As you may have noticed, I'm trying to get better at reminding you that we sell things, by being in touch more via email. I also really want to be better at sharing with you WHY we do what we do. Those stories are my favorite to share.
I spent most of today writing a submission for a contest for women-owned businesses in NYC. The probing questions led me back to Santiago, Chile, where I lived for a year right after college, as a Spanish-learning obsessed but otherwise lost young person when it came to career. One of the most memorable parts of that experience were weekly trips to a lively local open-air market where I'd buy vegetables. Fragrant habanero peppers in all colors, piled into mountains on rough tables, sold by indigenous farmers; beautiful and new-to-me Chirimoyas, farm cheeses... it was heaven, and a far cry from my experience of food shopping in sterile US supermarkets. It connected me to the people who somehow conjured these jewels from the earth, that connected me to time and place and season and culture through taste and smell and texture.
I think the love affair with farming started there. It wasn't for another few of years till I had my first experience of growing something from seed - collard greens, tomatoes, and Zinnias.
Here's me in a Santiago park... one of the few photos I have from this time:
7 years later, Molly Oliver Flowers was born out of that same passion for sustainable farming and social justice, and more specifically out of a newer desire to connect more people to the healing and beauty of locally grown flowers, and to help flower farms once again flourish here in the US. I'm sure you've heard me say it before, but 80% of the flowers you buy today (!) - at your local supermarket or even floral shop - are grown overseas. Grown in ideal climates by expert farm workers, but at great cost to the environment and unfortunately, to the health of laborers who seed, plant, tend to and harvest. This wasn't always the case of course, although plenty in inequities existed in farming here, even when flower farming was in its heyday.
Here at home, investing in locally-grown flowers is more expensive than we're used to. Land costs more, labor costs more, everything costs more. However, investing in local farmers means investing not only in one small business, but in conscientious environmental stewardship and green jobs and the unique offerings a small business can bring (see: Botanical Lounge, below). It means investing in the rebound and proliferation of age-old agricultural skills that have been pushed to the brink of extinction through industrial farming where profit mattered most. Local flower farms are working on making a come-back, largely thanks to people like you who seek out small businesses to support and who care about where and how the products they invest in are produced.
One amazing farm I have the good fortune to be working with is Many Graces Farm and Design, based in Hadley, MA just outside Ann Arbor. I was introduced to the founder/lead grower and designer Rebecca Maillet through a friend living in the area. Long story short, I've been purchasing flowers in bulk for our subscriptions from the MG team since May 2020.
Rebecca co-leads the farm with her partner Kel Komenda, making it one of a handful of queer-owned farms in the US. (That's Rebecca, left and Kel, up at the top of this post). Rebecca's path and story about the origins of Many Graces is especially poignant.
Below is an interview with Kel and Rebecca from May 2023. I also think you might be extra inspired to read about and even donate to their Fund Me campaign to build a "botanical lounge" in their community! What this exactly is I don't know, but I want to make sure I get to find out:)
With love and flowers,
Who makes up Many Graces Farm? How long has MGF been in operation?
Many Graces is a queer owned and operated farm, and I am so lucky for the incredible team of folks who make all that we do possible. First, there's Many Graces' co-owner, my beloved partner Kel, our Managing Director; they handle all of our farm infrastructure projects, fabrication for one-off pieces as needed by our floral design studio, bookkeeping, tool and machinery sourcing, grant writing, community outreach and business growth strategies.
All of our other staff members are in their second season with us and they are all such special people! First off, we have Eliza, who is an incredible flower farmer with tons of experience, knowledge, and a genuine passion for the flowers – she is now managing the wholesale side of the farm; Brendan had been farming vegetables for over a decade before joining us last year – he has been helping us to implement more efficient production systems, including thinking about our crop planning in new and improved ways; Tori is in graduate school at UMASS Amherst for a dual degree in architecture and landscape architecture – in addition to being a part of our farm crew year round, she is actually spending time this summer with Kel as an architecture intern working on a building project for the new retail endeavor we have in the works; Corinne began working with us in our retail space in early 2022 but transitioned to farm crew last summer – she also works with our design team on special events; Rae started working with us last fall – they previously worked at the Hampshire College student farm and they are an extremely adaptable person for whatever a given day on the farm may call for – we think might be a farmer for life; Zoe is entering her second year of college and she is the only staff member that joins us for just a few months a year – the window of time we get to spend with her seems shorter every summer, but she is a field crew member and one of our farmers market representatives; Debbie works in our design studio three days a week – she helps with one-time orders, organizes our design studio inventory and staffs one of our CSA pick-ups.
Where are you from originally?
I am originally from Orange, MA – it is a super tiny working-class town in north central Massachusetts. After high school I moved to Boston for college, and then from there moved around quite a bit (from Austin, TX, back to Boston, and then to Oakland, CA) until landing back in Western Mass twelve years ago.
How long has MGF been in operation?
We officially became MG in 2018 while I was still in graduate school, which means that we are in the middle of our sixth season. So much has happened in the past five years it’s kind of mind-blowing! There was no real “grand plan” when I started the farm – I just started growing flowers because I truly love them. The growth of the business has been a real uphill battle because I started from scratch with no infrastructure or equipment; we are now in our second season with a tractor, and as I write this, we are installing the first well in our main field (we have essentially been farming without real access to irrigation for the five previous seasons). The behind-the-scenes look at the farm is a story in and of itself – it truly is a passion project!
Why did you decide to farm flowers specifically?
In 2011, I began working at a local vineyard while I was in graduate school at UMASS Amherst as a way to both meet my financial needs and to work with my hands as much as possible. As someone studying 19th century poetry in graduate school, the worlds of wine, poetry, and working with the earth were always seamlessly interconnected for me.
The way I came to be connected to flowers is because of my beloved soulmate friend, Ruth. After my first summer working at the vineyard, I learned that Ruth had been diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Ruth was my deep family--a fellow queer femme whose soul quite literally felt connected to mine. So, I did what made the most sense: I told her to come live with me in Western Mass and to get her cancer treatment at Dana Farber in Boston. She made the trip from Seattle to Northampton in early 2014 and moved in with me. We didn't know at the time that 2014 would be Ruth's last year of life, but we were lucky to seize each moment together as if it were our last ones.
In between the often daily trips to the hospital for her treatments, we tried to do as many joy-bringing things as possible: we went on hot air balloon rides, took a road trip to Montreal, hiked her favorite mountain in Western Mass countless times, started a book club, hosted so many dance parties in our tiny apartment, went kayaking and swimming, drank wine on our porch, learned how to play guitar together and even wrote a song(!), laughed, cried, and cooked so many meals. Amidst all of this living, we were also picking flowers for each other almost every day. Picking flowers from our walks around the neighborhood, or from the garden in back of our house was the way that we took care of each other during such a difficult time. It was with Ruth that my turning to flowers was solidified as a daily ritual of joy-bringing and hope. Our practice of bringing flowers to each other was a powerful kind of medicine for us during her last year of life, and continued to be something I turned to after she passed away in February of 2015.
In the summer of 2015, I approached a local farmer and asked them if I could grow flowers on a small field that was not being cropped. They consented, so while I was reading everything I could about cut-flowers, I just started putting plants in the ground! Although I was in the end-stages of my PhD (post-exams and working on my dissertation), I made the decision in 2019 to officially leave my program and focus all of my energy on Many Graces. I am grateful for the ways in which my story and the story of Many Graces is connected to Ruth. That I can speak her name and share a bit about her life and her impact on mine in the telling of Many Graces' story is both powerful and meaningful to me. It's because of Ruth that I understand, fully, the powerful psychic medicine that flowers hold, and because of her that I started a farm to share them with my community.
What's your favorite flower that you grow?
As our logo may suggest, I LOVE a sexy parrot tulip! We grow a ton of them every spring and my mind is often blown by their beauty.
Anything special tip or tidbit you want to share about your Celosia?
Celosia are heat loving. They are also "cut and come again" flowers, because the more you cut them the more stems you'll get out of each plant! This said, like most of the flowers we grow, we plant them in succession so that we always have super fresh stems to share.
Did the recent floods/rains affect Many Graces? Is there any way we can help?
The short answer is yes we have been affected, but we are OK. Our area has received an additional six inches of rain after last week’s flooding event, and we think that it’s really important for people to understand how unprecedented this is: flooding does not happen in July! And this is exactly what climate instability looks like – smoke from Canadian wildfires one week and almost a foot of rain the next.
Our product is aesthetic based – we look for perfection in every stem, so this amount of rain is incredibly impactful on us; we are seeing immediate loss in some crops just because they are being toppled over with the volume of rain (even though we stake and net almost everything), and some petals are just too damaged to harvest. Unfortunately, we won’t know the longer-term effects of the rains for some time; we will assuredly face more disease and pest pressure, so even though our fields were not completely submerged like many of our neighbors have experienced, crop loss will continue to build throughout the season even for those of us who did not get totally wiped out.
Every single farmer we know is talking about how incredible their crops were looking this year; we had all finally just gotten to the point where our last transplants were in the ground – meaning that all of the prep work for the season, which literally begins in January, was finally completed and we could all start focusing on harvests. I think it’s important for people to know that none of the “aid” coming from government agencies looks like anything but low-interest loans, which continues to put the burden of recovery on the farmer. Farming is inherently risk-based: all small farms are in an incredible amount of debt at this time of year – we look forward to the promises of our future harvests to help us recover from the labor and investments of half of a year’s worth of work just to get us to the point of harvesting. Farmers will never be able to recover from the already accrued debt from a single season by taking on more loans.
We encourage folks to look towards supporting the mutual aid efforts that farms have put together to help them in their recovery. It is truly incredible to see community members come together to support their farmers, but a dystopian feeling continues to build around us as we continuously turn to fundraisers for recovery efforts in our communities, ranging from healthcare needs to climate disasters. Truthfully, our food and farming systems are at risk of completely collapsing in the very near future, so we encourage people to connect with their local farmers – we can tell you stories in real-time about what we are seeing and how desperately we need real structural change to address the climate crisis; reacting to the symptoms, like flooding, does not address the real issues that we are facing.