Updated: Jan 6
What is the rhythm of a small-scale specialty farm like Eleusinia Flowers?
I want to tell you what it’s like to actually (physically) work a farm, what it feels like emotionally, what occupies my thoughts on a day-to-day–or even smaller scale–basis. The rhythm of the place–its nature. I think that’s important to understanding not only what we do here at our own farm, but also to understanding the ethos of a growing movement to grow flowers at small scale, close to their final consumer. What we are trying to achieve feels simple and massive at once, like an acorn.
Some days I am a beast of the field. I place plants, I tend them, and I harvest them. At other times, I brush against the realization that we are trying to do no less than buck a massive, well-established industry and, even more entrenched, a mindset. A careless mindset.
We are familiar with the logical underpinnings of the farm-to-table movement as it applies to food. We know locally grown food requires less fuel to transport–the lower cost of production means lower costs to consumers and the added benefit of smaller resource expenditure (less fuel, etc). We know that local food movements go hand in hand with organically grown food movements, and that is good because we all want to eat less pesticide. We know that local farms are sometimes smaller farms, and supporting small/local businesses makes sense because it builds community and helps us get to know our neighbors.
The benefits of a local flower movement are no less grand, but they are, I fear, less obvious unless your ear is pressed to the ground of the floriculture industry. Ignorance is bliss, and a flower’s pretty face can belie so much.
Pesticides cause horrific consequences whether they are applied to food or to flowers. But we rarely eat flowers, so our bodily safety doesn’t feel immediately under threat the way it does when we are faced with the prospect of eating a pesticide-ridden cucumber. That pesticides wind up in our mouths when we eat treated tomatoes and lettuce is no less frightening than when they wind up on our skin or in our water when they are sprayed on flower fields, however. Consuming these chemicals via our foods is so viscerally revolting, it’s easy to reject their use on foodstuffs, as easy as turning away a beaker of poison. But with non edible crops, we have to think about the wider impact. Take a look at this section included on the label for Lannate, one of the most commonly used pesticides in floriculture:
This pesticide is toxic to fish, aquatic invertebrates, and
mammals. Do not apply directly to water or to areas where
surface water is present or to intertidal areas below the mean
highwater mark. Drift and runoff may be hazardous to aquatic
organisms in neighboring areas. Do not contaminate water
when disposing of equipment washwater or rinsate.
This product is highly toxic to bees exposed to direct treatment
on blooming crops or weeds. Do not apply this product or
allow it to drift to blooming crops or weeds while bees are
actively visiting the treatment area.
This chemical is known to leach through soil into ground-
water under certain conditions as a result of label use. Use of
this chemical in areas where soils are permeable, particularly
where the water table is shallow, may result in groundwater
This chemical can contaminate surface water through spray
drift. Under some conditions, it may also have a high potential
for runoff into surface water for several days to weeks after
application. These include poorly draining or wet soils with
readily visible slopes toward adjacent surface waters,
frequently flooded areas, areas overlaying extremely shallow
groundwater, areas with in-field canals or ditches that drain to
surface water, areas not separated from adjacent surface waters
with vegetated filter strips, and areas overlaying tile drainage
systems that drain to surface water.
I’ve reproduced the Environmental Hazards section of this label here, but you can also access the full label at this link. Here’s the label for a few other frequently employed pesticides: Mesurol, Vydate, and Brigade. Read these–or any others–and you will see verbatim or almost verbatim statements. These are EPA approved insecticides, and many products with the same active ingredients are available at your hardware store. They target “pests” in the air and below the soil line, effectively killing the entire ecosystem around the plant.
The proper use of these chemicals is poorly enforced around the world. Imagine treating your own garden with an insecticide. Maybe it’s a liquid and you need to dilute it. So, you pick a watering can to mix it up. You apply the liquid, and you go to rinse the can. Where does that rinsewater go? Do you even think of it as contaminated? Now multiply that action a thousandfold each day, every year, and now you're getting a sense of chemical runoff in agriculture. And, should a farm exist next to a waterway (like ours), how much bigger is the concern?
Why use these chemical insecticides (or fertilizers) at all? Flowers grow without aid throughout the world, so what’s so different about floriculture? It’s about protecting an investment and maximizing product. Farms–no matter their size–attempt to minimize the risk of crop failure. Large farms must tightly control any factors that may lead to crop loss: rot, mites, anything caused by “pests” (leaf damage, eaten petals, discoloration, etc), too-short stems, and on and on. Did you ever notice how cookie cutter perfect a bunch of grocery store flowers appears? Sometimes those flowers are even dyed to ensure they look a certain way. When you place them next to a patch of wild flowers, they don’t even look related.
We are in the business of flowers, too, and we strive for perfection. Our stems are as uniform, tall, and blemish free as we can make them. But how they become that way is radically different–opposite, practically, when compared to chemical-heavy agriculture. Rather than eliminate life around the plant, we try to foster it. We preserve and nurture the living web of life beneath the soil–nematodes, worms, bacteria, mycorrhizae, bugs–everything “good” and “bad”. The same applies above-ground. We ensure there’s abundant habitat for birds and small mammals to eat bugs. Our refusal to apply pesticides means predatory insect helpers remain alive, too, like mantises, ladybugs, and assassin bugs. (We’re not above going on a rampage against Japanese Beetles, but as an invasive species without a natural predator, it sometimes takes a little elbow grease to get the job done). Competition ensures protection.
We feed our plants. Not with chemical fertilizers but with mulch and compost. Leaves stripped from the bottoms of stems go right back on the ground from whence they came–nutrients are taken up, then go back in. “Feed your brother!” I say happily as I fling poorly faring seedlings onto the ground as we plant out stronger prospects. We add organic amendments when they are needed, and only then. We pick which ones we want: blood meal for nitrogen, rock phosphate for potassium. Not an indiscriminate, overpowered blend. We pay attention to micronutrients. In 2023, we have plans to experiment with new fertilizers developed from weeds plucked around the farm.
We don’t plant so much. We don’t cram things in until its so crowded air can’t even circulate to the bottom of the stems. In all respects, we try not to be greedy and stay a little weedy. It keeps the plants happy and discourages problems.
Oh goodness. There’s so much to say. Being a farmer and a business person–even in the off season–is an act of balancing so many things, and I’m getting pulled away for now. I haven’t at all done what I started out to do, which was to tell you what it’s like to farm at Eleusinia Flowers. But these concerns are things I think about daily. I really do think about the differences between large scale floriculture and our type of operation every single day. After all, it’s a huge source of pride, and the reassuring knowledge that we do things the way we do is a small mental buffer against a sometimes overwhelming feeling of helplessness in the face of climate destruction.
What I’d really like some of this longer-form content to do is change people’s mind about flowers. They are such a special part of our lives, often used to mark joyous or important occasions. They are beautiful. But I don’t want their cost to be so high. It doesn’t sit with me that this beauty utterly wrecks marine environments or wild bee populations, which are also beautiful and with us every day, not just the special ones. What I secretly want is for any time someone walks into a florist is to ask if they sell any locally and sustainably grown flowers, but that might take some convincing and some education. Which will take time. It’s so urgent, but it will take time.