Dhalia May Flower Farm
Flowers have always been a vital part of Melanie Harrington’s life, and not only do they continue to be her passion, but also her thriving business.
Harrington owns the bounteous and beautiful Dahlia May Flower Farm, nestled in the lush Murray Hills near Codrington, where she grows and sells a delightfully effervescent collection of gloriously colourful, uniquely enchanting and breathtakingly fragrant flowers which are sold at area farmers’ markets or, increasingly at the farm gate.
The flower farm began modestly in 2014 when Harrington took over the property after her father passed away. The family had not only grown crops and reared animals on their farmland, but also had row upon row of fresh flowers, which Melanie’s parents would sell at the farmers’ market in Trenton, becoming a popular staple of the summer season.
“They did that until I was about seven but then my dad wasn’t able to keep up with it because he also worked a factory job. We quit selling at the market, but we always had these ridiculously big gardens because my dad wasn’t used to doing anything on a small scale,” Harrington said, adding that those carefree childhood days of helping her parents cultivate the flowers imbued a deep love for the process of planting, growing and nurturing flowers.
Life Is Short, Do What You Love
Eventually, she went on to study horticulture and floral design at Loyalist College as well as taking a course in flower farming and design at Floret Flower Farm and worked for several years at local greenhouses and flower shops.
“When my dad passed away I was working at a flower shop and I was feeling that life is really short and I should be doing something that I really love. And I wasn’t loving working at the flower shop; I felt there was just such a big disconnect in where we were getting our flowers and how we were selling them. It started to feel like just a commodity, like buying the cheapest imported flowers that we could and then selling them for the highest price that we could and getting in the same product all the time regardless of the season. It’s not why I wanted to get into working with flowers. So, I quit my full-time job and moved back to the farm where I grew up, with my husband,” Harrington said.
“I thought, ‘okay, I will just start with what I know which is how to grow flowers and we will just see where that takes us.’ I started by growing a really big garden one year and it went well. I decided to sell the flowers locally at the farmers’ market in Trenton where my parents vended years ago and it just sort of took off. I think because I have a flower shop background and am able to present things beautifully, it worked. But it really was a trial period that first year as I figured out what I wanted to do.
I had hoped to open my own flower shop actually, but the timing wasn’t right. My mom was sick, and my husband’s dad had Alzheimer’s Disease so for family reasons I realized I needed to do something a little more flexible. Therefore, I grew all the flowers and sold them at the market, and eventually right here at the farm. At the same time, I was really falling back in love with my work again. Working seasonally and getting my hands dirty and growing the flowers is what I am supposed to be doing.”
Farming, Family and Unique Offerings
Harrington’s flower operations are on about an acre and a half of land, which includes a workshop for her husband’s woodworking business, the farm house where they live and a 60 foot by 20 foot greenhouse. Down the road, there is an 80-acre plot of land which she rents out to a local farmer who grows cash crops on it. Within the greenhouse, and in the seasonal gardens, Harrington has curated an array of flowers one would normally not find in the average flower shop.
“What we grow here on the farm are really beautiful items that don’t ship well. They are not varieties that traditional wholesalers are offering. Within the commercial flower industry, most of the flowers are grown in Ecuador and are sprayed with some pretty heavy chemicals to help them last over the weeklong trip up to Canada. So, I have some beautiful, delicate varieties of flowers. Dahlias are a crop that we grow extensively, and they are absolutely beautiful flowers which, again, don’t ship well,” she explained.
“What we specialize in growing are those really unique and unusual items that you wouldn’t find anywhere else that have really beautiful and distinctive qualities about them. There are lots of scented varieties as well. We put a lot of different herbs in the bouquets, such as mint or lemon balm or scented geraniums, to add that extra element. The more that flowers have been bred commercially for that long journey to the flower shop, the more that qualities such as scent are bred out of them. The wonderful thing about local flowers is they have that special element of just smelling so lovely and looking more distinctive.”
Growing A Business While Growing Flowers
While Harrington has done weddings, she said she is phasing out that aspect of the business as she concentrates on selling fresh cut flowers, arrangements and bouquets from her property – something that is proving to be very successful, as it allows people the opportunity to actually come and see where and how the flowers are grown and to talk to the person growing them.
“I want to connect the people in the Quinte region with where their flowers are grown and how they are being grown. It’s the same way as understanding how your food is produced and sold. I want them to come out to the farm and see how things are produced here and ask questions. Having done quite a bit of travel in Europe, I really love the little flower stands that make flowers just so accessible and which are everywhere in Europe. Customers can come and purchase reasonably priced local flowers easily. So we have taken that model and we host an on-farm flower market every weekend, typically Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. People can come out to our farm stand and it will be full of freshly harvested flowers. They can purchase them by the stem, they can purchase them by the bunch and we also have bouquets and special arrangements that they can purchase,” she explained, adding that she only takes the month of January off from hosting these markets.
Like most agricultural enterprises, the cost of doing business is always a significant challenge, especially if one wants to grow the operation. Harrington has certainly found this truth out first hand, even though she follows organic growing practices to the letter.
“Farming is really expensive. It takes a lot of labour, it takes equipment and facilities, it takes time and it takes so much money in purchasing seeds and tubers and things like that. And it’s not really something I factored in when I started with the simple idea of planting some seeds and growing some flowers. I have found that it is anything but easy; it takes a lot of money to make that happen. So, cash flow has always been the problem, in terms of getting everything we need for the farm and the greenhouse,” she said.
“And the business has grown to the point where we need a heated greenhouse, but then how do you get the capital to build it? It’s a constant struggle, and we have been self-funding for the last four years. When I began, I approached banks regarding a business loan for start up, and as soon as you say the word farming, banks are not interested in giving you loans. We sold a piece of property that we had and used that to fund the start up. But we have grown so much and achieved so much that we are at this stage of our business where we need to make a big investment. We need a heated greenhouse, we need a couple more unheated greenhouses and we need to build a walk-in cooler. We need a larger studio space, we have outgrown just about everything that we have – all of which is good in the sense that it means we are very successful, but it’s still a huge challenge to take it to the next level.”
Grow Your Passion
But Harrington is not one to shy away from a challenge. The reward she gets from planting and cultivating flowers and creating her unique floral designs is spiritual and emotional as much as it is financial.
“I saw my father pass away at 59. We grew up farming together, but he also had that factory job which he did for 30 years. He had all these plans for when he retired, but then I realized that’s not how life works. Sometimes we don’t get to do those things. My parents were married and farmed together for five years and then they had me, their only child. When I was a year old, my mom became critically ill with cancer and, long story short, she has been hospitalized ever since. So, my parents had plans, but hers ended when she was 29. And then my father passing away at 59 gave me a sense that life is short, we are not guaranteed any tomorrows,” Harrington said, speaking of her motivation to invest her time, talent and energy into Dahlia May Flower Farm.
“If we want to do something, we’ve got a limited time, so we’d better go for it. It’s really easy to have big ideas of what you want to do, but it’s a lot harder to put them into practice. But it’s a lot more rewarding when you do. And my story is unique, my passion for this business is unique. I know there are other people that grow flowers and there are better growers than myself for sure, but what I have been good at is telling my story, telling my customers about why they should care about my locally grown flowers. And I will always share my story because it’s a journey that they are investing in.”
For more information visit http://www.dahliamayflowerfarm.com.