Flowers at Riverside Farm Richmond, Vermont
Alison Kosakowski Conant never planned to be a flower farmer.After graduating from college with an English degree, Conant moved to New York to pursue a career in advertising and public relations. She logged thousands of frequent flier miles—and even relocated to Copenhagen for work—to help high-profile clients like Playtex and Hasbro execute their brand strategies.
On weekends, Conant kicked off her high heels and power suits to work with a local florist.
“I have always loved flowers,” she explains. “As a kid, I got in trouble for picking flowers on the soccer field instead of playing the game.”
A part-time gig prepping flowers for bridal bouquets allowed Conant to indulge her passion for pretty blooms. But her plan was to climb the corporate ladder, not spend her career digging in the dirt.“From the moment I graduated, I was focused on pursuing a corporate career,” she explains. “Growing flowers never occurred to me.”
In 2009, Conant had a dream job working in corporate communications for the transoceanic shipping conglomerate Maersk. It made international news when Somali pirates attacked one of their ships, the Maersk Alabama, and took its captain, Richard Phillips, hostage. The ordeal was the basis for Captain Phillips, the 2013 blockbuster hit starring Tom Hanks.
Conant relocated to Underhill, Vermont, Captain Phillips’ hometown, to help the family navigate the media frenzy surrounding his capture and rescue. While Conant was responding to interview requests and sending press releases, she was unknowingly charting a new course for her life.
“I Fell in Love with a Farmer”
In Vermont, Conant met a local farmer, Ransom Conant. She started spending more time on his 1,000-acre farm, helping with milking the herd of 800 Holsteins and pitching in at the farm stand. Before long, Conant traded her high profile media career and an apartment in New York for the slower pace of life on the farm.
“I fell in love with farming because I fell in love with a farmer,” she says.
The open space and fertile soil inspired Conant to indulge her lifelong love of cut flowers. In 2011, she planted a field of sunflowers and zinnias to add color to the farm and, to her surprise, the blooms burst forth in the summer; she sold the bouquets at their farm stand, dubbing the venture Flowers at Riverside Farms.
“Growing flowers was a way for me to find my own thing on the farm,” Conant explains.
Experience helped Conant build her confidence to expand Flowers at Riverside Farms. In addition to sunflowers and zinnias, Conant started experimenting with different varieties of cut flowers. This spring, her garden includes Chinese forget-me-nots, godetia, cerinthe, celosia, lisianthus, asters, rudbeckia, euphorbia, gomphrena and strawflowers. The colorful new varieties have attracted new customers who purchase bouquets or buckets of cut flowers from the farm stand.
Expansions and Aspirations
Although Conant doubled production between 2014 and 2015—she rented space in the greenhouse at the University of Vermont and planted 2,000 starts in the garden this spring—she still considers Flowers at Riverside Farms a small operation. In fact, Conant calls herself an “aspiring” flower farmer.
“Over time, I want to grow the farm bigger,” she says. “In the short term, I want to work smarter, get more experience and get better at what I’m doing.”
Conant, who juggles flower farming with a full-time job as the communications director for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, believes growing cut flowers is a lot like managing media relations: Both require research, dedication, creativity, and strong skills in crisis management and, in the spring and summer, the whirlwind of sowing, transplanting, cutting flowers and arranging bouquets mimics the hurried pace of life in New York.
There is also one stark difference.
“In farming, so many things that can go wrong, even when you do everything right. It’s difficult to have a deliberate plan because there are so many surprises along the way,” Conant says. “You have to be patient and willing to surrender control.”
Surrendering control doesn’t mean being lax about her business. Conant is interested in scaling up to new retail opportunities and has big plans to use her marketing and public relations background to boost her cut flower business.
To meet the current demand, Conant is investing in infrastructure for her farm, including landscape fabric and a tiller. (Although Ransom is a seventh-generation farmer with barns full of equipment to manage the 1,000-acre farm he co-operates with his father, most of their tractors, tillers and other equipment are too big to use on a small-scale flower farm). She’s also working on adding more perennials to the selection of annual cut flowers on the farm. In the meantime, she’s taking great pleasure in her new life as a flower farmer.
“I spend so much of my professional life behind a desk and appreciate the physical work on the farm; it’s such a pleasure to spend all weekend working outside,” she says. “There is a lot of emotional growth that has accompanied growing things but I’ve never been happier.”
Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer in North Carolina. Contact her at [email protected]