Susan O’Connell, Fertile Crescent Farm Hardwick, Vermont
I’ll come clean. I don’t really fly around in the Association’s private aircraft to do these grower profiles (Judy is usually off in the Caribbean with it, anyway). Actually, they are conducted via email. Oftentimes, the answers given to my questions are so minimal and cryptic, one would think the subject was practicing for some upcoming detention in Guantanamo Bay. And so I make jokey asides, construct straining segues, imagine context and otherwise assert my clumsy authorship in order to consume inches and irritate the editor. Such will not be the case with this profile, however. Susan’s responses are so clear and informational, that you deserve to read them nearly in their entirety and mostly unedited.
Is that in Mesopotamia?
“My farm is not named for the cradle of civilization. Before the farm evolved into a cut flower farm, I had a milk cow, which I milked by hand. When hand milking, there is a crescent-shaped part of your hand, between the thumb and forefinger, that is pressed up against the cow’s udder, and always gets manure ground into it. No matter how much you scrub, there is always a very fertile crescent-shaped brown patch on your hand…
“Fertile Crescent Farm is located in Hardwick, Vermont. Hardwick is up in the northeastern corner of Vermont, which has been dubbed the Northeast Kingdom. The ‘kingdom’ has a flavor all its own: it is a remote part of the world, with no major (or minor) cities, not much of a highway system, little industry, high unemployment, lots of French Canadians, and more unspoiled scenery than all the rest of the U.S. combined. It is more beautiful and cold and difficult than the rest of the state. It is a hard place to move in to, since you really don’t belong unless your grandparents knew my grandparents back when they were kids together. Sense of place and community are very strong here.
“I grew up in southern Vermont, but in the 70’s and 80’s southern Vermont was annexed by Massachusetts (or at least its strip malls and chain stores and sprawl), and land prices soared. I escaped to the Kingdom, and though I will always be an outsider, it is a small price to pay compared with being crammed in with all the development of southern Vermont.
“My husband, Craig, is one of those flatlanders that moved to Vermont and crowded the rest of us out. He grew up in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and then settled in Burlington. We had a met a few times, but we fell in love because of an ASCFG conference. In 1992 the National Conference was in Burlington, and I had spent every cent of my farm profit on attending. I was driving back and forth from my home out in Hardwick, and was also sick with a cold. I met Craig in town and he offered me the spare room in his house in town for the remainder of the conference. Then when I was too sick to attend the tour up to the Montreal Botanical Gardens, he offered to take me when I was feeling better. We fell in love in the orchid greenhouse.
“We now have two boys, Morgan (8) and Rylan (5). Morgan attends the excellent public school here in Hardwick, and Rylan will start kindergarten in the fall. We make sure the school kids get a chance at least once a year to come out to the farm and plant sunflowers, watch the honeybees and eat honey, or grow their own crop. Morgan’s class last year planted Giant Pumpkins, and their largest grew to 151 lbs!
“Morgan has never enjoyed doing much farm work. He doesn’t like to get his hands dirty. Just recently he has shown an interest in helping at the markets, though. This is a great boon, since most of my customers remember Morgan from when he was but a bump in my belly, and they love to comment on how he has grown.
“Rylan so far has been much more interested in helping out with farm jobs. He spends much of the summer tagging along with us, helping plant out transplants, weeding, digging traps for ‘Bad Animals’, and building ant houses. His favorite summer activity is to bushwhack into his jungle of cherry tomato plants and gorge on the fruit for hours at a time. He doesn’t mind bringing the extra fruit to market and selling it either. He usually makes enough to keep him well supplied with root beer floats through the market.
Wanted: Farm Sleigh, good condition
“My path to flower farming was a fairly direct one compared to many people’s. I grew up always knowing I wanted a little farm and a piece of land all my own where no one would tell me what to do. My brief stint as an employee in various positions (vegetable field hand, floral designer, perennial nursery lackey) confirmed my suspicions that being my own boss was key to my survival.
“I was fortunate to find a small vegetable farm whose owner had similar growing practices to what I envisioned for my own farm. The pay was poor, but the experience I gained was more valuable than a fortune’s worth of college courses.
“I started my own ‘farm’ in 1991 with a few rows of cut flowers on the vegetable farm I was working on. I quit my day job the next year and planted an acre. In 1994 I bought my permanent home, and started planting perennials along with my annual crops.
“ Our farm is on the border of Zones 3B and 4A, and although recent winters have made me brazen enough to call myself a Zone 4 grower, this year has proved me wrong. Our winter temperatures this year hit the -30’s on many occasions. The saving grace for this part of the world is that we always have a decent snow cover, so I am able to grow a lot of perennials that ‘shouldn’t’ survive this far north. For trees and shrubs that the snow doesn’t cover, I have learned I really need to stick to Zone 3 hardy stock.
“I have 2 acres of field for my perennials and annuals. I try to keep my planted acreage each year at no more than 1.5 acres, cover cropping the remaining land for soil improvement. Unlike most growers who are always looking for ways to expand, after a short burst of expansion, I have concentrated for several years on growing less, but using the land I have in production wisely and increasing my yields in smaller space.
“Improving my soil has been key to this strategy. I have a slightly sloping, sandy loam, with good organic matter that holds water well in dry years, but has good drainage also for the wetter seasons. My dairy farming neighbors have begun composting their manure and so for several years I have been able to buy all the compost I want, and have them spread it directly on my field. They laugh at my reverence for their waste product, but with the addition of several inches of compost into my soil each year, my soil health, and therefore plant health improves dramatically.
“I have an eclectic mix of annuals, plus a smattering of perennial plants to augment my annuals. I had no business plan as I developed my business, I just grew what I was drawn to, and each year have fine-tuned my mix to increase the plants that grow well in our cool summers and sell well to my customers, and to discard the plants that for one reason or another I can’t grow or sell. Somehow this serendipitous approach to growing has resulted in a reputation for unusual, country looking ‘wild’ flowers.
“It’s a full day, about 16 hours…”
“Let me clarify what I mean by ‘wild’. After many years I have made peace with the word. The flowers I am drawn to are not the types of flowers most often seen in a florist shop, and the large-bloomed, stiff-stemmed rigidity of glads, lilies, snaps, asters, mums, dahlias, and so on are what I avoid. The flowers I cultivate tend to be smaller and more graceful, and many are natives to the U.S., but even those that aren’t, look like wildflowers to the untrained eye. For years I felt the need to explain to people when they exclaimed—‘look at the lovely wildflowers!’—that these weren’t wild, I had cultivated them and had worked hard to do it. But in my aging wisdom, I have finally learned to see it as what it is meant to be: a compliment. To the city-bred consumer used to being fed a bland diet of carnations, mums, and roses, what I do is refreshingly wild.
“Some of my favorite ‘wild’ flowers are, Agrostemma, Arctotis, Bachelor Buttons, Calendula, ‘Forest Fire’ celosia, Cynoglossum, Delphinium, Gomphrena, Helenium, Larkspur, Lepidium, Lupine, Millet, Nigella, Phlox (drummondii and paniculata), Poppies, Rudbeckia, Sawleaf Daisy, Stock, Strawflower, Sunflower, Verbena, Zinnia, Iris, Baptisia.
“I began my business by trying to sell at every conceivable outlet, and over time learned where my mix worked best and where I was most comfortable selling. What I learned was that I hated the fast pace and high pressure of selling to wholesalers, and florists in this area were inundated with growers and bought little that wasn’t FTD approved.
“My experience at farmers’ markets was entirely different though, customers appreciated my fresh approach to flower selection and “wild” look. I expanded my farmers’ markets, and currently sell at 3 markets a week in the summertime. One of those markets is in Vermont, but two others are in the Boston area, where many consumers have more disposable income than the average Vermonter, and have a hungering for a taste of Vermont. I offer them a small piece of what they feel their lives are lacking, and combine that with high quality flowers and absolute dedication to consistent attendance. I have set up at markets in blizzards and hurricanes, with my week-old son, and customers know that I will always be there.
“Our Boston markets are 200 miles away. It takes 3 1/2 to 4 hours to get to market. It is a full day, about 16 hours from leaving to return that evening. I suppose any sane businessperson would look at what I do and laugh, but in the Northeast Kingdom, there are not many opportunities to make an income, and so to do what I love (grow flowers, a non-essential crop) in a place I want to live (our own little third world country), it is one way to make it work.
“…I am much happier working myself to a frazzle.”
“Another lesson I have learned over the years is that what I enjoy is growing flowers, not running a business and managing employees. I work hard to keep the farm small enough that our family can run it alone. My husband and I can grow up to 2 acres of flowers, attend markets and care for our two children (age 5 and 8). Our season is intense, and I never get everything done I wish, but I am much happier working myself to a frazzle than managing other people who never have quite the same vision that I do for the farm and flowers.
“One notable exception was a woman who came as an intern from the University of Georgia and has returned several times over the years. Her presence on the farm has taught me that a really valuable employee is priceless, and having another brain at work helping me choose crops to grow and brainstorm different approaches to getting the work done has been invaluable.
“We use organic practices on the farm, though we are not currently certified organic. With our 1950’s Ford 600 we use harrows and field cultivators to prepare beds and work in compost and fertilizers. We also have a tractor-mounted rototiller that we use when needed, either to till in small patches of land the harrows won’t fit in, or to incorporate debris more completely. I use the rototiller as little as possible because the negative impact on soil structure is remarkable.
“I plant all our acreage by hand. Our field has enough slope to it that mechanical transplanters do poorly, and I brag that I can work as fast by hand as any tractor can. (Nobody else can keep up with my pace, which leads back to the dissatisfaction with labor issue…) Weeding has always been my most difficult task and that which has had the most room for improvement. This winter I made a purchase I hope will change all that.
Rejects from a wood curling plant…
“I stumbled into an opportunity to buy the exact tractor of my dreams, a Kubota cultivating tractor. This tractor has an offset engine, so when sitting in the seat, you can see the crops directly below you. There are belly-mounted cultivators on it, so with this new tractor I will be able to mechanically take out all the weeds in the crop except those within the rows in the bed. This will reduce my manual weeding by about 75%. In addition, it is equipped with a fertilizer side dresser, so I can apply fertilizer as needed directly to the plants within the row.
“My plan is to combine this new (to me) technology with liberal amounts of mulching and thus achieve a practically weedless field. Last year we learned of a local source for poplar wood shavings, rejects from a wood curling plant just 2 miles from us. They are pleased to give us all the free wood shavings we can take, and last year they did an excellent job of suppressing weeds and retaining moisture in the field. As the shavings break down, they do bind up some nitrogen, but with the addition of some topdressing of blood meal, it seems to balance itself out well.
“We put all our harvested flowers directly into water taken to the field. We use an all-purpose floral preservative in all our water except for zinnias. After harvesting they are taken to our cooler for stripping and bunching or bouquet making. Several years ago we experimented with Quickdip products and found it made a great improvement on many of our flowers. Now we use Quickdip on all our sensitive flowers and all mixed bouquets. We sell about 60% of our flowers by the bunch at market, and 40% of sales come from mixed bouquets.
“ I have been a member in the ASCFG off and on since 1992. There are numerous benefits, but the one that has had the greatest impact on my farm has been the electronic communications – first the list serve, now the bulletin board. In my area of the world, farming means having a dairy operation, and most everyone around here thinks I am a nut calling myself a flower farmer. Having a network of other growers to get ideas from, help troubleshoot problems, and give advice has been invaluable to me. I enjoy the local meetings and national conferences, but having set up my farm to be run only by myself, I am not often able to get away to these.
“I have participated in the Seed Trials through the ASCFG for many years, and each year find something there that is a gem. Last year’s find of the ‘Guardian Blue’ delphinium was worth the membership price alone. I have been happy with my delphinium mix and wouldn’t have tried it on my own, but the sensation the ‘Guardian Blues’ created in my booth was extraordinary. My customers also enjoy seeing new and cutting edge flowers, and enjoy getting to pass judgment on the latest finds or flops.”