Paula Gilman, Fernwood Farm

It’s not uncommon to find farmers attached to their land. It’s more than real estate to be bought and sold, more than a parcel of property to hold as an investment; “the land” is a part of who they are. Paula Gilman is one of those farmers. She came to live on the land that is now Fernwood Farm when she was 10 years old. Her mother had passed away and she and her 4 younger siblings were split up. Paula and a brother came to live with her maternal grandparents and helped farm the land using horse-drawn implements. Paula fell in love…with the land. After decades of family “discussions” and negotiations, on February 29, 2000, Paula signed the deed (requiring 10 other signatures of transfer) on the 53 acres in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, that represent her heaven on earth.

Considering the Land

She got busy right away clearing the land and building a house. By 2004 she was ready to get serious about her flower beds. She started with peonies, reasoning that they are hardy to zone 2, drought tolerant once established, not appetizing to deer, low maintenance and high return. And no one else in the area was growing peonies to sell. Since her initial installment, she’s tried to add 100 to 120 new plants, from bareroot stock, each fall, ensuring they get plenty of water from the snowfall. By next fall she’ll have more than 500 plants representing 50 varieties.

During the 5-week bloom period, Paula is able to sell all her peonies locally. She also gives away lots of bouquets, consisting of the smaller blooms on the younger plants. She hopes to take the next step toward specializing in peonies this summer by building a walk-in cooler. She learned from fellow ASCFG members that buds harvested in the “marshmallow stage” can be stored dry and rehydrated to prolong the availability of this once-and-done crop.

In addition to peonies, she grows lilies, willows and hydrangeas along with an assortment of annuals, herbs and wildflowers. She is currently utilizing only field production, but hopes to put up a hoophouse (or several) soon. Lack of water is a limiting factor for Paula, with a well that offers only three gallons per minute at over 600 feet deep. She is in the process of applying for her third grant with the Natural Resources Conservations Service (NRCS). This grant will offer assistance to drill a well for drip irrigation. A previous effort included building a pond to support 3 acres of drip irrigation, but ultimately the pond wouldn’t hold water and she had to withdraw from that project. Once an irrigation well can be established, she hopes to expand production with hoophouses.

Time is another limiting factor. In 2006, Paula almost lost the farm in a divorce from her husband of 25 years. He and his attorney suggested that she could subdivide the land and sell parcels to pay off debt. She looked the attorney in the eye and said, “Over my dead body, and he knows that,” pointing to her ex. Instead, she refinanced and went back to work full-time as a paralegal for a non-profit law firm. In 2011, Paula put her land into a Conservation Easement and donated it to the town. While that process required another refinance, she can rest assured that her land will never be subdivided and developed. Furthermore, as a condition in the Conservation Easement deed, whoever owns the land after her must maintain it as Certified Organic. Paula says, “There have never been any chemicals on my land and never will be.”

She started down the path of becoming an event facility. In fact, she hosted one wedding, but recalls, “It was horrible—not for the bride, but for me.” She contracted with an event planner to handle the details and jumped through tons of hoops with the town to get a variance, even getting the town to change its zoning ordinance to include the definition of “agritourism.” However, putting the land into Conservation Easement brought the event hosting to an end as it was considered commercial use. Paula says, “I am much happier simply growing flowers and having the brides come to me just for their flowers.”

She markets her flowers to brides by advertising in a bridal magazine and being a member of NH Made. She hopes to start a subscription program soon. She donated a subscription for a fundraiser and it seemed to generate a lot of interest. In addition to the bridal magazine, Paula relies on word of mouth and her website as her marketing tools.

Following Her Dream

Paula felt like she had found herself when she began her pursuit of an advanced horticultural degree, but her path to that revelation wasn’t exactly a direct route. She married at age 19 and was in the medical field for more than 20 years before becoming burned out as an office manager at a busy ob-gyn practice. She obtained an associate degree in plant and soil technology at Southern Maine Technical College. “My professor, mentor, and now friend, Rick Churchill who was chair of the program, lit a flame in me that I never knew existed,” she says. “Earning my degree gave me a level of confidence I never had.” She even graduated summa cum laude.

She decided to pursue her B.S. in Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Southern Maine, but at 51 years of age, became a college dropout. She was halfway through the program when the stars aligned and she was able to acquire the family land. Despite loving the degree program, she felt that she had to seize the opportunity to make her dream of owning the land become a reality.

Few will argue that she made a poor decision. It may have taken longer for her to realize her dream of owning the land, but perhaps it came at just the right time. While she had always gardened, it was only after recognizing her passion for horticulture and pursuing her education that the land became hers. Paula asserts, “I LOVE my land more than anyone can imagine. I am Fernwood Farm and Fernwood Farm is me.”

Megan Bame

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