Roy and Linda Doan
Aunt Willie’s Wildflowers
Roy and Linda Doan started with a vision for Aunt Willie’s Wildflowers several years ago, but it was only in the past two years that all their planning and research came to fruition. Their vision was to not only grow and sell specialty cut flowers, but to also share a unique, on-farm experience through flower arranging workshops at their century farm.
When they were finally ready to give it a go, they started at the Kingsport Farmers’ Market. In their first week, they made $32 and were thrilled. There was only one competitor, who in addition to selling plants, sold Ball jar bouquets for $4. She brought only 12-15 jars each week and would sell out quickly, leading other shoppers to Aunt Willie’s booth. In the first year, Linda set her prices at $5, $6 and $7, based on her competitor’s pricing, even though the $4 bunches didn’t include any specialty cuts. By the start of their second season, with encouragement from ASCFG members, she raised her prices to reflect her product, selling bouquets for $8, $10 and $12. At peak they prepared 70-75 bouquets each week for the Saturday market.
While they enjoy interacting with their customers at the farmers’ market, Linda explains, “We’d like to be able to focus more on events and less on the market just because the market is harder work‘—more flowers, more time bunching, more hauling, you all know the drill.” She goes on, “We’d like to be able to still make a profit when we’re too old to do the labor-intensive stuff. Events are hard work too, but we think we can tailor those more to our abilities.”
Roy is recently retired from his first career as a high school math teacher, while Linda has one more year until her retirement from Milligan College where she chairs the exercise science department and is an instructor of wellness and physical education. The couple was considering some sort of venture that would provide supplemental income as they entered retirement. While they tossed around the idea of opening a bed and breakfast, they eventually decided that they didn’t want to put up with the demands of a service industry. Instead, they settled on a venture that would incorporate Roy’s love of growing things, Linda’s love of flowers, and their mutual desire to share the nostalgia of their farm.
As with any relatively new growers, Roy and Linda are still on a learning curve. They’ve enlisted help from local college kids when clearing beds that were once covered by poison ivy and blackberry bushes. They are still working diligently on building the soil. They first added composted horse manure, but later realized that was a mistake due to the abundance of weed seed that accompanied it. Now they are relying on composted chicken litter and cover crops, which they hope will assist with weed management as well. Weeds are a time-consuming challenge that have led them to using plastic mulch on some crops. Linda recalls, “Last year we went on vacation for a week, and when we came back the weeds were beyond our control, we just gave up on fighting them.” The drought was a challenge as well, and prompted them to add irrigation. Using his farming experience, Roy handles the tasks of bed preparation, soil and fertility management, and the planting schedule.
Rather than grow the business in acres, they are more focused on continuing to learn about growing flower and finding efficiencies that will save labor and generate more profit. A few examples include growing their own plugs, better managing multiple plantings, and finding the flowers that grow best for them. They were particularly pleased in their second year after choosing flowers that were recommended by the ASCFG.
They have a homemade hoophouse and plan to utilize it more this year. They don’t see a greenhouse in their future, though, deducing from their talks with fellow growers that the hoophouses offer the most profit for the space and the Doans don’t really have a desire to grow year-round. Their season kicks off with a Mother’s Day workshop on the farm, followed by Saturdays at the Farmers’ Market from the end of May through the end of August. They host more workshops at the farm in June and July on Tuesday evenings—a day that is farthest from the market, and a time when they might find some relief from the summer’s heat
But Linda’s favorite time of year is fall and she’s sure to plant a few items especially for the late-season events. This year, they grew ‘Purple Majesty’, pearl and highlander millets; Texas black, black amber and red broom corn; several varieties of pumpkins, amaranths, celosia, ornamental peppers and several grasses in addition to the traditional summer assortment.
They had good success with lisianthus, ‘Amazon Neon Duo’ dianthus, ‘Indian Summer’ rudbeckia, larkspur, sunflowers, zinnias, single tuberose and ‘Rocket’ snapdragons used for mixed bouquets. However, they also feel that they’ve developed a signature flower that aptly reflects the image of Aunt Willie’s Wildflowers. Every market, Linda takes a few bunches of pink sweet peas that she’s gathered from the ditch. She sells the bunches for $5 each, and while she doesn’t always sell out, she always draws in customers who reminisce about their grandmother and their memory of those flowers.
They do have a collection of woodies as well, including ‘Limelight’ and ‘Tardiva’ hydrangea, red twig dogwood, viburnum, forsythia, mock orange, lilac and spirea. They’d like to add varieties that could be the focus of an event, be exhausted in a single evening and then done with until the same event next year.
Linda calls the ASCFG Bulletin Board her pipeline to information. She claims, “Anything we’ve learned, we’ve learned from ASCFG members whom we try to visit anytime we’re traveling. We get out the directory, look at our map and call to see if we can stop along our way, though we try not to be intrusive…or show too much of our ignorance.” In early December, for instance, they visited Andrea Gagnon, of LynnVale Studios in Gainesville,Virginia. Linda helped Andrea make wreaths all day, all the while learning as much as she could from Andrea’s wealth of experience.
What they have a firm grasp on is what they want the Aunt Willie’s experience to be. In fact, one of their guest may have summed it up best when she wrote, “When I got home, I said to myself, I’m going to slow down and really take time to enjoy life.” Linda and Roy want their participants to take away more than flowers, though of course they depart with flowers in hand.
The Doans realize that part of the appeal is to get out in nature and enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. But they want to offer a touch of pampering as well. Linda serves light refreshments, namely cookies decorated to mimic Aunt Willie’s old hats. At each place setting, she includes a miniature vase of posies that immediately thrill the workshop participants as a take-home gift. To Linda, it’s a $0.57 vase, to the participants, it’s a small touch that will help them carry the experience with them and perhaps inspire them to return.
Roy’s Aunt Willie died in 2001 at the age of 92, but her spirit lives on as others look to recapture or perhaps glimpse a bygone time. The 220-acre farm includes the family homeplace, built in 1860, Aunt Willie’s home, built in 1940 and several old outbuildings that complete the farmstead. Roy and Linda added their own home to the property in 2000 and in addition to growing flowers on one acre, they raise grass-fed beef cattle—a product that appeals to the same market.
The Doans have embraced the past and found mementos that help visitors connect to a simpler life. The “bloomin’ events,” the collective name for Aunt Willie’s workshops, are held at Aunt Willie’s house where treasures on display include Aunt Willie’s journal from1940 listing the flowers she planted, a 1926 flower collection from Roy’s father’s school days and a flower press he might have used.
While in just a short time, the Doans feel like they have come a long way, they look forward to building on their strengths, continuing to emphasize history and nostalgia through a unique floral experience.