Cultivating Change: The Impact of Locally Grown Cut Flowers in the Adirondacks and Beyond
The United States, particularly California, was once a leading producer of cut flowers that were sold internationally. Today, 80 percent of cut flowers in the US are imported from other countries, primarily South America and Africa.
In 1991 the US was cracking down on the coca trade and enacted the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) which provided duty-free imports to certain South American products such as live plants and flowers. For US flower growers, this led to a significant decline in their share of the US market, with market shares dropping from 64% to about 20% in 2007. While some US businesses have benefited from expanded trade, US flower farmers have not. The international cut-flower trade is a $36.4 billion industry.
Not only are we outsourcing a job that farmers in the US can fulfill, but there is also a huge environmental impact of how flowers are grown and shipped internationally. The production of cut flowers often involves the use of large amounts of water, pesticides, and other chemicals. These chemicals can contaminate water sources and harm the health of workers and nearby communities.
In addition, the transportation of cut flowers around the world has a significant carbon footprint and contributes to climate change. The industry often involves exploitative labor practices, with workers in developing countries being paid very low wages and subjected to poor working conditions. Consumers who are concerned about the environmental and social impacts of the cut flower industry are increasingly seeking out locally grown and sustainably produced flowers as an alternative. You can read much more about the global cut flower industry in Flower Confidential by Amy Stewart.
Smaller, cut-flower farms have been on the rise across the US, including in the Adirondack region. Due to increased awareness of local food and environmental sustainability, the market for smaller cut flower farmers has expanded. Also, the availability of climate-control technology has made it possible to grow flowers even in colder climates like the Adirondacks, which typically only sees around 110 frost-free days per year in higher elevations.
Many local flower farmers and florists also cite that working with flowers, while incredibly challenging and unpredictable, has provided them with an outlet for their creativity, entrepreneurship, and a way to find better work-life balance on their own terms.
Just like we try to buy local food to support our local farms, we need to consider locally grown flowers for meaningful occasions in our lives, like weddings, memorials, birthdays and holidays.
Flower Farm Brings Blooms to Saranac Lake
Ellen Beberman has been growing cut flowers on her farm in Vermontville for over 12 years. When Ellen started two small local farmers’ markets with no veggie vendors, Ellen worked to fill the gap. Ellen started with market gardening and selling vegetables but as more locally grown vegetables became available from other farms, the need for her services decreased. However, since no one was selling locally grown flowers, Ellen saw an opportunity. She began growing cut flowers and offering them for sale at her market stand in Tupper Lake and at Paul Smith’s.
Ellen grows most of her flowers on just a one-acre plot of land outside in the elements, with only a small amount of her more cold-hardy flowers grown in her unheated hoop house with row covers. She aims to produce flowers sustainably and manages her crop to avoid using pesticides as much as possible.
Today, growing and selling flowers through Sunwarm Gardens is Ellen’s full-time gig. She primarily grows and designs cut flower bouquets for her market stand at the Saranac Lake Farmers’ Market and her CSA program, which delivers fresh flowers once a week to subscribers. She also provides flowers wholesale to a few local florists and do-it-yourself wedding clients.
Ellen says that many of her market, CSA and wholesale customers choose to buy local flowers because of the unmatched freshness and variety she can offer.
“There are some flowers, like cosmos, that are simply too delicate and can’t be shipped like the roses from Cuba. The flowers that I grow are ephemeral and change every week. I am able to provide a variety of things that other commercial wholesalers might not be able to.”
So why not treat yourself or someone you love to a little bouquet of local flowers at the farmers’ market or co-op? Ellen says, “Buying local flowers doesn’t have to be that expensive; it can be a little luxury. It’s a special thing that you’re going to get that doesn’t have that stiff feeling from those heavy-duty flowers that can withstand shipping. Local bouquets have a sense of lightness. The beauty of flowers is that they don’t last, they are ephemeral, they change in the vase, and then they are gone.” All of Ellen’s work is very of-the-season-and-moment. One week the show-stopper may be lupine, the next peonies, offering people a way to connect with nature and the gradual change of seasons.
Folks in the Tri-Lakes area can join Ellen’s CSA, her flowers are also available at the Saranac Lake Waterfront Farmers’ Market early summer through fall. Cabin Fever Floral and Gifts in Tupper Lake and Bells Flowers in Saranac Lake also sell seasonal arrangements using Ellen’s flowers.
Bell’s Flowers Bridges Art, Ecology, and Sustainability with Floral Design
Floral designer Emily-Bell Dinanof Bell’s Flowers in Saranac Lake works with Ellen to include some of the flowers she grows in her arrangements and bouquets for her clients. Emily-Bell primarily works with couples to design floral arrangements for weddings, but also provides bouquets for other special occasions.
Emily was always intrigued by flowers, especially rare and endangered species, and her formal fine arts training and work in biology and ecology made for the perfect storm to inspire the “Meeting of ecology and visual arts; make art with plants.”
Emily worked in the non-profit environmental sector for 20 years, and on the side always had plant based businesses in her free time. first by doing floral design for weddings of friends and family, then as an independent horticulture venture, doing high-end custom container plantings in Brooklyn and Oregon for backyards and store owners. She says she was “doing environmental education and salmon restoration during the week, and being a secret floral designer on the weekends.”
Emily and her partner moved to Saranac Lake in 2020 for a job in environmental conservation. After continuing to do both full-time conservation work and part-time floral work, Emily finally decided to make the leap to full-time floral design during the pandemic. She says that she “couldn’t handle the challenges that women face in STEM on top of all of the other challenges the pandemic threw at us.” Instead, Emily started to lay a track for her own small business to have a better work-life balance when she and her husband welcomed their daughter into the world last year. The more Emily dug into doing floral design in the area, she saw room for what she brought to the table. She planned on using her first year to just build her portfolio but kept getting bookings for weddings from clients that were looking for something unique and local.
Today Emily has made floral work her full-time venture with Bell’s Flowers, a floral design business that services the greater Tri-Lakes area. Emily has put sustainability at the core of her work using locally grown flowers, composting scraps, avoiding using single-use plastics and floral foam and working to reduce the overall carbon footprint of her work.
Sourcing locally, regionally, and intentionally is an important part of Emily’s work. She says that “Industrially grown flowers usually come from Ecuador and Colombia and don’t have regulations on them like food does, so there is an incredible amount of herbicides and pesticides used to grow those flowers. And the impacts are significant on workers, who are usually women, and cause things like birth defects and breast cancer.”
And the quality is significantly higher too. Emily says that flowers grown closer to where they are used in design “Look better, and are higher quality.”
Emily works hard to source blooms from local farms, like Sunwarm Gardens in Saranac Lake, Mossbrook Roots Flower Farm and Florist in Keeseville, and Understory Farm in Vermont and Tabletop Farms in Lake Placid..
In order for floral designers like Emily to be successful in offering locally grown flowers for their arrangements, she relies on the incredibly detailed planning and talent of local farmers who make sure a certain flower, in a certain color, will be ready within the week they are needed, in the quantity needed. Emily says that she works with clients to adjust their vision to what’s in season, using dried flowers and using unusual items like evergreens and fruit when needed to create the vibe the couple is going for.
When using local blooms isn’t an option, Emily works with Green Mountain Floral Supply out of Burlington, a company that prioritizes US-grown flowers produced in Florida and California. Emily also grows some of the florals she uses in her backyard garden; she has a big plot full of a dozen varieties of zinnias, dahlias, and herbs like mint, rosemary, and basil that add an aromatic experience to her designs.
Emily recognizes the high price tag on local, sustainable floral design for weddings. She says “Wedding flowers are essentially ceremonial decorations; they are never going to serve a practical purpose. They are filling a spiritual purpose.”
At the end of the day, what drives Emily is making a meaningful connection with people through plants, and making people happy through plants.
Local Flowers Lead the Next Chapter for Family Farm
Leah McDaniel grew up on her family farm, Black Sheep Barn and Gardens, in West Chazy, NY where they grew organic veggies and cut flowers for farmers’ markets in the area.
Leah is self-taught, with a background in Art and Biology. She has taken workshops throughout the US to get a deeper understanding of floral design and work with more “exotic” flowers that drew her interest.
Leah returned to the area and began the next generation for her family farm about 8 years ago. Her business is called Black Swan Floral Design and she primarily does floral design for weddings throughout the Adirondacks, Vermont, and Upstate New York.
Leah says, “Now, I can really appreciate the hardiness and quality of locally grown flowers. The colors of florals that grow here fit together for a reason, they fit with the environment around them.”
Leah grows some florals on her property in Plattsburgh NY, primarily specialty bulbs, perennials and flowering trees like cherry and apple blossoms, and serviceberry. But Leah mostly works with local farms to grow the flowers for her, such as Understory Farm in Bridport, Vermont which specializes in wholesale flower production, selling to a specific customer list of wholesale floral artists and designers in the area. She says that working with local farmers is one way that her work can “support our rural communities, and help them be vibrant and thriving.”
Leah works hard to offer her signature designs with the smallest carbon footprint possible. But, she says, it’s not easy, and “in Zone 4a, it’s tricky to get a specific look with a limited amount of options. The weddings that get featured in magazines are in California because they have an abundance of different species to use.”
Leah explains that many of her clients come to the area for destination weddings, and that she is able to give them the upscale “Adirondack-y” look because of her use of local florals and greenery. It’s not just important to her and her clients to buy from local, sustainable, small flower farms, but it’s a strategic design choice too. Most of the clients Leah works with are very “floral focused”, and aren’t just getting wedding flowers because they feel like they “have to” have them.
Leah’s style is sophisticated, curated, artful, whimsical, and intentional. She loves spring flowers like pansies, ranunculus, daffodils, hellebore, and using branches in her work like apple and cherry blossoms. Leah also emphasizes the impact of strategic “filler” flowers, like yarrow and phlox, saying “It’s those little guys that make it for me.”
Black Swan Floral Design has been a way for Leah to write the next chapter for her family in a way that both merged her interests and was sustainable. Now, she gets to be a bridge helping clients use their destination weddings to support local farms and Adirondack communities.
Leah says, “It’s so important for people to know how much time, blood, sweat and tears go into growing flowers. Support your community and the farmers that put so much work into it. People have such a closed view on flowers. We need to be rethinking when we want them, and when we need them.
Overall, eating and buying locally is better for everyone involved, the ecosystem, communities, everyone.”
Find Locally Grown Flowers
Find retail and wholesale flower farms, farmers’ markets and more at adirondackharvest.com.
Tips for Keeping Your Local Flower Bouquet Fresh at Home
By Ellen Beberman of Sunwarm Gardens
- Open the bundle of flowers, strip off any brown leaves, and cut ½” off each stem with clean shears
- Arrange the flowers in a clean container with 2-4” of fresh water
- Keep arrangements out of the sun, preferably in a cool location
- Every 3-4 days, remove flowers, rinse container, cut ½” from stems, and replace in clean fresh water
- If available, use flower food as directed to keep water free of bacteria and provide nutrients for flowers
-Mary Godnick is the Communication Coordinator for Adirondack Harvest and CCE Essex.