This is the second part of a reflection on my journey to sustainable floristry. For part 1, head here

I actually returned to the States in September 2004 for a family wedding - my dear Aunt Anne’s. My dad’s sister Anne was an oil painter, and a full time artist (she taught on the side to make a living). Her first husband, my beloved uncle Christopher (also a painter) had died while I was in high school. They were the relatives that lived closest to us, and often were our babysitters. I loved going to their house - it was full of Anne’s beautiful landscape paintings, and all the ephemera that would often wind up in Christopher’s Renaissance-esque portraits and still lives:  miniature Roman statues, fox skulls, feathers, bones. Anyways, Anne had reconnected with an old friend and they were tying the knot.

Here’s me with Aunt Anne and Uncle Christopher (and my sister):

Molly Oliver with Aunt Anne Culver family photo with Christopher Martinson

Despite the pain of saying goodbye to the fast new friends, Santiago, the foods and smells and daily Spanish speaking, I left, with so much uncertainty and a decent amount of denial.

I guess the plan was to move back in with my mom, and figure out next steps? There wasn’t much of a plan. The feelings of anxiety and confusion I’d set aside after graduation returned with a vengeance. Along with that, I was –ironically – experiencing culture shock. Suddenly, I was back in a reality where it seemed that everyone was in an enormous oversized gas guzzling car, living in an enormous house, and where trips to the local supermarket and their shiny shelves were as common as tying your shoes. Where instead of buying 1 or 2 rolls of toilet paper for 50 cents, you bought 12 rolls of toilet paper at a time. It put the economic and class differences in sudden stark contrast, and it left me feeling sad, and powerless. I had really begun to make connections between class, race, health, and environment in real time, and I wasn’t sure what to do with that knowledge. Teaching about novels felt so far from necessary. 

I ended up working a couple of part time jobs, and one of them was at a clothing store in New Haven, about a half hour from home. I hated the job. Expensive clothes, rude customers (parents of Yale students we always presumed, whether rightly or wrongly), and long days pre-iphone just watching the clock and chatting about life with my co-worker Juliana. But one day Juliana mentioned something that changed my life. Her boyfriend Josh was managing a new urban farm for Yale, and she recommended I check it out. After one awkward first day,I began volunteering on any days off, in any spare time I had.

It was late fall, and it was not the bucolic Eden you might imagine. There weren’t rows of vegetables and flowers. No, it was cold, and we were wrestling spent crops and wooden stakes out of the hardening ground, fixing up a dilapidated hoop house, and storing muddy stakes and heavy metal poles for the winter. Not very romantic at all. But I loved it - being outside, and working with others on a project that felt important, and needed. The movement to reconnect people with their food, and to produce food in a manner that was supportive of the environment, spoke to me in a million ways. My anxiety began to wane.

I moved back to New York with a mission to get involved in sustainable agriculture. Josh, Juliana’s farmer-boyfriend, had told me about a “food justice” not for profit organization called Just Food. I called and began volunteering as much as I could. Only a couple of weeks in, my supervisor mentioned I could apply for an Americorps position with them. I filled it out, and got in.

The next three years, I wound up immersed in the politics of food access, and worked through a small community based organization founded by former Black Panthers and Young Lords members, to increase sustainability initiatives in the South Bronx. Once again, my whiteness and privilege were very much in question and tested, and that was a good thing. I developed relationships with community gardeners in the area. I worked with community volunteers young and old to set up a community supported agriculture program that would accept SNAP (then food stamps), and eventually a farmers market featuring produce from the community gardens and two immigrant farmers who looked and spoke like people in the neighborhood. That was important.

There were many challenges and discouraging moments in this work, as the economic, educational and health challenges were a function of deeply rooted issues - racism, classism, you name it. But there were bright spots as well. I started an after school gardening group for teens, and alongside that sweet group I began learning how to actually grow food, which became a passion. I wanted to understand how food was grown, and wanted to help others connect to that process. The leaders of the organization I worked for schooled me in the intersectionality of racism, health and environmental issues. Changing - decolonizing - the food system presented such a radical way to address both racism and environmental degradation/climate change. I had found something I was deeply motivated to continue to learn about and be a part of - something that just 6 months ago seemed impossible. 

After a few years in the South Bronx, I applied to an organic farm training program in California and was accepted. I spent two and a half years in Santa Cruz county, in one of the country’s main (and few) centers of organic agriculture. I lived and worked on two large diversified farms, growing all manner of vegetables, fruits, and yes, flowers. It was then that I began learning about flower cultivation, harvesting flowers and making bouquets to sell at farmers markets. Flowers didn’t seem nearly as important at the time as the nutrients provided by fresh produce, but I was willing to learn.


University of California - Santa Cruz organic farm Certificate in Ecological Horticulture


Molly Oliver riding a tractor at the UCSC Farm in Santa Cruz, California


I moved on from the training program to work at an 80 acre certified organic farm called Live Earth Farm in Watsonville (the home of Driscoll’s and interestingly, kind of the belly of the industrial agriculture beast). I learned to take care of goats and chickens and sheep. Here’s me with my favorite goat, who I named Chamomile (and whose birth I assisted):

Molly Oliver with La Mancha goats at Live Earth Farm, Watsonville, CA 2009


Thanks to Tom, I achieved my goal of learning to drive a tractor, to change implements (so hard!!), and planned for and cultivated two acres of land thanks to the generosity of the farmer/owner Tom Broz - he was keen to support young growers develop their skills.

In year 1 I worked flowers into my crop plan… they were really beginning to grow on me. I saw how community- supported agriculture had come to flourish there, on a much larger scale (admittedly where the weather and socio-economics were in its favor). Live Earth had 800 members!!, and I drove one of their several routes weekly to deliver boxes to community pick up locations from Gilroy to Palo Alto in a giant box truck. Constantly sweaty, covered in a layer of dirt and dust, and surrounded by copious amounts of the most beautiful vegetables and fruits. It was heaven.

In Year 2, I wanted to focus solely on flowers. I ordered the seeds (probably 80+ varieties), started many of them, and planted most of them. But I didn’t make it through the season, something I still feel ashamed of. But anxiety and depression had somehow come over me again.

The reasons I felt so hard for northern California - waking up every day to a poetic fog hovering above the Pluot and Apricot grove that receded to reveal hills covered in apple trees and a clear blue sky – day after day – wound up feeling like the Truman Show to me. I couldn’t put my finger on it. How could I be unhappy in such an incredibly serene and stunningly beautiful place? I loved the friends I made there. We shared a worldview and energized each other in the work of continual learning about plant health, food preservation, ethical animal farming and so much more. I loved the physicality of the work, and all the incredible skills I was building - in soil health management, composting, greenhouse management, animal husbandry. I was physically fit and eating like a queen. And yet, after a couple of years, I was feeling miserable. No amount of long distance phone therapy could fix it. And, then there was a call from my beloved Aunt Anne. She had been diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer and was starting chemo. I felt pulled to move back east.


Photo of Anne Culver landscape painter in Connecticut


Tom was furious, as was his right. He had generously invested in my growth as a grower, and invested in my flower project. I wasn’t able to dig myself out of whatever I was feeling, and so I gave my notice, and left in early July 2010. 

So once again, a sad plane ride home. I felt as if I was in two bodies - one was still in California, and one was on a plane back to New York. I wasn’t sure at all if I was making the right decision. Back in Brooklyn, I cried for weeks. 

To be continued next week!

May 20, 2024 — Molly Culver

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