Joan Thorndike, LeMera Gardens, Rogue River Valley, Oregon

Joan Thorndike has been growing flowers since 1992, when, she says, she came upon it somewhat “by accident.” At the time she had two young daughters, ages three and five, whom she wanted to care for while she worked. As she was searching for a revenue stream, the qualifications were 1) to work outside and 2) to be able to take the kids with her to work. She and a friend struck upon an idea to grow flowers on her friend’s small piece of land. Though it was less than half an acre, the two faced a steep learning curve as they grew and sold premade bouquets to restaurants and offices.
On the advice of a local businessman they signed no partnership agreement until a full year had elapsed, at which time they realized they were better friends than business partners and they mutually agreed to dissolve their business.

All the while, Le Mera Gardens was an existing business in Ashland, Oregon which presented a “growing” opportunity. Though it had been named for the original owners, Lenny and Merrilyn, they were no longer involved in the farm and Joan considered changing the name. She ultimately decided against it given the existing name recognition. The property consisted of  1 1/3 acres of field area and a hoophouse. For several years the backbone of the farm was the Le Mera recipe for growing sweet Williams for harvest around Mother’s Day (In short: sow on July 4, transplant in the heat of August, cover the hoophouse with plastic on Valentine’s Day and harvest by Mother’s Day).
During the 10 years Joan farmed the Ashland property she added new varieties to offer a more diverse selection to her customers. Her primary sales channel had transitioned from premade bouquets to wholesale bunches for sale primarily to area florists and designers. Though the Rogue River Valley, situated near the border of northern California, has a relatively small population of residents, it is able to support 11 flower shops.
Joan has a unique, informal partnership with another business, Fry Family Farm. For several years, she worked in their greenhouse through the winter, sowing, transplanting and propagating. At the end of March, she could pick out whatever flats she wanted and the two would part ways for the summer. While the Fry family’s primary crops are vegetables and bedding flats sold at four growers’ markets, they also grew many varieties of cut flowers. In time, Joan found herself a stop ahead, or a stop behind Suzi Fry as they made their rounds of the supermarkets with cash and carry bouquets.

From the Frying Pan into the Fire

In 2001, Steve Fry approached Joan with an idea. Rather than leaving in March to tend her small acreage, why not just stay, join forces and cut her wholesale bunches from their 10 acres? She would continue to operate as Le Mera Gardens and continue making her florist runs. They would provide field maintenance and supply her with a refrigerated truck to accommodate the increased production. The “new farm” included one propagation house, 8 hoophouses, one shade house and 2 field locations—one in the town of Phoenix and one in West Medford. Until 2009, Joan continued to farm the Ashland field as well with the help of the Fry Family Farm employees.
Joan grows quite a few woody cuts including eucalyptus, snowball viburnum and hydrangea (in a shade house). Her main crops by volume are consistently lisianthus, dahlias, zinnias, veronica, sweet William, phlox, spearmint, ribbon grass and now tuberose. She would like to include delphiniums on that list, but admits that some years the stars seem to align and the delphiniums flourish while other years bring season-long frustrations.
The unpredictable nature of farming doesn’t intimidate Joan as it once did. She has come to appreciate that “Farming is an imperfect science.” She used to feel inferior when talking with fellow growers who seemed to have perfected one aspect of growing, but now she loves to listen to other farmers recognizing that each person has developed strengths in certain areas and she can learn from their expertise in an area that may be a weakness for her. After nearly 17 years as a flower farmer, Joan has acquired quite a bit of knowledge to share with others as well.
As for formal education, Joan’s college degree is in International Studies and Economics. Horticulturally, Joan considers herself, “A product of the ASCFG ,” saying, “I learned everything from what the ASCFG has to offer.” Joining in 1994, Joan has attended numerous National Conferences and Regional Meetings, and is currently serving on the Board of Directors as Vice-president. Joan admits that while serving on the board may seem a time commitment some might would shy away from, she feels strongly that it is one way to give back to the organization and its members, all the while connecting with and learning from even more fellow growers.
One of her most recent ASCFG-inspired actions was more about marketing than growing; Joan says she was already marketing in person everyday. Last year, she heeded the advice (most notably from a Quarterly article by Joe Caputi) to develop a professional quality logo and website. Now, in addition to making personal contacts, the website acts as a silent partner. Joan can update and edit the site as needed since it is a Joomla “site in a box” type designed for ease of use. Joan admits that the website and logo/brand development wasn’t cheap, but the work the graphic artist provided can be duplicated on any number of marketing materials including notecards, postcards, advertisements, or even aprons.
Though she works with the goal of selling everything she grows, “at a price that would make John Dole proud,” she contributes to her community by giving away lots of flowers—high quality flowers. This effort is two pronged in that it supports the community, but with a business card or copy-ready logo (vertical and horizontal) provided to the recipient organization, the charitable contribution has a marketable touch.
Joan has a love-hate relationship with the phone book’s yellow pages. This vital marketing tool accounts for a great majority of her referrals, implying many of her customers are still choosing the phone book over the internet as a resource. For $140 per phone book per year, her listing appears in two extended area phone directories. However, the business publishing the ads has been difficult to work with and this year the Le Mera listing was “inadvertently” omitted from both directories. With growth in web traffic, Joan is hoping the missing ads won’t result in missed business opportunities.
While organic agricultural practices were not intentionally a part of Joan’s marketing plan, she has always been an organic grower and understands it could be a value-added feature of her product. While she’s observed the trend favoring more organic foods, it seems the interest in organic flowers has been limited.  From a floral perspective, the “local” and “green” movements seem to be more relevant, especially among bridal parties.

Here Comes the Bride

Twenty percent of sales for Le Mera Gardens are a result of wedding flowers. Joan does not offer any arranging services, she sells straight bunches only. Her approach to weddings has been streamlined over the years so that it now requires only 30 minutes of decision time per bride. She lets folks know that the flower fields are part of a working farm not designed for drop-in visitors. Instead, she schedules half-hour appointments on Tuesday mornings. The bridal party meets her at the refrigerated truck, loaded with whatever is available that week. The bride points to what she wants (no need to know all the flower names), and Joan takes her order. By Thursday evening the order has been harvested, conditioned and is ready to be picked up at the farm by the bride (or a mom or a friend). The quick turnaround is a huge benefit for Joan and while some brides are nervous about the lateness of the floral arrangements, most are secure in that there will be beautiful flowers available for their special day. Do-it-yourself weddings seem to be cyclical over the years, and if bookings made thus far are any indication, the summer of 2009 promises to be a very good wedding season for this farmer.
The majority of sales for Le Mera Gardens come from weekly florist runs. Joan likens the experience of a florist shopping in her truck to a kid in a candy store. She observes, “What other businesspeople so appreciate the products they receive, week after week, year after year?” One florist has worked the “local” angle to their customers by hanging out a chalkboard sign every spring announcing “Our local organic flowers are in!  Welcome back Le Mera Gardens and Fry Family Farm.”
The final aspect of Le Mera’s sales is wholesale bunches to businesses, restaurants and homes. While this is similar to a subscription service, Joan doesn’t require payment in advance. She bills her customers (including the florists) at the end of each month. In terms of flower sales, the beauty of the Fry Family Farm-LeMera Gardens partnership is the diversity and integration of farming enterprise. While Joan is happy to tend to the very specific (some would say picky) needs of her customer base, the Frys take flowers in ready-made bouquets of different sizes and styles to four area growers’ markets, adding one more evening market starting in June. The flowers are all grown on the same acreage, same hoophouses, and same shade houses, but the picking style and even the picking crews differ to better serve the particular buying public (shops, weddings, market goers, offices, lodging establishments, restaurants, homes).

Multi-tasking Mothers
Obviously the increased acreage required additional employees and Joan went from being the sole picker for her market share to having to hire up to 3 additional employees (not counting the considerable increase in field workers). Most employees return seasonally, but training is still one of Joan’s greatest challenges. Over the years Joan has identified the best employees as women who are over 30 and preferably have children. This isn’t because she was once that person, but because those are the workers who are used to thinking of six things at once. She describes the height of the season, under a sweltering sun as, “just shy of chaos.”
Joan harvests only the best flowers, working hard to train her employees to understand and appreciate high quality while maintaining an efficient work ethic. She understands that 10 hours of picking gets old, and the speed and selection of quality deteriorates as the workers tire, but she tries to arm them with a knowledge base that will carry them through the longest days. She describes the challenge of dealing with humanity like this, “What I said is not what you heard, listen to me again. What I showed you is not what you saw, watch me demonstrate again.” Only when the employee has mastered a task can she work efficiently.
Though not an employee of this family affair, Joan’s husband, Dan Thorndike, has been Joan’s financial and motivational support over the      years. Their daughters, Camila, 21, and Isabella, 19, have both learned a love of flower farming from their mother while working alongside her. The girls are pursuing higher education in the liberal arts, but will carry with them the skills and endurance to grow a beautiful garden and respect hard work. At Whitman College, Camila organizes farmers to actively participate in the legislative process to shape policies that directly affect their farming practices and business successes. Isabella contributes her photography skills by taking pictures of the happenings at Le Mera Gardens. Joan has posted many of these images on the free Picasa host site online. She has made the album public and invites customers and fellow ASCFG members to visit the farm by taking a virtual tour.                                      
Joan has moved past the “dirt under her nails” stage into a management/customer relations position, but along the way she absorbed and applied as much information as she could retain to grow a better, more diverse crop of specialty cuts.

Megan Bame

Megan Bame is a freelance writer in Salisbury, North Carolina. Contact her at [email protected]