Emily Calhoun, Floriography, Mesilla Park, New Mexico

Emily Calhoun is a “valley girl”; a child of the Rio Grande Valley, specifically where the borders of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico intersect. It’s a valley rich with agricultural heritage with which she proudly identifies herself as a fourth-generation farmer. She admits that some of the “good ol’ boys” thought flower farming was a joke when she sowed her first crops just a few years ago. While it’s been only a short time, she’s proven that the market for locally-grown flowers was previously untapped, but holds tremendous growth potential.

Emily’s family once farmed more than 3,000 acres of cotton and vegetables. More recently they established the first organic pecan orchard in New Mexico, a 300-acre venture she helped manage when she first found herself pulled back to the farming culture in the valley after finishing college. Both operations are obviously a rather stark contrast to her 1¼ acres of direct-marketed cut flowers, but it didn’t deter her. Emily first took interest in the floral industry when she was studying in Ecuador and was introduced to the less than romantic realities of commercial flower production in South America. With degrees in anthropology and international relations, she thought her career path would take her abroad, possibly as an ambassador. But ultimately she kept returning to the valley, and there, decided to carve out a niche for herself.

Only The Strong Survive

The closest local flower growers were Frank and Pamela Arnosky in Blanco, Texas, nearly 600 miles from Mesilla Park, New Mexico. The Arnoskys have been great mentors and encouragers for her, but from a business perspective, their distance meant something more: she had no competition. She purchased several books about flower farming, but after a few chapters, hid them in the closet. The more technical the information got, the more overwhelmed she got. In the end, she decided, “I’m not going to grow a lot of flowers by simply reading about flowers.”

So with $1,000 “seed” money, she ordered seeds and bulbs and set out to use what she had learned in those first few chapters to get her through the first year. Those childhood years as a farmer’s daughter were largely spent hand weeding, or, “building character,” as her mother liked to say. While she had done a little experimenting before officially launching the business, the big debut of Floriography was Mother’s Day 2012.

For the first year, she set up two delivery days for flower subscription drop-offs in El Paso, Texas, and Las Cruces, New Mexico. She made a lot of cold calls to businesses that first year, but she considers it time well spent beating the pavement when they all renewed for the second year. This year, she has a good balance between individuals and corporate clients. In an effort to steadily grow the business, she added three Saturday farmers’ markets this year, and picked up a few wedding clients. She would love to see the events portion of the business grow and hopes to secure a contract with the nearby university to become their floral vendor.

Emily just hired her second part-time employee, both are college students. She is working to develop an internship program, but otherwise has relied on the help of family and friends (who “will work for burritos”), and volunteers (previously strangers), who simply want to help cultivate beautiful, fresh flowers in the desert. Emily acknowledges that having a strong farming operation in place (the pecan orchard), contributed to her ability to get the business off the ground quickly. She had equipment, contacts, labor (if it were needed) and other resources already at her disposal. However, she’s still getting settled, having rented different plots of land each growing season and therefore not establishing much infrastructure, i.e., no greenhouse, no hoophouse, not even a cooler (though, in a pinch, she does utilize a few refrigerators that she picked up at yard sales).

Her motto is “only the strong survive,” when it comes to variety selection. And she admits to having a few “complete failures,” including aster plugs planted this spring. She recalls, “They were plugs. I guess I thought, ‘What could go wrong?’ But then they never grew more than four inches tall.” She thinks it may have been the unamended clay soils in the new location, but it was also a reminder that selections grow better when the flower has a certain appeal to her. Because she personally likes a flower, she looks at it more frequently and works harder to make sure it performs well. Perhaps her greatest production challenge though, is the most basic requirements: water. A major drought the region is facing is challenging farmers to be thoughtful and responsible with the limited water supply.

Her top five species are zinnia, sunflowers, sages, lavender and basil. She says the fragrance of the basil is great to attract folks to the farmers’ market booth and strike up a conversation. More than once, she’s found herself convincing customers that she did, in fact, grow the flowers they are seeing in the desert (albeit with city water). When she had tulips, which she grew in partnership with a local greenhouse, folks thought they weren’t real, or that they couldn’t have been grown locally.

Wild-Collected and Orchard-Gathered

She scavenges for cactus, yucca, and common crops grown in the region such as cotton, chile peppers and pecans. The succulents add a unique, yet familiar appeal to the arrangements. Including agricultural commodities is part of her mission to help people realize the beauty of these plants that they may have previously seen only as part of a monoculture field. The pecans are obviously a product near to her heart and she’s found ways to incorporate all stages of growth in floral arrangements, from the green buds to the open hulls.

While she can get the fieldwork done, Emily considers herself more geared toward design rather than production. She loves being part of the creative process and finding interesting ways to showcase beautiful flowers—one reason she hope to see weddings become a more prominent part of the business.

Emily definitely sees opportunity for growing her business. In just the second full season, business is growing almost faster than she can handle, with no advertising, only word-of-mouth promotion. But having literally and figuratively planted the seeds of a successful cut flower operation in southern New Mexico, this valley girl has her sights set on a northern expansion, establishing a sister operation in the Albuquerque or Santa Fe area. At this point, it’s part of a bigger dream for her future. It may involve moving away from family, but through the cut flower business, she and her dad have built a new shared interest. He plans to experiment with 8 acres (remember, he’s used to farming hundreds of acres) for wholesale flower production next year. If it goes well, the southern operation, with its longer growing season, may be a supplier for the northern operation. Emily remarks that it is a good combination of old and new, where she benefits from her father’s business and farming experience, while he benefits from her passion and vision for bringing a new facet of agriculture to the Rio Grande Valley.

Megan Bame

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