Sarah Pappas, Fresh Cut Flower Farm

Fresh Cut Flower Farm turned a patchwork
of lots in Detroit into a thriving flower farm

In urban Detroit, a patchwork of once-vacant lots is bursting with color.

Cosmos, ageratum, dahlias, larkspur, and poppies are among the dozens of varieties of flowers thriving in the heart of the Motor City, thanks to Sarah Pappas.

After working with organic farms and food justice organizations in New York and California, Pappas moved to Detroit in 2011 to work for a non-profit. When she purchased a home with a small orchard and enough land for large garden, she decided to use her organic farming background to grow cut flowers

“I could see from what was happening in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest that local flowers were gaining momentum in a mainstream way,” she recalls.

In 2014, Pappas started selling blooms, turning Fresh Cut Flower Farm into a full-time business. As the farm grew, so did her need for land. Like other growers in Detroit who were turning vacant lots into thriving urban farms, Pappas decided to take advantage of the empty lots in her neighborhood.

“In several neighborhoods, there has been a lot of vacant land for a long time and, for many people [who are growing food on those lots] it’s been an important part of their survival,” she explains.

For Pappas, the vacant lots were essential to the success of Fresh Cut Flower Farm. Although the trio of lots provides under an acre of land, Pappas turned the space into a profitable addition to the farm. But she also recognized that farming on lease-less land came with a lot of risks.

“I’m in an area that’s having a lot of economic development and that makes me nervous,” she says.

While Pappas doesn’t think there is an immediate threat to the land or the flowers growing on the lots, she hopes to purchase it as soon as she can cut through the bureaucratic red tape and convince the City of Detroit to sell it.

 In the meantime, she relishes the role of caretaker. Last season, she invested in much-needed tree trimming and amended the soil with truckloads of compost. Farming on borrowed, lease-less land is just one of the unconventional things Pappas has done to grow Fresh Cut Flower Farm.

Creating Opportunities

When she started growing cut flowers Pappas believed most of her business would come from florists ordering her blooms for custom arrangements. It didn’t take long to discover that local florists lack the flexibility to work with a small grower. She needed to change directions and build the business to fit with the local opportunities.

Pappas sold her flowers at local farmers’ markets and started a CSA program, offering two 10-week sessions between May and October. “I hang out under the apple trees making bouquets and listening to music,” she says. “And there is a weekly cadre of people who buy from us, love us, and recommend us to their friends.”

Despite the success of both ventures, she needed more revenue to make the farm sustainable. To her surprise, weddings became a big portion of her sales.

Fresh Cut Flower Farm sells buckets of flowers to DIY brides and offers design services featuring gorgeous, non-traditional arrangements.

“I thought I’d be starting a flower farm and selling raw products and that’s not the case,” she says. “I’m selling more design services.”

But Pappas was determined to sell raw product too.

Knowing Fresh Cut Flower Farm was too small to fill sales at a wholesale market, Pappas got creative. In 2015, she started a dahlia cooperative, partnering with two other growers to sell to Mayesh Wholesale Florist just outside of Detroit.

The wholesaler purchases dahlias from the cooperative on Mondays and Tuesdays, giving the growers a much-needed early week outlet for their flowers at a higher price than the dahlias would command at the farmers’ market.

“It’s really paved the way for growth,” Pappas says.

In fact, the first season of the cooperative was so successful that Pappas plans to invite additional growers to participate this spring and hopes it’s the start of a thriving cooperative model among Detroit growers.

Community Gardening

Pappas favors a community-centered view of the farm and hopes that participating in grower cooperatives and providing flexible jobs will help support the community. While Pappas technically owns the farm, she’s the first to admit that its not a solo operation.

Last summer, pregnant with her first child and exhausted, Pappas hired four workers to spend one-half day per week on the farm. They weeded and watered beds and picked fresh blooms to ensure there were enough fresh flowers for the weekly market and CS orders.“It was clear that I couldn’t do it alone,” she recalls. “It felt good to look for ways to get people involved.

”Moving forward, Pappas hopes to hire a business manager to tackle the operations side of farming, freeing her up to focus on production. “It would help me make more strategic decisions and not rely so much on my gut,” she says.

In the meantime, Pappas is appreciating the business she built. In a recent blog post, she wrote, “Getting to know someone as your regular customer is such a unique joy. They appreciate your ongoing work, you appreciate their ongoing support…and I feel proud that I have grown flowers and made bouquets that they continue to value.

Jodi Helmer

Freelance Writer

Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer in North Carolina. Contact her at [email protected]