Judy Lessler, Harland's Creek Farm
Judy Lessler has been promoting organic agricultural practices since the 1970s. When she was in graduate school, she and her husband lived on a farm seven miles outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In an effort to create a community of organic gardeners, she rented garden plots to fellow students who agreed to grow organically.
After an extended hiatus as a mother of five and wrapping up a career as a statistician at a research institute (Judy’s formal education led to a Ph.D in biostatistics), she has launched Harland’s Creek Farm in Pittsboro, North Carolina, a successful certified organic farm growing vegetables and flowers for CSA subscribers and a farmers’ market.
With her daughter’s encouragement, nearly 10 years ago she took courses at the local community college in sustainable agriculture and starting a business (which included fleshing out the business plan). The business got off to a meager start in 2000, when Judy posted a sign by the road that read, “Beans for Sale.” She made $100 that year, but felt that was quite an accomplishment and forged ahead. Her initial business plan did not actually include flowers, but her husband told her, “You need to grow flowers, you’ll love making arrangements,” and she does.
Judy recalls her husband, Ken, called this new endeavor her “grand obsession.” He was sick for several years, passing away in 2002, but he was always a helpmate to her. She remembers, “When he was able, he could make anything I could dream up. Even when he wasn’t well, he would come and sit in the barn while I made arrangements, offering the occasional critique if a bouquet needed more work.”
The farm has grown to nearly 6 acres, some of which is in cover crops each year, with about 25% of what is in annual production devoted to the cultivation of flowers. While most is field grown, the Lesslers constructed a parterre—a formal garden edged in recycled plastic ties—that is decorative and in tune with the historic farmhouse, but functional as a flower production area. Dahlias and zinnias are crops that folks come to her for but she also grows alliums, bachelor’s buttons, bearded iris, bee balm, bells of Ireland, cattails, celosia, cosmos, Dutch iris, echinacea, eucalyptus, flowering kale, foxglove, gladiolus, larkspur, lilies, lisianthus, marigolds, millet, narcissus, ox-eye daisy, peony, phlox, roses, rudbeckia, statice, strawflower, sunflower, tulip, and yarrow.
Judy takes full advantage of the foliage growing naturally over the property as filler for arrangements. Extra herbs also cross over from the vegetable plots for floral use. With a newly built 14’ x 48’ greenhouse and hoophouse, Judy is eager to try her hand at lilies in crates, ranunculus and maybe dahlias. She has a healthy variety of woodies for cutting and uses many of the evergreens to extend the season by offering wreaths and special holiday arrangements through November and December.
The flower business began as a subscription-based service, which started with deliveries to coworkers in the office building where she worked before committing to the farm full-time in 2005. Currently she has a 70-mile route that delivers flowers to pick-up locations or businesses in Research Triangle Park, Chapel Hill, the Durham Farmers’ Market and Pittsboro. This year, she has 20 subscribers of which 6 are businesses.
Judy chooses to grow heirloom varieties, natives and wild flowers. While they have a unique aesthetic quality, they don’t have the longest postharvest life. Unfortunately, as an organic grower, she’s yet to find a good organic flower conditioner, depending on extreme cleanliness and citric acid for flowers that need hydration. She expects arrangements to last a minimum of five days, though some flowers may last up to two weeks. The challenge, then, for business subscriptions, is choosing the best delivery day so the flowers will display best quality on the businesses’ peak days. For example, some businesses have more traffic on the weekend, so arrangements delivered on Monday would be fading by the time the majority of the customers start arriving. Similarly, some businesses are closed on the weekend, so a Monday delivery provides maximum flower impact.
To help her customers appreciate the heirloom quality of her flowers, Judy sends a weekly email with interesting facts and tales about the flower history and heritage. For example, all of her peony varieties were grown in the United States prior to 1900. One of her motivations for pursuing old-timey cuts is the historic nature of her home. The house on the farm dates back to 1810 and is registered as a National Historic Site. In developing the business, Judy always had the home and property in mind. By opening beds and fields in a way that enhances the property, Judy plans expand the business by creating an agritourism aspect.
Already, the property has been used for weddings and events, but Judy wants to offer educational programming to teach others about organic farming. In all her offerings, she hopes to provide a cost structure that allows folks from all economic situations the opportunity to participate. In some cases she has provided the full floral services for the events on the property, but in other cases, the bride and bridal party have actually made their own bouquets and arrangements. It’s an additional experience she can offer and an opportunity for personalization that so many brides seek.
While Judy has a website and posts a card with her arrangements that are displayed in businesses, she credits the majority of her increasing market share to word of mouth from satisfied floral customers. Last year’s sales were up 80% over the year before and this year looks to be on target for an increase of at least 50%. (see Author’s Note). Even with three price points (each worth 25 weeks of flowers): $250 for a “grower’s bouquet” wrapped in a sleeve, $400 for a vase bouquet picked up at the farm and $500 for a delivered vase bouquet, Judy has found that it can be a challenge for folks to make the initial investment to participate in the program. However, once customers commits to a season, they almost always return the following year.
The CSA programs (produce and flowers) came about while Judy was waiting for a spot to open at the Durham Farmers’ Market. It took several years, and in the meantime, she needed a way to sell what she was producing. Now, the Farmers’ Market accounts for more than half her flower sales, but the CSA is still a significant part of her market. Last year, Judy took the time to do a bit of experimenting with price at the market. One of her biggest revelations was that she could sell more $5 bouquets than $8 bouquets and come home with more money at the end of the day. The larger bouquets may have a similar amount of cultivated flowers, therefore a similar value, with natural fillers added. She credits fellow local grower Cathy Jones with teaching her how to quickly make a bouquet in your hands while at the market—a great way to move flowers.
While vegetables remain her bread and butter, accounting for 85 percent of sales, the flower business has shown its market value and growth potential. Since bringing new fields into production is one of Judy’s greatest challenges, she hopes to grow the flower side of the business by integrating it with the agritourism endeavor—basically providing the flowers for the events held at the farm, events that highlight or at least recognize her efforts to continue promoting organic agriculture.
Author’s Note: I interviewed Judy at 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday, May 20. We talked about last year’s drought and the challenges of unpredictable weather. That evening, a hailstorm moved through Pittsboro, destroying crops on several farms including Harland’s Creek. Here was Judy’s assessment of the damage: “In addition to the bachelor’s buttons, celosia, snapdragons, and Asiatic lilies, other flowers that were damaged significantly included peonies (blossoms were mostly harvested), daisies, marigolds, rudbeckia, yarrow, and hosta. The zinnias were just coming up; the gladiolus had no flowering stems, and the sunflowers had not been thinned and are okay. I am hoping the dianthus, gomphrena, and statice will recover. As far as vegetables go, I lost two-thirds of the tomatoes, most of the corn, all of the peppers and tomatillos, much of the eggplant, all of the spring head lettuce, and the collards. Kale, chard, pak choy, leeks, cabbage, tatsoi, turnips, beets, and kohlrabi had significant damage but may recover somewhat so that we have one or two harvests from them. I hope so.”
Judy’s Cooperative Extension agent, Debbie Roos, posts weekly photos from her area on her Small Farms website. Many of the photos (all of the flower photos) posted on May 23 are from Harland’s Creek Farm. Visit http://chatham.ces.ncsu.edu growingsmallfarmsfarmphotomay2108.html for a look at the destruction.
So yet again, the weather has created quite the obstacle. The season is not lost, but certainly delayed. Judy followed up with this report a week after the storm: “We have been working steadily on the recovery. Local farmers donated tomato, eggplant, squash, and pepper transplants, and we have now put most of those in. We replaced some 400 tomato plants. Also, on Saturday, some members of the CSA came out and helped with mulching potato beds that had lost their canopy, planting damaged potted Persian shield in the parterre since these were not in condition to sell at market, and trimming broken branches from marigolds, celosia, and euphorbia. The celosia is already putting out new branches.” What a fantastic display of community supported agriculture, in the truest sense of the words.