather than competition, Melanie sees the path ahead with clarity. “I want to stay in my own lane, do what I do, and attract my own customers; those who are right for me. My job is to find customers interested in sustainably grown heirloom flowers. We’re not in competition with other florists. There’s lots of business for all of us. We all have a niche, and we can all work together. I’d love to work with a florist who wants locally grown flowers.”
She’s already consulting with brides for 2017, and her wedding business is growing, as are demands for her designs at special events. Her flower subscriptions are popular, and her farmstand will be open seven days a week from May to December, and for special celebrations and most weekends from February to April. She is a regular at the Codrington Farmers’ Market, where she can be found surrounded by clients happy to be part of this phenomenon.
Realizing a full-time business needed more revenue than two or three days a week at farmers’ markets, Melanie invested heavily in her business last year. She added a hoop house in the summer and will use it to extend the seasons this year. In the autumn, she had a local Mennonite contractor build a charming farmgate stand, which she used throughout the Christmas season, and recently opened for tulips and ranunculus she acquires from a family grower in Niagara. Alex just finished installing new benches in the studio, and everything finally has electricity. “No more designing by headlamp at midnight,” Melanie laughed.
This year, she put off plans to buy a new tractor in favour of two more hoop houses and a van, and she is constantly expanding her gardens. She’s in love with ranunculus, will always be faithful to dahlias, has seemingly miles of zinnias, and will be adding to her peonies and anemones and sunflowers. There’s another project which will challenge her tendency to be somewhat of a control enthusiast. Local independent film maker Brittany Ollerenshaw recently completed a Kickstarter campaign and is spending the season shadowing Melanie for an upcoming documentary.
Melanie’s path is clear. “There are so many factors I can’t control, but I can control how I attract and connect with customers, how I seek inspiration from fellow flower farmers. Everything I do is customer directed; the business grows through their demand, and they are showing me they want sustainably grown local flowers.”
Sensational though Dahlia May’s popularity is, Melanie is the first to acknowledge she is one of a growing community of flower farmers. She was delighted to meet another local grower at a conference of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (ASCFG) during a farm tour in Niagara.
Sas Long started her flower farm in Milford a year before Dahlia May opened. From Toronto, her family moved to eastern Ontario and Sas followed, after working as a cook for a food stylist in Toronto. Through her, she connected with Vicky’s Veggie’s, worked there, and fell in love with the County.
She was attracted to its natural beauty and to the growing community of entrepreneurs of all ages. “They are all doing such creative things on their own terms,” she admired. “I always had a fascination for flowers and this inspired me to pursue my dream of becoming a flower farmer.”
In 2013, she planted an acre on rented land. She returned to her Toronto roots to see if the business could succeed at city farmers’ markets. It did, and the next year Sas bought property, built her first greenhouse, and doubled production. By 2016, she had three greenhouses and 2.5 acres under cultivation.
While Dahlia May Flower Farm has a strong focus on the local market, Sas takes her Floralora Flowers on the road, selling during the season weekly at the Dufferin Grove Farmers’ Market, once monthly at the Toronto Flower Market, and selling wrapped bouquets at several locations in Toronto, and at Sobey’s in Picton this year. She also wholesales to local and Toronto flower shops.
She’s toying with the idea of farmgate, but not for this year. “We’re off the beaten track and there isn’t a lot of drive-by traffic, but we do have a great tourism culture here, so maybe I’ll open for special events in the future,” pondered Sas. “There’s so much work producing the flowers, and I’m not prepared or willing just yet. I’d rather support the retailers I supply.”
Sas and Melanie, strong allies and sometime customers of each other, both say they are doing the same thing differently. They sustainably grow cut flowers, design for weddings and special occasions, work ridiculously long hours, and believe completely in their vocation. “I want to attract people who are green-minded,” Sas explained. “My customers are looking for locally grown flowers – less traditional with garden-inspired aesthetics.”
Like her colleague in Stockdale, Sas enjoys growing the unusual – she grows and sells birdhouse gourds at the market, and has a flair for choosing just the right shrub for ornamental foliage. “I want it to echo how it looks in nature, looser with lots of greens and unusual components,” she continued, adding she loves adding berry and currant and tomato branches in her arrangements. “I’d rather do that than have a tightly wound bouquet. I’d like the bouquets to reflect the freedom of the fields.”
She is expanding her gardens to ensure a constant supply of her favourites, from the traditional to the weird and wonderful. A full acre is devoted to annuals, and the other one-and-a-half acres is set aside for perennials and flowering shrubs. She is building her renowned peony collection – over 800 plants this year – and starts 10,000 seeds in succession so flowers will be at their freshest all season.
Knowing her market, she has divisions within divisions. Part of the garden grows the grocery flowers – celosia, sunflowers, marigolds and dahlias – sturdier flowers with a longer vase life. Another part is her design garden. “Some people want a bouquet to last a week or longer, and there are other times when it just has to last for the day, for weddings and other special events.” That’s where Sas likes to incorporate her less familiar yet always gorgeous greenery and unusual vines and flowers. With a keen designer’s eye, she mixes it up sometimes, creating very natural designs with unique content.
Weddings represent about half of the business, and the peony project is a driving force. “I have a group of brides who decided to get married in June so they could use peonies in their bouquets,” she smiled.
“I see myself as a flower farmer first, but events are half of my product,” Sas continued. “It’s nice to have the balance of farming and design, and I love the culture of the farmers’ markets; we need the balance of retail, wholesale, and events.”
Sas and Melanie recognize they are part of a growing local flower movement in Ontario. Their membership in the ASCFG connects them to like-minded farmers internationally. “It’s an amazing association,” said Sas, adding it has more value to her than the four years she spent studying sociology. “Buy local, shop local, eat local, that’s all well-established culturally, and certainly strong in Prince Edward County. Sustainable local flower farming wasn’t on the radar, but there’s a real emergence in the last few years.”
Pretty though they are, imported flowers can have a dark side. “About 85 per cent of flowers in stores are imported, and growers are huge consumers of pesticides,” explained Sas. “Flowers are one of the least organic, high carbon footprint crops. The awareness of responsible local growers and demand for our products is growing quickly. Flowers are a luxury item, and people are questioning their origin. They appreciate what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and the change we’re effecting. This isn’t about a couple of local flower girls; we’re part of a movement.”
Neither Sas nor Melanie use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. The flowers are all naturally grown, the soil carefully amended by locally produced mushroom compost, and hard labour. The pest battle is continuous. “Bugs love dinner plate dahlias as much as florists,” smiled Sas. “Instead of chemicals, we use netting.”
As spring hints its arrival, Sas is ready. “It’s the most exciting season. It’s maddening and worrisome and frustrating. It tries my patience, and rewards my efforts.”
For all the hard labour, and it is, Sas can’t hide the joy. “This isn’t easy. You wake up and realize you don’t have one job, you have 18. You’re not just a farmer, you’re an accountant and a marketer and a manager, and you work as hard as you can because you have never loved anything this much in your life. I consider every new season a chance to start over with a really great experiment. I love the pace; I created my dream job. I work in nature every single day.”
Melanie and Sas are almost an embarrassment of riches. They are young entrepreneurs forging their businesses and more importantly, their life paths. They are shrewd, focussed, and talented, and they share their love of flowers joyously.
They are a sensation, and they are flower farmers.