Organic blooms: From their field to your vase

Earlier this month, just before Mother’s Day, David and I visited California Organic Flowers. We arrived late on a Tuesday night in order to get up bright and early and spend the next day with owners Marc Kessler and Julia Keener and their small crew of “farm girls,” an all-female crew of flower farmers and bouquet-makers.

Marc Kessler and Julia Keener, the heart and soul of California Organic Flowers.

David and I are on a journey with parallel tracks. We are ”shopping” around A Fresh Bouquet in search of a publisher who “gets” the idea of sustainable, local and seasonal flowers. At the same time, we continue to report on, interview, film and photograph inspiring people in the organic flower community.

That’s why we were so excited to spend a day on the farm with this talented and entrepreneurial couple. Marc and Julia grow 100-percent organic blooms, create gorgeous bouquets and ship their just-picked designs all over the country. California Organic Flowers is all about celebrating the season of each flower. The farm produces flowers in all 12 months, satisfying the demand from eager mail-order customers and loyal “locals” at two Chico area farmers markets.

Early morning on the farm, Marc Kessler walks with Debra through the fields to show off the beauty and glory of his flower crops.

The idea of having a photographer and writer shadow them during the single biggest business event of the year nearly gave Marc heart failure. In one week, the farm ships more than 400 bouquets coast-to-coast. They could probably ship more flowers, but Mother’s Day orders practically clean out the fields as it is.

We promised to stay out of the way and be unobtrusive. While David explored ways to capture the magic of their story visually, I actually tried my hand at helping the crew. Julia taught me the right way to strip and clean off foliage from the stems of dianthus, lilies, snapdragons and other flowers. [Hint, pull downward on the leaves to remove them from the stems; leave foliage on only the topmost 6-8 inches beneath the bloom.] This manual task occurs while standing at long tables under a open-air shade structure. We were out in the fields processing flowers only moments after they were harvested.

Julia and Michelle haul just-picked blooms to the bouquet-making operation across the street.

After the stems are prepped, flowers are bunched and carried or carted via wagons across Oak Way to the bouquet-making operation in Marc and Julia’s garage. The former 3-car garage is now home to a walk-in cooler in one bay and an efficient assembly and shipping setup in the rest of the space. I was fascinated to watch Lisa and Mara make dozens and dozens of “Happy Mother’s Day” bouquets, each of which contains four gorgeous red lilies called ‘Black Out’ (each flower stem bears 4 or 5 plump buds), 10 white or yellow snapdragons and a collar of magenta pink Sweet Williams (also called dianthus).

Just-picked bouquets are packaged into shipping boxes made from 100% post-consumer recycled cardboard.

All this for as little as $45? “We want people to think it’s the best bouquet they ever received,” Marc explains. When recipients open up the box of blooms (packaged in a 100% post-consumer recycled cardboard), they read the message: “California Grown, Solar Powered, Recycled Materials, Family Farmers.”

Marc and Julia used to live on the Idaho side of the Tetons where they ran a small food-growing operation, enduring what Julia describes as the “shortest growing season in the nation.” They visited Chico one winter to learn about farming in a gentler climate. “We met great people; we were welcomed,” Julia explains. “We kept coming back to work during the winters and began to love the lifestyle.” The couple decided to relocate to Chico with their son, Tava, and embrace the small-town lifestyle. After first growing vegetables, they switched to flower crops, supplying blooms to wedding and special event customers as Terra Bella Flower Farm. Four years ago Marc and Julia decided to go national, changing the farm’s name to California Organic Flowers and dedicating three acres of farmland to flower production.

Marc cuts lilies that will be included in hundreds of Happy Mother's Day bouquets.

Marc has invested considerable time and money in R&D to develop and differentiate their online bouquet business from all the mass-market and non-organic flower competitors. He tests the farm’s cut flowers in the most difficult situations to see how they perform. “I’ve left a box of flowers out in the sun for 48 hours and then opened it up and put the flowers in a vase to see how they do,” he says. The result? Surprisingly great. For orders that include a glass vase, Marc actually tests how the contents of a shipping box withstand a several foot high drop to make sure the packaging is durable enough to protect the contents. (And don’t think these scenarios are unusual. Marc has heard and seen it all!)

I love the philosophy of California Organic Flowers outlined on the company web site. This summary struck me as particularly soulful:

Julia harvests gorgeous stems of Watsonia, a South African native flower that's similar to gladiola. The irresistible bloom color best described as raspberry red.

The Beauty of Organic Flowers

It’s this simple: you bring flowers into your house to bring the joy and beauty of nature into your home. If there is a sad story of chemical sprays and exploited workers behind your flowers, the joy of the flowers is diminished.

Yes, there are many other great reasons to choose organic—less dangerous chemicals in the environment, more farm acreage managed in a way that builds and enriches valuable soils, and conservation of water. But for us it’s more than all that scientific rational stuff, it’s a celebration of everything beautiful, natural, and healthy. Flowers are our way of celebrating nature, and celebrating ourselves, so they just have to be grown in a way that cares for the environment or it defeats their whole purpose.

Marc and Julia’s commitment to organic flower farming is more than just a business decision. It’s their personal lifestyle philosophy.

I believe that using organic practices is the best way to farm,” Marc says. “I’ve really never believed that if organic is what it purports to be, it should cost the consumer more. Organic should prove itself economically.”

Indeed in this modest patch of only three acres there is a nice balance of flower-farming economics and one family’s eco-values. And flower consumers who enjoy bouquets from this farm reap the benefits.

Bunches and bouquets are often picked, bundled, packed and shipped all in the same day, and each bears the "Certified Organic" label from the California Certified Organic Farmers organization.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Norman May 26, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Great story and photos, nice layout too.

Diane Szukovathy May 27, 2010 at 5:59 am

What a wonderful farm portrait! Great folks, great flowers, great story. Thank you.

saxon holt May 27, 2010 at 9:18 am

If you are taking advance orders for the book to convince a publisher to get this project done, please sign me up ….

Else Bolotin May 27, 2010 at 9:24 am

What a great story. It captured the tone and spirit of this farm, as well as the dedication of the owners. The photo’s are excellent and I love the picture of the FedEx truck leaving the premisis. On to another day—

David Perry June 1, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Dear Mike, Diane, Saxon and Else, it is an honor to know that your eyes have been here, taken in our offering, and found something that pleases. Thank you for notes.

Kodak Playsport June 4, 2010 at 1:04 am

Wow!!great story boss,,,Nice farm picture as well…
I’ll wait for your book to be published,,,,

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