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Flower Farmer Interview-January Edition

One of the main goals that I have in creating this blog is to introduce and educate my community on locally grown flowers.

I also have a goal, once a month throughout 2018, to introduce my readers to other flower farmers from around the U.S. All of these men and women are inspiring to me and all have a unique and inspiring business model.

For our first Flower Farmer interview I would like to introduce you to Michelle Elston. Michelle is located in Carlisle PA (almost in our back yard) and is the owner of Roots Cut Flower Farm. She is a wife and mom of two. I am really excited to visit Michelle's farm this summer and have the chance to meet her in person.

Your farm, Roots Cut Flower Farm, is located not to far from us in Carlisle, PA. Tell us the history of your farm and what made you decide to follow this path.

I've always been a plant nut, studied it in college, etc. My husband & I moved to Amherst MA after college for him to attend grad school. We stumbled into buying a garden center there, and stayed for 9 years. Our son Jake was born along the way, and I realized that 1) a store that's open 7 days a week is similar to having a child & we weren't prepared to have two needy infants at the same time! and 2) we wanted to raise our family close to family Roots- we were 4 hours away from any family. SO, we were able to hire a business broker & sell our garden center. We moved to PA, close to my family Roots, just after Jake turned 3. Time and space opened up at that point for me to pursue this dream of starting a flower farm.

Honestly, I never imagined this farm to be the size it is today! My vision was of me with a couple of kiddos, going to a farmers market or two. We've been incredibly blessed with the enthusiastic response of local people to our flowers. I'd love to say we're just implementing a carefully laid out business plan, but that's not the case! I do love to say YES as much as possible in life; and when we've seen business opportunities for Roots, we try to say YES as much as is realistic.

You are a mom to two kiddos. What tips do you have to those moms out there who are trying to juggle it all?

First, my favorite thing to remember is that balance is an imagined middle class pursuit. There is no true balance in life. You give everything to 1-2 things at a time and then you shift your attention to a few other things...Kids need pretty much all of you when they are young. I am truly thankful that my farm was small when my kids were small; if I'd had kids after this farm was bigger, I think I would have really struggled with the two competing things.

Also, I've really come to terms with the fact that I am happier, and therefore a better mom, when I'm working. Time away from my kids, immersed in something else, makes me more content and more emotionally available to them when I am with them. Early on, Roots was pretty much just paying for childcare! However, Mike & I decided that that was really important for my sanity & our family's well being.

Did you start out with the intent of designing weddings or solely being a grower and selling at markets and grocery stores?

I'd always imagined having design being some part of our work here.

What do you find keeps you "sane" during that late summer stretch when burnout wants to creep in?

Mostly, I just focus on the changes that are inevitable. I love love change (why I love cut flowers- they die & you need to arrange new ones!). Our longest stretch is our supermarket bouquet season, which is about 15 weeks long. It's a very intense stretch, but I try to keep my focus on what's ahead so I don't get bored.

I do love this job! Farming is never boring to me -there are way too many changing variables, and there's way too much more to learn. I'm not sure mastery is a term in farming.

I am learning to use my strengths and find help in my weak areas. What strengths/weaknesses do you find that you have?

My biggest weakness is my introversion. A ground-breaking change we made last year was to hire Erin, my buffer and assistant. She's an amazing communicator, and is able to get back to customers way more quickly than I had been. Her amazing aptitude at this job has truly made a world of difference for the amount of pressure I feel, in regards to customer service.

I still really struggle with wanting to control every aspect of this farm. However, as it grows, I absolutely recognize that I may be the main barrier to growth. Delegation and empowerment of my staff is stressful to me at first...but then I see how it allows the farm to grow & it is so worth it! It has been a new, fun & challenging aspect of my job to figure out how to successfully communicate our standards and goals so that my staff can run with them.

What personal and business goals do you have in the next 5 years?

Personally, I am constantly pursuing (and failing) at self-care. At 41, I'm already noticing how my body is completely tired at the end of each season. Every year, I have a goal of exercising year-round, even during our busiest times...haven't met that goal yet, but I keep trying!

For Roots, I am focused on sustainability. Even last year (our 11th) we grew 45%. That's a LOT for an established business, and we've seen growth of 30-50% each year. I want to define what an ideal size is for this farm, and be willing to stay there- even in the face of exciting new opportunities.

What is one piece of advice that you have for someone who is just starting out in the industry?

Be willing to do the time! Being a good farmer and florist takes a long long time of learning, sweat &

experience. Don't expect to be big right away- and never expect to get it all right! Put in lots of time reading. Visit farms when you can. And, absolutely, positively, you MUST join the ASCFG. Your membership is truly worth every penny.

Thank you so much Michelle for taking time out of your busy schedule and we wish you the best in your 2018 growing season!

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