Right around the time Governor Cuomo issued the first social distancing guidelines in mid March, the postponements started. For good reason, couples booked for late March, April, and eventually May, and then June – postponed the major milestone they’d been planning for months – if not years. I didn’t know it then, but would have 16 postponements (half our annual calendar), and two cancellations, by the end of April. While my clients were making some difficult decisions (both emotionally and financially charged), the local farmers I have worked with for years were looking at fields beginning to burst with Anemone, Ranunculus, and Tulips — all without a crew to harvest them with. And I was looking at rent due May 1.
That second or third week March, I began calling flower farmers to see how they were doing and what they were thinking. Of course, top of mind was everyone’s health and safety. Jenny, co-owner of Tiny Hearts Farm in Copake, has a pre-existing condition, and two young kids. She and her husband Luke had to tell their team of workers to not come to work, and had begun maintaining their 22 acres of organically grown flowers as sole-operators. How that was even possible was beyond me. Irene and Matt, co-owners of Treadlight Farm in Kerhonksen, were in the same boat. Flower farms (not “food producing farms”) were deemed non-essential businesses under the government guidelines, and were also suddenly having to multi-task like first year farmers, except with more acreage planted and exponentially increased harvests on the horizon…
I thought about New Yorkers, stuck inside for most of the day in small apartments. As a 20-year resident of NYC, I love the city as my home. But I know that a large part of what makes a city of 9 million people live-able for most of us is the ability to walk around, visit parks and other green spaces… to be out and about. By early April, three weeks in to Cuomo’s “I’ll never call it shelter in place” shelter in place regulations, I felt a visceral pain for all the people getting antsy indoors, low on fresh air, budding cherry blossom trees and the rest of the spectacular display spring tends to offer around NYC, thanks to tree pit planters, some forward-thinking park enthusiasts and community gardeners. Back then, everyone was discouraged, as we still are, from going out for anything non-essential. Even a walk in the park was a risk – hard to avoid crowds – but also a risk to essential workers. We knew it was likely we were silent carriers… The more we went out, the more we potentially spread the virus inadvertently.
On my end, I sent emails to the 10+ freelancers who were lined up to work for me weekend after weekend, to give them the bad news. In the event floral design world – that is, floral design businesses without retail shops – labor is often largely made up by hardworking, skilled freelancers. The folks who have worked with me are freelancers to sustain their livelihoods as artists. Many own their own small businesses or work various jobs that fulfill them and that help them make ends meet. They are artists of life — landscapers, floral witches, ceramicists, movement coaches, massage therapists, bike repair co-op coordinators, musicians, photographers, and more… Some of them came to work with me after seasons spent in flower fields; they returned to the city, and wanted to continue their connections to nature and flowers and local farms.
This backdrop — this confluence of events is what sparked the Seasonal Flower Project. I wanted to help farmers, who could not postpone harvests, and who had planned their growing seasons and livelihoods largely (literally dinner on the table) on purchases by event florists like myself, or by wholesalers who sell to event florists.
I needed to put a few more things together: I needed to guarantee supply from farmers (was anyone delivering to the city?), I needed to guarantee demand (did anyone really want flowers delivered at this time? Could they afford it? Were they comfortable receiving flowers?), and I needed to work out a system for processing and delivery.
While the farmers were so busy at that time, they barely had time to coordinate and most couldn’t yet commit to city deliveries, I did have a connection with a couple farms – Treadlight and Hau Tau and Sons, who were planning deliveries to the city, and were willing to sell directly to me.
I had that hunch that New Yorkers might be excited to receive contact free / curbside deliveries, but wanted to be sure. I ran a poll on my Instagram Stories. 97% of respondents were “comfortable” receiving flowers, and 100% said YES to the question “I could use some flowers in my life right now!” I wrote a post up on Instagram exposing my doubts and asking my followers, “are flowers essential?” The response was basically a yes – people were needing some green in their lives. I was especially touched by the comments from fellow florists, who shared the same worries and concerns that flowers weren’t a necessity, and so what do we do…? Cosmically, that very day, April 9th, Cuomo amended the essential business guidelines to include contact-free curbside deliveries by retail businesses that take orders over the phone or online, and that process those orders with only one person.
It’s all a blur now, but I threw some new pages up on the website, upgrading my Square Space to a Commerce account. A lot of decision making happening swiftly and without overthinking – a very somewhat welcome change of pace. I decided to simplify everything I could to be able to save time and money – precious resources at this point. We would sell single-variety bunches only – no mixed bouquets. This would save time on my end, and accomplish the essential goals (purchases of local flowers / paying my rent / employing some great people / flowers to the people).
While I felt pained by cutting the wholesalers out of this whole equation, it was/is a temporary necessity. I needed to cut costs however possible. I could not pay event rates for stems when I wasn’t doing events. There is only so much you can charge for a single variety bunch, and I would be sending half the stems for the same price if I purchased through a wholesaler. Also, for health and safety reasons, I needed to try to reduce the number of hands on the flowers.
I had a few game drivers – folks who normally design with me or deliver or breakdown events for me, who were down for the task. Myriah, who lives close to Fox Fodder Farm (an amazing shop run by Taylor Patterson, that also prioritizes local purchases), offered her apartment up as a temporary studio. (Fox Fodder has been serving as a local flower hub.) The proximity to Fox Fodder was a gain in that it eliminated subway travel for Myriah (if she’d had to go to my studio in Gowanus), this brought it all together. We were ready to launch.
After sweating it for a couple weeks – to see if we would meet the minimum number of members to make 1 delivery worth it (40), we hit that number and then it kept climbing… 50 orders, 55, 60… We had 69 in time for our first week. I added in a grab bag – 2 surprise bouquets for essential workers, inspired by Kelsey of Heart and Soil, who launched a similar project in Newburgh, NY – also supporting local farmers. I decided to quickly offer a pro-rated “share” (to borrow Community Supported Agriculture” for May, and that brought us up to 92 orders for the rest of the month.
So here we are. Week 4 of the Seasonal Flower Project. We have sold at least 90 subscriptions for June, and some for July. It has felt amazing to be sending cash to flower farmers. I know it is a drop in their bucket. I still worry for their survival. According to Grow NYC, the local non profit that is an umbrella for the incredible Greenmarkets farmers markets, educational programs and composting initiatives, cut flower growers are ineligible currently for direct payments from the USDA through a new Coronavirus Assistance program. Flower farmers are up to their ears in harvest now, with significantly less help in their fields. As a former farmer, I know the feeling of feeling one missed email – one night of bad sleep – one failed deer fence away from losing one’s cool – in the best of normal circumstances.
The support everyone has shown has been really uplifting and exciting, and I hope it continues. I really have always believed in small farm-based economies. This is how we can be nimble and survive catastrophes: by investing in local land and local people again. Corporations and the billionaires that own them have shown again and again (Amazon, case in point) that their dollars come before the people who make up the backbone of their operations. The way folks have been loving on the simple perfection of flowers just as they are has been heartwarming.
Farmers – small, local ones – are thinking about the soil and what they put in it. They are working hard to pay a living wage, even though they’re locked into luxury prices as they can’t compete with the mainstream marketed flowers and food, often grown by migrant or undocumented folks who aren’t paid a living wage. This is the conundrum we’ve long known we need to work ourself out of.
This being said, the “crash” of the multi billion dollar floral trade – as Bloomberg Business put this week – is a sad thing for farmers and wholesalers and regular people who make that industry go. There is also something assuredly apocolyptic about this moment in history – we are seeing how a globalized market on steroids has its weaknesses. How an abandonment of locally grown here at home put outrageous and perilous stress on the environment. And now, in its absence, there is mounting pressure on our small local farmers – be they vegetable or flower. These are small, family owned operations with a handful of staff, typically. Our local flower farms do not have nearly the resources these giant floral trade corporations do, and yet what demand there is left for local flowers is exerting pressure on growers who can’t even hire their workers back to harvest yet. What can be done? I would love to organize around this with my fellow florists.
Our local flower farmers still need our help. We need to work to balance our demand and desire with what’s possible: with what farmers can give, and what the land can give. We are having to re-examine our needs. What is essential. This is a good thing.
As we continue to answer these questions, and watch how this pandemic plays out, I’ll continue to offer this project as long as we’re able, and meet that minimum number of subscribers. As long as it’s safe to do so. And I would really encourage any florists out there in the US to consider launching a Seasonal Flower Project of their own. We truly are all in this together – if we want flowers next season, we need to ensure our farmers make it through this season. Currently, it is up to us. As florists we have the ability to pivot and market a new product. I am available for any florists who would like to know how we set this up. If you’re reading this, please reach out!
Thanks again to everyone – let’s keep this up!