Diana Doll, StrayCat Flower Farm, Burlington, Vermont

In 1988, Diana Doll and some friends set out on a cross-country ski in Burlington, Vermont. As they travelled, they collected dried stems and conifer clippings to make wreaths when they returned. Diana found that she so enjoyed making the wreaths that she bought seeds for dried flower species, grew them, dried them in a neighbor’s barn and created more wreaths that she sold at craft shows and the Burlington Farmer’s Market. At the time, she was working at a bakery and the flower business was just a hobby. Approaching her late twenties, she put some thought into how she envisioned life in her fifties. It wasn’t at the bakery. 

About that time she ventured into fresh cut flowers, growing on land rented from the city’s parks and recreation department. She kept the job at the bakery as she learned more about growing flowers. She was initially timid to join the farmers’ market to sell her fresh cuts because she knew the other flower vendor and wasn’t comfortable creating competition (she since has a different philosophy). Instead she launched her flower business as a street vendor, selling off a wheeled flower cart for four years before joining the thriving Burlington Farmer’s Market, this time to sell fresh cuts.

Tunnels and Crates

In 1990, Diana learned about more land that might be available, as a former dairy was looking to lease parcels. The dairy was located on Intervale Road, “intervale” meaning “the land between two cliffs.” The Intervale property is actually a flood plain of the Winooski River, which flows into Lake Champlain. The dairy farmer slowly sold her property to the non-profit Intervale Center which now controls leasing of the property to 14 farmers. The individual parcels range from 2 to 40 acres (Diana farms 2 acres), and the farmers are part of a cooperative that allows them to share equipment and rent the equipment to individuals outside the cooperative. The entire property is certified organic. The soil is quite sandy, losing lots of nutrients each year, but the farmers continually cover crop to build organic matter. Diana even “employs” three pigs to provide nutrients and weed management on the property. The Intervale is only a couple miles from Diana’s home in town, but it is still a challenge to overcome the inefficiencies of record keeping from a home office and working in the field.

Diana has a 65-ft. by 30-ft. “greenhouse” that she no longer heats. Instead, she uses heat mats for propagation and row-cover tunnels over the seedlings. She plants some “hardy” annuals that will survive the Vermont winter under the protective greenhouse cover in the ground for early harvest when the temperatures finally warm. She also grows successive bulb plantings in crates. About one-third of her crop variety consists of woodies, which she uses frequently for her weekly accounts at restaurants and offices. Another third are Vermont-hardy perennials, such as Lenten rose, false turtlehead and obedient plant. While these are interesting, identifiable plants to her customers, she’s taken by the notion that they help build her identity as a “Vermont farmer.” The final third consists of annuals. Although she has grown fewer and fewer annuals over the years, she’s found that many market shoppers won’t buy flowers if they don’t recognize or connect with the blooms. She considers annuals like sunflower and zinnia, “reliable, workhorse varieties.”

Unlike many farmers, it isn’t the unpredictability of the weather that challenges Diana the most, it’s the predictably cold winters that give her pause. She has one full-time employee who she would like to retain year-round, but growing organically through the Vermont winter is a decision she hasn’t committed to just yet. She says, “It would be a dream to have the time to read and respond to the ASCFG Bulletin Board to see how other northern growers, like those in Wisconsin and Maine, handle the issues associated with a winter season.” Furthermore, there is that issue of farming in a floodplain. The Intervale floods to some degree every year. Because Diana has seniority as one of the longest Intervale farmers, she has been able to select higher ground. She recalls three floods in the past 10 years where the entire Intervale was under water, enabling her to canoe over the shrubs in her fields. If the flooding occurs while the ground is still frozen, it isn’t a big problem; the water simply flows to the river. Diversity of plant material helps the business “stay afloat.”

At Market and Online

Diverse markets is another business strategy Diana uses. Again by thirds, her business is split between the Burlington Farmer’s Market (one year it rained 12 of 13 Saturdays), weekly wholesale to grocery stores and restaurants, and business generated from her web site for weddings and local delivery.

It was only five years ago when she launched www.straycatflowers.com, which directed the business to a new level. She offers florist services by providing same-day deliveries for small, medium or specialty arrangements. The web site provides eleven sample arrangements, each named for ease of ordering or conveying a preferred style. Deliveries are typically within Burlington; Diana’s not afraid to charge a delivery fee for further distances.

They provide floral services for around 20 weddings a year. Some are full service including rentals, others are bulk orders of loose stems for DIY brides. This year StrayCat has set up shop in a studio at the old railway depot on the Intervale. Not only will it provide a place to store rental supplies and glassware, it will offer a “face” for the farm, which is not easily accessible, and provide a professional location for wedding consultations, previously held in Diana’s home.

Diana is not looking to expand the size of the farm. In fact she’d rather become smaller and more efficient. In addition to the full-time employee, her husband helps with the equipment and she employs several part-timers who each have carved his or her own niche in some aspect of the business—designing, field work or weddings. Though she gets lots of applications each year, she’s found that it is a tough task to find folks who move fast enough to keep up with her pace.

Looking toward the future, she has a 10-year goal of developing an employee-ownership structure that would depend on more shared responsibilities and result in shared profits. From flour in the bakery to flowers in the field, Diana has built a business and developed business partnerships that will allow her to move toward this new entrepreneurial approach that will help her be where she wants to be in her fifties.

Megan Bame

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