Skyfields Flower Farm, Groton, Massachusetts

Inspired by her own children, an energetic Nancy Van Nest carved a farm out of a rocky Massachusetts meadow, and supports mental health organizations at the same time. In many ways Skyfields Flower Farm is like many others. It’s a young venture started as a potential second career by a woman who has dreamed of working on a farm as a relaxing reprieve. Yet, in so many ways, the deeper truth behind each of those generalities makes this venture like no other.

A Flower Farm with a Mission

First and foremost, Skyfields Flower Farm is not the typical business venture. It was founded with a mission to donate all profits to organizations that provide for the care of, and work toward a cure for, individuals living with autism or with schizophrenia. As one might guess, the causes are close to the heart of founder, Nancy Van Nest, who is married with four children, including 15-year-old son Nils, who has autism, and 28-year-old Cameron, diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 19. Nancy says, “The number of people affected by autism and schizophrenia continues to grow, and these children and adults, and their parents, often have nowhere to turn for help or services. We need to do whatever we can to support the organizations that do help.”

While Nils is lucky to live in a wonderful group home run by health care provider Devereux, the family supports Cameron in his own living quarters, while he continues to pursue his goal of a college degree. This family knows firsthand how difficult it can be to find quality, affordable ongoing support and services for these children, much less adolescents and adults. For that reason, the Nashoba Learning Group Adult Program is Nancy’s charity of choice for autism issues. The Nashoba Learning Group (NLG) has made a commitment that any child in its school program (ages 3-22), which includes Nils, will have a place in the NLG Adult Program, allowing him or her to continue to learn and work and live within a support system that will meet each of their needs and help them continue to make progress.

While not as much attention has been brought to schizophrenia, Nancy observes that it is on its way to becoming a “hot topic” in the public’s awareness of mental illness. The organization she donated to most recently relative to schizophrenia was Bring Change 2 Mind, which is a national anti-stigma campaign aimed at raising awareness and removing misconceptions about mental illness.

When her family moved to the farm property, 6.5 acres in Groton, Massachusetts, Nancy knew she wanted to find a way to put the land and existing barns to good use furthering fundraising efforts for both autism and schizophrenia. She actually researched many different farm models including alpacas, vegetable farms, sheep and goats, trees, landscape shrubs, and others. But when she stumbled across cut flowers, she says, “It immediately excited me.” With some flower gardening experience and even some courses in perennial growing under her belt, she set about learning more when, “I found the ASCFG website and purchased, The Flower Farmer, which I read from cover to cover. Several times.”

She admits, “My friends and family were certainly dubious of my ability to pull this off, considering my many other obligations, but I just kept moving forward, finding the time here and there, reading, planning and ultimately buying the seeds and figuring out how and when to plant them.” She adds, “Winter in New England is useful that way!” Now, the entire family embraces the endeavor and spreads the word about the farm and its mission.

Two Quick Years of Very Hard Work

In 2013, she started from scratch by rototilling about 10 long rows for cut flowers right out of a grassy, rocky meadow. She recalls, “It was no picnic. I felt like an early New England farmer, scratching a farm out of nothing.” After Nancy and her daughter Jorie picked up “what seemed like a million rocks,” they formed raised beds and planted about 20 varieties that spring just to see if they could grow a quality cut flower product. “Then,” she says, “suddenly, it was July and everything started coming up at once, and beautifully.” They contacted a local florist, “just to gauge interest,” and ended up selling almost everything to her that summer. Though the learning curve was steep, Skyfields Flower Farm realized a profit and was able to make donations at the end of its first season.  

Last year Nancy tripled the planting area and planted over 100 varieties, again, many just to ensure they could be grown well. She invested in a tractor and a cooler setup in the barn. Recognizing a need for additional labor, she kept Jorie at work, enlisted eldest child Zachary when time allowed, and coordinated a summer internship for a student at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, Sharee Broomstein. Nancy reflects, “We worked harder and learned even more.”

They established a florist route mostly along Route 2 and into Boston. In several ways, with time being the biggest factor, it seemed the florist route might not be the best fit for Nancy. She laments, “Flower growing is feasible and cutting can be done. But flower delivery by truck is a big challenge for us. It is very time consuming, and if you miss the florist when you arrive, get stuck in traffic, or the florists decide they don’t have need for the product that week, you have wasted a lot of time and product.” In her third season, she plans to test an Internet concept as a way to potentially sell a higher percentage of what the farm grows. 

Nancy plans to ship free product to five test customers, who will, in exchange, send her photos and feedback on quality, longevity, packaging and arrival status. Nancy says, “I don’t want to go into Internet sales, until I know with 100% certainty that our products will arrive in good condition and be long lasting at the receiver’s end.” While she appreciates that “local” is a selling point for many specialty cut flower farms, she feels that there is a hole in the market for American-grown and chemical-free. A hole she’d like to fill, particularly via online ordering and direct shipping.

The farm’s annual crop selection has included sunflowers, zinnia, celosia, Queen Anne’s lace, ageratum, basil, baby’s breath, dianthus, dahlia, lisianthus, snapdragons, statice, bupleurum and many others. Perennials include coneflower, veronica, lavender, peonies, coreopsis, scabiosa, and yarrow. This year they will focus on species that will ship well. In addition, they plan to grow and dry more herbs to extend the season, including medicinal herbs. There are ferns and many wild shrubs on the property that provide fresh greenery. So far, they only have a few woodies (hydrangea, forsythia, and dogwood), but Nancy would like to expand that selection, since they seem may be a better fit with her time challenges (less tilling, planting, and weeding).

If You Want Something Done, Ask a Busy Person

Nancy’s time on the farm is challenged by the fact that she is an attorney and has been practicing law for more than 25 years. She currently devotes her work exclusively to projects in the waste recycling industry, helping build facilities which recycle and reuse waste streams from municipalities and businesses. Most recently she is working on food waste-to-energy projects, in which food waste is used to create biogas, which can in turn be used to produce both electricity and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) for trucks. Working for companies all over the U.S. allows her to locate her office right in the barn. This allows her to oversee things on the farm while at work in her office. She handles as much farm work as she can squeeze in on weekends and through the summer; she can cut flowers in the early mornings and evenings. She’s found, “Since I have no commute, and a flexible schedule, sometimes I even run out to do a farm task at lunchtime.”

Recognizing that any farming venture would require five to, perhaps even, ten years of experience before shifting to full-time, she has pushed through the challenges to get these first few seasons under her belt without putting income pressure on herself. She admits the florist route wasn’t profitable last year, but she still made a donation. She’s determined to figure out the right market for her flowers, but knows that marketing and building clientele take time. One can only imagine that if the mission of Skyfields Flower Farm were effectively communicated locally, regionally, or perhaps even nationally, every harvested stem would be purchased and awareness raised about autism and schizophrenia.

While looking out her office window in late February at eight feet of snow, and drifts of more than fifteen feet, Nancy suspects planting will be significantly delayed this year, as late as mid-May. She shares, “Flower farming is very hard physical work, but for me it is a great distraction from the many cares and stresses of daily life, and I like that we are doing good by selling fresh, chemical-free flowers and herbs, making donations and bringing a little happiness to others.  The endeavor is very satisfying for me.” 

Megan Bame

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