Just in Time for Valentine’s Day: Introducing Farm-to-Table’s Pretty, Flowery Cousin

While you’re stocking up on natural wine, grass-fed steak, and fair-trade chocolates, be sure to buy a sustainable bouquet too.

(Photo: Flickr)

Feb 12, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

This Valentine’s Day in a jewelry boutique in Brooklyn, New York, sprawling bouquets of local anemones, ranunculus, tulips, and flowering quince will be sold alongside vintage baubles. It’s one-stop gift shopping for the sweetheart who, beginning to see the double standard in serving a grass-fed steak dinner for two alongside imported roses, is seeking out sustainably sourced flowers.

The carbon footprint of the $30 billion floral industry is big. The United States Department of Agriculture reports that 80 percent of cut flowers are imported, resulting in increased shipping emissions and packaging waste—in addition to worker exploitation and heavy use of pesticides on industrial flower farms, as the Los Angeles Times reported. For advocates of the local food movement, the perils of imported flowers may sound oddly familiar.

And so the field-to-vase movement, sometimes called slow flowers, is following in the footsteps of farm-to-table. The number of cut-flower growers in the U.S. is, well, growing, and the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers recently reported record membership numbers. Some flower farmers, such as Molly Culver—both the farm manager at Brooklyn’s The Youth Farm and the proprietor of a sustainable floral design company, Molly Oliver Flowers—are actively participating in both movements.

“People are actually starting to connect the dots and realize, ‘Oh, flowers are something that grow as well. Where do they grow? And who is growing them?’ ” she said. Purchasing a bouquet of imported flowers—which are grown primarily in Ecuador, Colombia, Vietnam, and Ethiopia, among other places—weaves a web of thorny issues, from labor and women’s rights to safety in the workplace, Culver explained.

“The price that we pay for most of the flowers at our fingertips is not reflective of the actual cost involved,” she said, echoing what critics of the industrial food system have long said about deceptively cheap food.

“Flowers are just another tool through which we can talk about and educate people about our food system, our flower industry, and to talk about equality issues and labor rights issues,” Culver added.

The Youth Farm was the first grower in New York City to offer a flower CSA, and the 60-plus varieties flourishing there have been a financial boon to the one-acre farm, hinting at an interesting model for other urban farms where space is at a premium.

“The flowers actually command a pretty high value per square foot, mainly because they pump out a lot of blooms over the season,” Culver said.You could grow a head of broccoli or cauliflower in a square foot, but you’d only get that one cut off of that one plant. If a flower or several flowers are planted in that same square foot, they’re going to continuously pump out blooms for you, often for a good number of weeks, if not months.” At The Youth Farm, the floral harvest begins in early April with daffodils, narcissus, and sweet peas and continues through the final flower pick in mid-November. Not only do the blooms help pull in some extra cash, but they also support the farm by drawing bees and other pollinators to the property.

Debra Prinzing, author of The 50 Mile Bouquet and the creator of Slow Flowers, a directory of more than 400 floral farmers, designers, and shops that are bringing American-grown flowers to the marketplace (she also hosts a podcast of the same name), has also observed the added value flowers can bring to a farm.

“For a lot of CSA farmers, they might have an unplanted row alongside the vegetables and they plant some sunflowers or zinnias, and they take those to the market or put them in their CSA boxes, and the response is so positive that it’s like the gateway drug: ‘Oh, we’ve got to grow more,’ ” she told A Way to Garden.

For those growing flowers, the blooms offer more than a practical role as pollinator, moneymaker, and antidote to the industrial floral system, Culver said.

“We certainly consider ourselves [at The Youth Farm] as part of the food justice movement, and a big part of that is access to fresh food grown locally,” she said. ”But we still sing the praises of growing flowers because we consider it food for the soul.”

And, one could argue, for romance too.