The mission of Forage, a non-profit organization in Gainesville, Florida, is this, “To be a center for education, and inspiring people to value healthy food, land, and community by supporting and sustaining our local food movement.” It may seem curious that Forage is a member of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, but, as co-founder Anna Prizzia explains, “Flowers are food for the soul.” And for Forage, flowers “put food on the table,” so to speak.
Officially established in 2012, Forage is a six-acre working farm, located within the Alachua Conservation Trust’s Prairie Creek Preserve. Only one acre is currently in production, but it is farmed intensively using sustainable and organic practices, growing mostly cut flowers. Co-founders Melissa DeSa and Prizzia settled on cut flower production as a good fit for Forage because it would not create competition with local vegetable growers, it would support pollinator populations, and it would satisfy their desire to have a working farm at the heart of Forage. Flowers also provide an opportunity to offer value-added services, creating an income stream that supports mission-driven programming efforts. Flowers are versatile in their use for programs, which are often focused on floral use or products “beyond the vase.” Examples include edible flowers, pressed flowers and teas.
DeSa is the farm manager, working nearly full-time for Forage. Prizzia maintains her day job with the University of Florida as the statewide coordinator for the Florida Farm to School Partnership, while serving as the chief programs officer for Forage. In addition, Forage has one or two interns each semester and many dedicated volunteers—some who commit their time to field work or floral design, others who assist with educational outreach.
CoolBots and Dust Busters
Prizzia says that they choose flowers that grow well in the heat and humidity of Central Florida, “Anything that isn’t too finicky.” Sunflowers and zinnias are staples, with others like gomphrena, agapanthus, bee balm, cosmos, nigella, larkspur, delphinium, marigolds, celosia, ageratum, and stock filling the rows. They are working to incorporate more native species and hope, in long-range planning, to move toward cutting gardens rather than row production. While they do not cultivate woodies, per se, they do harvest from woodies that are an existing part of the landscape, including oakleaf hydrangea, beautyberry and native hollies.
They have retrofitted a barn on the property to serve as their processing area. and within the barn they built a well-insulated room to use as a cooler utilizing the CoolBot technology. Aside from a 15-foot x 30-foot greenhouse for seedling production, all flowers are field grown. In the future they would like to add a high tunnel for season extension and some weather protection.
The primary market for Forage’s flowers is events. April through June is the peak season for weddings, their biggest revenue stream. They offer à la carte, bulk buckets to full service design and delivery. They also provide flowers for funerals, particularly those held at the conservation burial grounds located on the Preserve. University functions (the University of Florida is located in Gainesville) and events held by other non-profit organizations round out the bulk of their flower sales.
Prizzia identified three major challenges they face, two related to production and one on an organizational level. The native sandy soils of Gainesville make fertility management a challenge. She says, “We are constantly trying be good soil farmers, adding organic matter and composts to improve soil health.” Also, the heat and humidity result in tremendous disease pressure that can be difficult to combat organically. Prizzia reflects, “We’ve actually found flowers to be rather forgiving of insects and disease since the bloom is of most interest, the foliage often doesn’t have to be perfect.” For pest pressure, they have found trap crops to be most successful. They plants giant sunflowers to attract stinkbugs and simply remove them with a Dust Buster.
The organizational challenge this young association is still wrestling with is labor. Not necessarily finding labor, but how to utilize their interns and volunteers to strike the right balance between their mission-focused programs and program-supporting flower production. The Forage Board of Directors is exploring options and continually molding the operations of the organization. One option they are currently exploring is working with other local flower growers in a cooperative effort where the other farmers would grow more product (reducing the production requirement of Forage), while Forage would coordinate and provide the exceptional bridal services they have become known for.
Sharing Their Philosophy
While they get it sorted out, the outreach efforts continue. Their premier program is the Southern Heritage Seed Collective, a seed library that works with growers to make sure the seed diversity of the Deep South is preserved. They work with flowers and vegetables. They offer workshops on seed saving, grow open-pollinated varieties for the purpose of seed collection, and partner with other farmers to build the seed library. They are able to work with the Florida Wildflower Cooperative, which has a variety of tools and equipment used in seed collection and sorting.
Through the Farm to School Program, Forage is working with an exceptional education class at a local high school to teach and then assist in much of the handwork involved in seed saving. The students separate and sift seed. They perform a germination test to assess viability and then properly refrigerate for storage. Through a different outreach effort, Forage provides weekly afterschool programs for elementary age students focusing on growing flowers and vegetables, eating fresh, local foods, and saving seeds for future crops.
Forage is a unique operation among the ASCFG membership roster. They are producing and selling beautiful examples of specialty cut flowers, while serving a parallel mission in hopes that the tables graced by their flowers will be filled with foods grown by an equally local, sustainable farm operation.