What a Bloomin’ Life!
Sometimes life takes you in directions you never anticipated. Both Jennifer Elliott and Luke Franco are classically trained musicians. So how did it come to pass that this year they grew some 85,000 tulips? To find out why, you must roll back the clock more than two decades.
After earning her Master’s in Musicology, Elliott was left wondering what to do with it. Like many emerging artists, she had to supplement her income with a “day job,” in her case in vegetable farming. She had been at it for several years when two-time Olympic skating champion and Westchester County resident Dick Buttons offered her and her jazz-guitarist husband an acre of land to use for growing flowers and vegetables.
Thus was born Tiny Hearts Farm. The first few years offered challenges for the would-be farmers but eventually they succumbed to the magic of growing flowers and switched to their exclusive production by the third year. It soon became clear that to sustainably grow the variety and quality of flowers that they envisioned, more space and a better farm infrastructure were needed.
In 2014 they saw an opportunity in Copake NY where the Copake Agricultural Center, a group of investors, had put together 192-acres of land to preserve farmland and incubate new farm businesses. In addition to flat, open fields where annuals such as zinnias, celosias, cosmos, gomphrena, rudbeckias, marigolds and many other varieties of flowers would thrive, they were attracted by a long-term lease (many perennials take years to establish and make short-term commitments to the land impractical), a vintage farmhouse and a barn where they could pack orders.
Since their move, their fledgling business has exponentially expanded both production and the sophistication of its distribution system. “We started on an acre lot with nothing but a hand-shake lease from Dick Buttons and now we are farming 35 to 40 acres. I can’t believe it myself,” said Franco.
They have also opened a marvelous little florist shop at 2643 State Route 23 in Hillsdale NY where cut flowers are retailed, floral classes are held, CSA portions are distributed to members, and design services are offered for weddings and other special occasions.
“It’s a little jewel box of a building in Hillsdale,” Franco reported. “It’s a celebration of everything floral-related, like a glorified farm stand stocked with things we have grown and fun stuff that is flower related.
Franco said the farm employs an “excellent design team” to assist clients planning special occasions. “Weddings are a big part of our business,” he said. “We have a beautiful studio where we do our wedding work.”
But even in an region that has become a destination for elaborate weddings, it is a business sector that can be vulnerable to upset. “Covid saw it evaporate,” he explained. “One retooling idea we had was to become more transparent. We post everything online, with pictures and pricing information. A lot of people planning events are interested in local sourcing and they want to access information. Posting online is a win-win. It really helps us as farmers, because we’re growing things and not able to do a lot of consultations. And it’s a win for brides and grooms because they can look at the pictures and see what is available in each season and get prices right away.”
In addition to selling products locally, Elliott and Franco make deliveries to clients in the Hudson River Valley, Westchester County and New York City.
This past year, for the first time, the couple had a 12-month production schedule, growing flowers throughout the winter in their greenhouses. “We had flowers for Valentine’s Day, Easter and for Mother’s Day and we will have tons of stuff through the summer,” he said. “We kept our staff busy all year, which felt really good. It’s hard to furlough people and then try rehire them when the season starts again.”
There is a growing awareness of the desirability of buying locally grown organic flowers, according to Franco. Most of the flowers sold through the import market—typically bouquets sold in supermarkets and other such outlets—are grown in South American or overseas where they are treated with pesticides and herbicides. When they pass through U.S. Customs, they are treated with fumigants to kill hitchhiking insects and their stems are dipped in a holding solution.
“Then people buy them and give them as a representation of caring or sentiment and what is the first thing the recipients do? They stick their faces in them to breathe in the scent. People haven’t paid as much attention to what they are putting in the center of their tables as they have to what they are putting on their plates but all the issues surrounding food production exist in the flower-growing community.”
Tiny Hearts is not officially certified as organic but Franco says the farm does not use any product that is not USDA-approved for organic production. And, he argues, organically grown flowers can be as lush and long-lasting as those treated with pesticides and herbicides.
“A lot of what we do is to cut the flower at the right stage—and each variety is different. For some it is when the bud is just showing color, for peonies it is when it feels like a marshmallow. You get them early in morning, put them in a cooler, give them time to drink and our flowers hold up against any imported flower which may already be five or six days old when you buy it. We have feedback that our tulips last forever, 10 to 14 days and sometimes beyond because we cut them so fresh.”
Anyone with a home garden knows that the difference between a garden and a weed patch is a matter of weeks. So how do Elliot and Franco manage the cultivation of acres and acres of diverse, organically grown seasonal blooms? “We have a great crew and we’re fully mechanized,” he explained. “We have two tractors and are thinking about buying a third. We’ve invested in a lot of equipment like tillage tools to fluff the fields and a finger weeder so we are able to keep weeds at bay. And we have an irrigation system that makes it possible to water an acre and a half in a six-hour period when it is dry. We’ve figured out an economy of scale.”
They also expanded the farm’s infrastructure with walk-in coolers and multiple greenhouses.
Still he doesn’t believe they have reached maximum production. “We haven’t reached our full potential. Each year is a crash course. We’re not at the start-up level but there is still a lot to learn.”
And to teach. On May 23, Elliott, who is the head farmer for Tiny Hearts and a dahlia fanatic, will share her expertise with would-be dahlia growers—demonstrating how to choose and plant the tubers and discussing feeding, pinching, staking, harvesting, vase life tricks and, finally, how dig them up and store them for the winter.
The workshop will be held at Dewey Hall in Sheffield MA as a prelude to its first-ever Dahlia Festival planned for September. Tickets are $20. Click here for further information
There is a rhythm to farming life but what about the rhythm of a musician’s life? For Franco, a continuing life in the arts is like “deciding whether or not to breathe oxygen.”
“I’ve been a musician longer than I’ve been a farmer. It’s like being a double agent,” he said of his two passions. He does gigs and leads monthly community jazz jam sessions a Dewey Hall as guitarist and musical director. His goal is to foster collaboration between world-class musicians and aspiring students.
At the sessions the master musicians present a set for the listening audience followed by an open jam session where musicians, young and old and of all skill levels, are welcome to sit in. “You can practice in your garage all you want, but the only way these young musicians can learn this is to feel the experience,” he said.
Back down on the farm, however, the focus is always on the next step. “We’re focusing on improving and expanding,” Franco said. “Currently, we’re searching for land to purchase. It’s such a problem finding access to good land that a farmer can afford but we’re working toward that goal.”
With two young sons to raise, a growing horticultural business and a musical career to incorporate life can become “super-hectic,” he acknowledged. “But somehow we are handling it,” he said. “My mantra is, ‘Don’t forget to enjoy all the beautiful things around us.”