Sweet Pea’s Farm Store
When John Dole suggested Matt Gerald as a subject for the Grower Profile, he noted in his email that Matt was “fun and a bit quirky.” Partway through our interview, I mentioned John’s assessment of Matt, and after some mention of a pot and a kettle, we agreed that it’s an apt description of most specialty cut flower growers. While fun and a bit quirky may be accurate, perhaps forward-thinking could be added to Matt’s list of character traits.
From vegetable production to cut flowers is not an unusual farm transition, but Matt—in his third year as a producer of wine grapes and in planning for the future of his farm with an eye toward non-profit development—is thinking outside the box for profitability and farm preservation.
When he and his father bought the 138-acre farm in 1984, Matt was fresh out of college with little experience or farming know-how. “I was a kid from the suburbs,” he recalls. He attended the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine and earned a degree in Human Ecology. The farm in Bar Harbor was too good of an opportunity to pass up, and he found that he was soon enrolled in “the school of failures.” The learning curve may have been steep, but the experiences he gained from those failures have resulted in many successes.
He started off growing mixed vegetables and sold primarily to restaurants. At the time, there were no farmers’ markets, and Matt worked as a blacksmith and landscaper to supplement the farm income. In 1995, he read Allan Armitage’s book Specialty Cut Flowers (1st edition), and doubled the size of his garden for cut flowers over the next four to five years. In 1998, he built a farm stand for retail sales, and shortly thereafter, the farmers’ markets were introduced on Mount Desert Island and met with great success.
Matt attends three farmers’ markets, none of which is on Saturday. They fall on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday mornings. Though there is another one that is open on Friday, its location directly across the street from one of his florist customers keeps him from attending. Many of the affluent ladies who summer on the Northeast end of the island spend upwards of $1,000 weekly on flowers, buying from all the vendors. Several of the summer cottages have a “flower arranging room.” For perspective, Matt defines a “cottage” as a home with at least 30 rooms.
Matt mostly sells one-size mixed bouquets at the market for $15. In addition to the farmers’ market and florists, he sells from the on-farm retail store and to some restaurants. His marketing plan consists of being a “motivated seller” at the market. Until this year, his season typically ran from March through October. He would start heating the greenhouse February 1 to force tulips. However, he is experimenting with a wood boiler to heat his largest greenhouse (150’ x 30’) through the winter to grow year round. With 130 acres of managed forest and a 3,000-gallon water tank beneath the greenhouse, Matt hopes that the wood boiler will be an efficient energy alternative.
The local florists will be his primary market for winter flower production. He’s considering crops such as ranunculus, anemone, freesia and winter flowering sweet peas. Despite his location in the northernmost continental state, Matt considers daylength more of a challenge than temperature. Mount Desert Island is actually in USDA Zone 4, and he’s even observed some folks trying their luck with Zone 5 plants. The outdoor growing season is about 120 days and he will usually start planting outside in late May or early June. At their latitude, the short days in December are very short (December 21 sees only 8 hours and 50 minutes of daylight), so Matt looks for varieties that grow well under those conditions.
His spring and summer production includes 10,000 tulips, 17,000 lilies (60% Oriental, 40% Asiatic, and some experimentation with OT hybrids), 3,000 lisianthus, 3,000 field and greenhouse snapdragons, 3,000 zinnia and 30 other varieties in smaller numbers including all of the Karma dahlias.
The farm’s cut flower production area consists of 2.5 acres of field production and 14,000 square feet of greenhouse space. Some of the greenhouse space is still used for tomatoes, but Matt ceased most vegetable production when he planted the wine grapes. He recognizes that there are a number of family farms in the area that can supply vegetables, so he’ll focus more on cut flowers.
He’s looking to simplify his operation by growing the things he grows well, reducing costs and reducing employees. He currently has one to two employees who work seasonally, but he hopes to offer them year round work if the wood boiler allows for winter greenhouse production. He doesn’t grow many woodies, but does like curly willow. Unfortunately, the deer like them too. There is essentially no population control for the deer since the surrounding area is either residential or National Park land. He’s used deer repellent products in the past with some success, but was disappointed last summer when he lost nearly $10,000 worth of lilies in only a couple days of deer feasting. Fencing is becoming a real consideration.
One advantage of the northern winter is natural population control of many pests. The western flower thrip and aphid are his primary insect problems. He uses biological controls, including predatory insect populations that overwinter in the greenhouse. Though he’s not certified organic, nor is he working toward certification, he uses organic agricultural practices. He produces 150 tons of aerobic compost a year. His primary ingredients are cooked barley, a by-product from his winery partner, Atlantic Brewing Company, and horse manure from a local source. He turns the piles with the tractor, and gives away a fair amount to community gardens, friends and new farmers, as a sort of farm-warming gift.
Matt views farming as an “endangered lifestyle.” He recalls that when he bought the farm, there were only old farmers dying out. He’s seen some relief in new farms starting up due to the success of the markets, but he also recognizes that there are tremendous hurdles, including land costs, that the new farmer must surmount.
Mount Desert Island, home of Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, is a summer destination. The winter population is a scant 10,000 residents compared to a summer peak around 4 million. There is significant development pressure on farmland. In order to preserve his farm, Matt is exploring the idea of starting a non-profit operation on the farm. He envisions limited vegetable production that would be given away to those with food needs. In conjunction, the non-profit would manage a youth development program using farm therapy, where disadvantaged and troubled kids could learn the reward of growing things. He considers this a 5-year goal and plans to work with local Heritage Trust Organizations for funding and strategy to make this progressive idea a reality.
A member of the ASCFG for 11 years, Matt boldly encourages his fellow farmers at the market to give cut flowers a shot. Though it may create more competition, his primary goal is to promote the availability of fresh cut flowers working to emulate the European market’s fresh expectations and keeping dollars in the community by supporting locally grown products. Of course there’s that one catch for perspective growers…you have to be fun, and a bit quirky.