Susan Corrigan, Grower at Large
Sometimes it’s the smallest miracles that produce the biggest life changes. For Susan Corrigan, it was the germination of marigold seeds that set her career on a new path. Susan didn’t grow up around flowers or gardening of any sort, and she started her career life in social work. It was in 1989 that Susan took a summer job at an apple orchard in Vermont. The orchard, being more of a diverse agritourism business, afforded her the opportunity to work in different agricultural areas on the property. During a rotation in the greenhouses, Susan planted marigold seeds as instructed. When they had germinated 3 days later, she was enthralled. “I have to know all about this,” she remembers thinking.
Susan started by devouring seed catalogues that were around the greenhouse at the orchard. She had been growing mostly bedding plants in the greenhouse, but she noticed in the catalogues some varieties were marked “for cutting.” Before long, she had a small cutting garden started and was sharing bouquets with friends, who were equally amazed that she could grow such beautiful flowers.
A Journeyman Grower
She started reading farming publications like Growing for Market, and joined the Northeast Organic Farming Association. And she began looking for a job that was more focused on flower production. What she found was Rebecca Miller at North Tabor Farm in Martha’s Vineyard. As an end-of-the-season bonus, Rebecca took Susan to the ASCFG Conference, which was in Texas that year (2000). She remembers being introduced to the vast resources the Conference offers, from seminars and tours to networking with other growers, and thinking to herself, “I have arrived!”.
Following the Conference, she moved to Virginia, where she settled in for five seasons to work for Bob Wollam. Susan attests that “Bob is the most passionate person about flowers I know.” His willingness to experiment with and grow unusual plants was especially rewarding to Susan. She felt like she was more than a farm worker, but part of the business.
Susan is a self-proclaimed “farm junkie.” She says, “I love to see how different people do the same thing.” So during those five years, she spent a winter in Texas with Frank and Pamela Arnosky, and another winter in Florida with Jonathan Landwer at Dragonfly Farms. Landwer commented, “Susan came to Florida ready to work hard, bringing with her a desire to learn and to share the experiences she picked up on other farms around the country. What I enjoyed most about Susan was her inexhaustible love of farming, a common bond between us that made the days fun and memorable,” According to Jon, “I believe I learned more from Susan than she learned from me. Including a great recipe for lentil soup!” Then a spring and fall with Ed Pincus, first harvesting tulips, lilac and peonies, and later dividing peonies.
She was gearing up for a season in Oklahoma with Vicki Stamback when, with Vicki’s encouragement, she made the leap to start a business with a friend in Vermont. She and her friend had been bouncing around the idea for years and felt like the time had come to, “Either do it or stop talking about it.”
They grew a half acre of flowers which were sold to the local farmers’ market and area florists. The drawbacks were that the small scale meant she had to work a second job waiting tables, and she had to live off the farm. Those issues were eventually deal breakers and she looked to move on. But Susan reports that her friend and the business are doing great and she knows that she was instrumental in teaching her partner how to go in a florist shop, tell them her asking price, and walk away if they aren’t willing to pay.
The Soil Comes First
By now, Susan had acquired a substantial amount of knowledge and hands-on experience related to growing, selling, harvesting, pest control, and postharvest. She was ready to dig deeper, literally, and learn about the soil. On the advice of Polly Hutchinson, a former vegetable farmer now growing flowers, Susan attended a 3-day vegetable growers’ conference. As she soaked up the information presented, she was particularly taken with the farmer who spoke about cover crops and decided that he was the person she wanted to work for.
In 2007, she applied and was accepted into the apprenticeship program on his farm, Fort Hill Farm in New Milford, Connecticut. The experience was intense, with structured learning in the field and in a classroom setting when the weather wasn’t fit for field work.
Not only did Susan come away from that experience with a vast knowledge of soil health and how it is interconnected with plant health (including disease and insect susceptibility), she became interested in the land conservation program and began researching the potential of renting land or pursuing a long-term lease of conservation land. Thus far, the right fit has been elusive. For now, the cost of land near population bases is prohibitive to outright purchase of a farm, and her scope is somewhat limited by the desire to stay in New England near family.
Beyond her wish to live in the Northeast, permanency is not a high priority. It’s become a fall routine to start looking for next season’s work, though she says one day she’ll likely settle into a permanent manager’s position or maybe even own her own farm. This past season, she worked as field manager at Blue Ox Farm, a certified organic vegetable farm, in Enfield, New Hampshire. By August 2008, she was already considering two possibilities for the 2009 season.
The good news is, after two years growing vegetables, she’ll be returning to cut flowers. Not that the vegetables impeded her cut flower creativity. At the 2007 Conference in Raleigh, Susan’s vegetable-inspired arrangement won the popular vote’s first place in the Floral Design Competition.
Accolades aside, she admits to high anxiety if she has to make 50 bouquets for market. She considers, “I can do one or two, but I don’t think I could handle a wedding.”
Besides dahlia being her favorite flower, from a business sense, she sees that bulbs to berries is the way to grow, extending the season both ways. Bulbs will be ready to market weeks ahead of the annuals and perennials, and woodies can of course be sprinkled in throughout, but carry the weight of the fall market.
It’s been a few years since the awe and wonder of a germinating marigold sent Susan on a new journey, but that journey seems far from over as her nomadic farming adventure continues, season by season.