Jane Henderson, Commonwealth Farms, Concord, North Carolina
In early June, when many cut flower growers were working the longest days, Jane Henderson, owner of Commonwealth Farms in Concord, North Carolina, was putting in long days as well. But Jane wasn’t in the field. In fact, she wasn’t even in the state. Jane was enjoying a intensive, four-day floral design mini-course at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. This demonstrates two points: 1. She has help, good help, and 2. She’s more than a grower; floral presentation is a major component of her business.
Commonwealth Farms has about an acre and a half in production, including two hoophouses. Of that, Jane cultivates a half-acre cutting garden at her mother’s house, which is about six miles from the farm. Though Jane got her feet wet more than 30 years ago assisting the woman who did her wedding flowers, only in 2009 did she and her husband purchase a farm property that allowed her to establish a more steady business. The farm produces cut flowers, herbs and specialty produce using organic and sustainable practices. Prior to having actual flower fields, Jane would cut floral material from the yards of family and friends or purchase wholesale flowers to supplement arrangements.
Jane also helped develop the Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm, as a Resource Gardener when it was established. She grew a small demonstration plot, but was not considered a farmer-in-training. The Incubator concept allows selected participants to use plots of land and common equipment without making a capital investment while they establish their business. Participants take agricultural and business courses as part of the program, with the ultimate goal being able to go out on their own with an established customer base and a couple years of invaluable growing experience under their belts. She still works cooperatively with some of the participating farmers there and is excited that a current participant is working toward her own cut flower business, which has resulted in a dedicated cut flower cooler at the Incubator Farm.
Cooperation Leads to Independence
Though she admits that The Cut Flower Quarterly often gets set aside, she says, “I could not have come this far without the ASCFG Bulletin Board.” She also participated in a Cut Flower Mentor Program sponsored by Chatham County Cooperative Extension’s Debbie Roos, and supported by NCA&T’s Farmer to Farmer Mentoring Program in 2006. “I am deeply grateful to Cathy Jones of Perry-winkle Farm (a fellow ASCFG member in my hardiness zone!) for her generous mentorship,” says Jane. “It was through this 8-week program that I learned of resources such as the ASCFG.” One of her goals as a cut flower farmer is to help strengthen and expand the quantity and quality of cut flowers being grown locally by constantly sharing this information with aspiring farmers—even those who’ve never considered growing flowers—in the hope that they might add flowers to their crop rotation plans and increase the availability of locally grown floral material, a demand that’s currently unmet.
In addition to being a champion of the Slow Flower movement in her region, Jane is recognized for her artistic arrangements, including unusual floral material used in creative ways. “Our flower arrangements are comparable to handicrafts such as hand-knit sweaters, blown glass and handmade pottery,” she says. Having studied studio art in college, Jane obviously has an inherent talent that she nurtures through continuing education, like the course at Longwood Gardens, most recently.
She says leaving would not have been possible without her “fantastic Flower Team,” four employees who collectively contribute around 70 hours a week. In addition, her husband contributes his civil engineering and construction skills to infrastructure projects, and makes occasional deliveries on his way to work in Charlotte, and her mother makes deliveries, harvests flowers and offers her home as a space for floral design workshops.
Bringing the Bride to the Farm
Workshops are a new addition to Jane’s business model. Her first workshop was for a bridal party—an idea she adapted from something she read on the Bulletin Board. The bride and her five bridesmaids met at Jane’s mother’s home. Jane walked them around the garden talking briefly about the types of flowers and foliage they might use and sharing basic cut flower knowledge. Jane built a demonstration arrangement discussing the creative process along the way. The bridal party sipped lemonade, nibbled snacks and enjoyed a pleasant summer evening on the wide porch amidst the flower arranging task at hand. The bride even commented, “This is the most relaxed I’ve been in at least seven days.”
Her more established markets include year-round sales through subscriptions, special orders (including up to three weddings a month), and several local farmers’ markets. To differentiate her flowers from the competition, Jane knew she wanted to grow the “most oddball flowers” she could find. She says, “One of my biggest challenges is knowing when enough is enough. I want to grow a wide variety of uncommon floral material, so I often order too many seeds or bulbs and have trouble finding places for them all when they need to be planted.” To that end she’s trying to master the art of scheduling for maximum productivity and succession of blooms.
She grows unique and long-lasting floral material, including a wide range of familiar and less common native and non-native perennials, shrubs, trees, and herbs, as well as annual flowers and bulbs. As a rule of thumb, she wants to use only flowers that have a vase life of at least seven days. This strategy has led to customer comments such as, “I don’t need to buy flowers this week, because last week’s bouquet is still pretty!” A few mainstays are lisianthus, ranunculus, French tulips, cress, euphorbia, and herbs such as oregano, catmint and parsley flowers, along with peonies, dahlias, heirloom roses, pineapple lilies, alliums, hellebores, (including colors and doubles), beautyberry, hydrangeas, coneflowers, vines, berries, bog and water plants. Vegetables are also included in her specialty floral designs from time to time.
Jane has observed, “Some people may experience sticker shock when looking at my understated bouquets at market, but I am now known for my long-lasting, high quality, unique flowers that mature over the course of a week or more, getting better over time!” She’s identified her ideal customer as one who, “appreciates the cycles of nature, celebrating the garden’s daily surprises—whether ephemeral, everlasting or somewhere in between.”
Rather than growing Commonwealth Farms any larger, Jane hopes to empower people in her community to grow their own cut flowers, sharing her holistic approach to growing, which includes doing much of the work, including pest control, by hand or with hand tools. “This way,” she says, “we can focus on particular imbalances and treat the farm as part of a larger ecosystem.”
Reflecting on her own growth as a farmer and the growth of Commonwealth Farms’ reputation for sustainable production and quality product, Jane says, “I never really thought that what I do is special or unusual, but I am hearing it so often from people now that I feel more appreciated, honored and affirmed each week as more people become aware of the specialness of Nature’s daily offerings.”