In late February I had the pleasure of hosting the ASCFG’s first ever Virtual Growers’ School. Admittedly, I hate “virtual” things. Our country internet is feeble at best, and I simply prefer genuine human interaction. That said, I appreciate that we were able to pull off a Growers’ School in the midst of a pandemic, that attendees weren’t limited by their ability to travel, and that the course could be taken at a slower pace, giving more time for the material to sink in.

Our speakers were all very candid, genuine, and informative, but one moment is still sticking with me. In a closing panel discussion, we were answering the question, “What should a new grower invest in first?” Solid answers such as a cooler, soil health, perennials, and deer fencing were given, but Ellen Polishuk answered “a therapist.” If you’ve had the pleasure of hearing Ellen speak, you know she doesn’t mince words. It wasn’t the answer we were expecting, but was probably the answer we all needed to hear. Just as your soil health has a direct bearing on the success of your farm, your mental health is crucial to the health of the farmer and your long-term success.

In our early years of farming we bought into the notion that you have to be physically and mentally exhausted at all times or else you are farming wrong. So we worked from dawn to dark trying to launch our flower farm/bakery/goat dairy empire all the while raising vegetables, pigs, lambs, and poultry for homestead use. We were on food stamps as every one of our very few pennies went to fund some part of the operation. At several points each season we would hit the proverbial wall where you question your life’s choices and try to find some way to keep on keeping on for another day.

In retrospect I can see that we were doing too much. We didn’t have a clear business plan or direction. We weren’t realistic about our own physical capacity, and were in complete denial of our mental health needs. Over time we streamlined the business and hired help, but still operated on that fine line where the smallest bump could derail everything. A late-night email from a bride wanting to discuss something as insignificant as the ribbon color on the flower girl basket could bring me to literal tears.

I now know that I was dealing with garden variety anxiety. I had plenty of friends in therapy and I didn’t view therapy negatively, I just didn’t think I needed it. And then one day the workload, the weather, the bugs, the bills, the staff, the customers, and the nonstop grind just got to me. I just sat down in the barn and didn’t know what to do to make any of it better. So I got some help. I have to say everything has been better since then. I’m a better husband. I’m a better boss. I’m better to myself. I have a clearer head with which to make better growing and business decisions. I’m more compassionate to others when I sense they may be struggling. Ellen was spot on. I had missed one of the most crucial pieces of the puzzle—my own wellbeing.

I opened the first session of the Growers’ School by stating my opinion that despite what some will tell you, most of the time flower farming is neither easy nor reliably profitable. There is a fair amount of fantasy and fiction surrounding what we do. I always encourage new growers to take it slow and gain one skill at a time. This is a tough field that draws on horticultural skill, marketing prowess, business savvy, and a keen understanding of the international floral trade (yes, this directly affects your business). If you start by becoming the best cut flower gardener you can be, you will experience the most rewarding part of growing flowers, and you can make a more sane transition into business if that feels like the logical next step. Gardening is a magnificent hobby, and I have a hunch that many new growers feel like they have to justify their new hobby by monetizing it.

The main reason I encourage people to start off slow is that you can quickly overwhelm yourself if you try to do too much without a good foundation. Failures are guaranteed in farming and it’s how you respond and move on that will determine your success. So while you are learning about seed starting, soil health, postharvest strategies, business, marketing, and all of the other pieces to this occupation, take the time to look inward and learn a little more about yourself. Don’t be afraid of getting help. It’s like compost for the mind.

Bailey Hale

Ardelia Farm & Co.

Contact him at [email protected]