Taking the Leap: A North Carolina grower likens her business to a field of wildflowers

Emily Copus believes that the adage about wildflowers “First they sleep, then they creep, then they leap.” applies to her business.

“Like wildflowers that, in their dormant phases, are growing this whole network of roots hidden under the soil and then, all of a sudden, the flowers start growing like crazy because they have this huge network of roots that get activated…that’s what I have focused on doing,” Copus says. “We’re in the creep phase at the moment [because] we’ve built all of these different networks and different sales lines and we are working on activating those in different ways; the leap phase is going to happen soon.”

The journalist-turned-farmer started growing cut flowers in 2016 and, though two of her great-grandfathers were flower farmers, Copus had little experience on the farm before she started Carolina Flowers.

“Even though I didn’t have any experience on the farm, I heard a lot of stories about how things were done and had a pretty good understanding of what the industry went through [as domestic flower farms lost market share to farms in South America] and how that transformation affected family farms,” Copus says. “It gave me a lot to think about in terms of how I want to operate my business in a way that can roll with the global economy.”

Growing on the Right Scale

Carolina Flowers is a three-acre farm in Marshall, North Carolina. The mountain town is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, and offers a temperate climate well suited to growing cut flowers.

Copus focuses on “super perishable” flowers like dahlias, anemones, and ranunculus that are difficult to ship, providing local growers an advantage; she also focuses on tender annual fillers such as basil and mint that lack the profit margins international growers need to make them worthwhile crops.
“These are crops that can be imported, but I feel there is a significant quality difference between local and imported flowers,” she says. “A real directive for us is figuring out how we can scale that need to answer the question of how we’re going to create a sustainable business.”

Dahlias have been a staple crop for Carolina Flowers. Copus grows multiple varieties, including ‘Cafe au Lait’, ‘Rip City’, ‘Lady Nathalie’, ‘Creve Coeur’, ‘Spartacus’, ‘Sweet Nathalie’, ‘Small World’, and ‘Renate Tozio’, and earlier this year, she received a grant to expand production.

An Alternative to Tobacco

The $6,000 Western North Carolina AgOptions Grant, funded through the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, could lead Carolina Flowers to become the largest dahlia grower in the region.

“With this expansion…we have the potential to really scale our production and reach florists throughout the Southeast,” she explains.

Expanding production, while exciting, is also challenging. In the mountains of North Carolina, wide open fields and flat, tillable acreage are almost impossible to find. Carolina Flowers is spread across four different properties (and counting) and Copus is always on the lookout for additional land suitable for growing flowers.

“When (western North Carolina) was tobacco country, farmers were growing tobacco in whatever flat spot was available, so there were small fields on the side of the road, near cell towers, behind their houses, and in other crazy places where you would never think to plant anything,” she explains.  “There isn’t much tobacco being grown anymore but a lot of people still want their land to be farmed and I’m always looking for opportunities to create relationships and expand the farm.”

Forging relationships with other growers has also helped Copus generate additional opportunities for Carolina Flowers. In addition to selling her blooms at the Asheville City Market, offering a CSA subscription, hosting flower arranging workshops, leading farm tours and providing design services and cut flowers ranging from tulips, gladiolus, and delphinium to poppies, lilies, and sunflowers for weddings and events, Copus created a loose collective of dahlia growers who come together to fill bulk orders.

“By getting all of the small growers together, we can fill large orders on a weekly basis during dahlia season…and making a wholesale outlet available to smaller growers…that can help stabilize the market,” she explains. “It’s been really inspiring for me to find ways for the women who are growing flowers in my community to work together to make more money and create more opportunities. I hope, going forward, that I can find more ways to collaborate because I think that’s the future of our industry.”

Jodi Helmer

Freelance Writer

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