People who work with flowers choose a profession filled with beauty, but flower grower Hedda Brorstrom contends that her blossoms are more than just pretty. They reflect plants that have been grown locally and sustainably to protect the health and management of the land, the farmworkers and the environment.
While this idea arguably is mainstream as it relates to food, she and others of like mind aim to make it public knowledge that sustainable and local flower production is just as important.
“When you tell the story of flowers, the most common response is, ‘I’ve never even thought about that,’ ” says Brorstrom, owner of Full Bloom Flower Farm in Graton.
She’s referring to the path most conventional cut flowers take before they land in a vase on your kitchen table. Amy Stewart, author of “Flower Confidential,” and others who have examined the production of most conventional bouquets describe loose international labor and environmental regulations, pesticides and fumigation to preserve the flowers while they are being shipped, packaged and repackaged. Often, the flowers “are beaten up and resemble corpses by the time they get to florists,” Brorstrom said.
She started her flower farm in April 2012, armed with a degree in conservation resource studies from UC Berkeley and a certificate in ecological horticulture from UC Santa Cruz. She believes growing flowers is a ceremonial act that “brings together love and medicine.” Needless to say, she does not apply chemicals to her fields.
She also considers herself a “pollinator farmer” who grows flowers to host bees, butterflies and other insects who carry pollen from plant to plant. In fact, her farm is a haven to pipevine swallowtail butterflies, which lay their eggs on her sprawling, flowering pipevine every spring.
When Brorstrom moved back to her childhood farm in Graton in 2012 after working as a garden educator in San Francisco public schools, she was one of only a few Sonoma County farmers primarily growing flowers. A handful farmed in the area in the 1990s, but, as Brorstrom explained, many of them went out of business with the rise of cheaper floral imports.
Gleaning as much knowledge from these veterans as she could, Brorstrom started experimenting with flowers that could fill some of the gaps left by imported blossoms. She grew interesting foliage and grasses like seeded eucalyptus and “ruby silk,” and dahlias and zinnias that don’t ship well or have a long shelf life but make wonderful fresh cut flowers. And she insists on a fair market price for these items, because even varieties that look “wild” are actually cultivated over years of trial and error.
She also makes a point to use unusual items in her arrangements, things like moss, fruits, vegetables and succulents that result in bouquets that are not “conventional lollipops.”
After a few years of working with flowers on her own, Brorstrom reached out to other farmers through the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center and the Farmers Guild. She began to meet other people who shared her passion for flowers.
Unlike vegetable farmers who typically grow only nine or 10 types of crops, these flower growers could relate to the idea that they must grow upward of 200 varieties to be competitive in the floral market. In the spring of 2014, Brorstrom invited a small group of local flower growers and designers to her farm for an evening meal to discuss pricing and growing methods, and the North Bay Flower Collective was born. Members’ goal is to support one another by pooling resources and building an alliance.
Their local, sustainable ethos quickly attracted others who were looking to cooperate, including Nichole Skalski, another butterfly-inspired flower lover who owns west county-based California Sister Floral Design Co.
Skalski grew up in a family of ranchers in Valley Ford and Tomales and, after trying her hand at pig and cattle ranching, decided flowers were more her speed. She always loved flowers and, in December 2013, she made a career change and opened a floral design studio, using local and sustainably grown flowers whenever possible.
During her lifetime, Skalski has seen the growth of Sonoma County’s population and its popularity as a tourist destination. The changes have inspired her to provide another way to bolster the local economy while keeping it agriculturally diverse.
As she and Brorstrom explain, a local flower industry supports not only the growers but also the local businesses and food farmers they rely on.
“The local movement is the answer to avoiding imports,” Skalski said.
Skalski also was interested in the idea of a larger local flower market, like those in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. She said that when she went to her first collective meeting, she realized the “glaringly obvious” need for this in Sonoma County. “This is happening today, so I might as well jump in,” she said.
The Sonoma County Flower Mart opened in May, based out of the F.E.E.D. distribution headquarters at The Barlow in Sebastopol. It’s currently only for wholesalers, but eventually will be open to the public.
Skalski said she sees the Mart as a way to “bridge the gap between farming and the flower community.” She is diligently establishing relationships with local growers, serving as a cohesive member of the collective and encouraging the air of collaboration through sales of members’ flowers. The focus now is “micro-local,” Skalski said, with products that are almost exclusively organic, although a broader market base is necessary to support a 100 percent organic Mart.
To educate the public and raise awareness, the 30-member North Bay Flower Collective will hold its first annual Flower Festival from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 20, at Front Porch Farm, 2550 Rio Lindo Ave., Healdsburg. It will be the collective’s formal debut, showcasing members’ flowers and skills, offering DIY workshops for brides and aspiring floral designers, along with kids’ activities, music and local food and drink. Info: nbflowercollective.com.
Ariana Reguzzoni is a West County-based journalist and a member of the North Bay Flower Collective.