Illinois blooms for Midwest vases

By Debra Prinzing

Author of Slow Flowers and 50 Mile Bouquet

Fields at Bright Flower FarmJeanie McKewan is proud to call herself a farmer. A flower farmer, that is. Over the years, she has grown many types of plants, including edible crops and ornamentals for the landscape, but this engaging flower entrepreneur is at her best when surrounded by rows of robust, vibrant and thoroughly gorgeous blooms. The list starts with Agapanthus and ends with Zinnias, but of course, at the peak of summer, it is dominated by dahlias. “When florists hear that I bring my dahlias to Chicago every week, it’s the first thing they order,” Jeanie says. “They want locally-grown dahlias and lucky for them, that’s what we grow.”

At Brightflower Farm  in Stockton, Illinois, located about 2-1/2 hours’ drive west of Chicago, Jeanie has channeled her horticulture training and business management background into a prolific floral enterprise. “We grow and sell over 100,000 stems of annual and perennial flowers, peonies, dahlias, ornamental grasses, and woody stems, in mixed bouquets and consumer bunches,” she explains. “Our primary markets are florists and grocery stores in Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee. I love to grow couture flowers – the ones that are cutting edge and requested by brides. Since I’m small, I can respond to those special needs — and even custom-grow specific flowers for weddings.”

Brightflower’s fashion-forward stems are destined not just for bridal bouquets, but also for the vases of hostesses, sweethearts and others who value the intrinsic benefits of seasonal flowers grown close to home. Nothing is fresher than stems harvested one day and available to the customer 48 hours later, explains Kate O’Connor, Whole Foods’ lead floral buyer for the chain’s 39 Midwest stores. “That kind of freshness is unheard of — our customers know they will get ten to 12 days of vase life from Jeanie’s flowers.”

HerbsThe farm’s certified organic status is also a plus, O’Connor adds. “More and more people are very concerned about what they are bringing into their homes.” Gaining USDA Certified Organic status was not easy. But Jeanie believes the designation gives her customers the confidence that Brightflower’s bouquets are safe for humans and the environment. “Growing within the organic system not only ensures that the plants are completely safe to handle, but the soil is nourished and the natural systems of pollination, wildlife and water are not interrupted,” she explains.

While flowers are Jeanie’s first love, edible crops account for two-thirds of Brightflower’s business. Buyers at area Whole Foods outlets and independent garden centers snatch up her 4-inch herb plants and chefs look to Brightflower as a source for salad greens, spinach, arugula and culinary herbs, which Jeanie sells at the Logan Square Indoor Market every other Sunday.

This farmer’s passion is contagious, says Stacey Carlton, AIFD, a floral specialist at the Whole Foods in Chicago’s South Loop, where the flower-obsessed customer will find “locally grown” signage featuring Jeanie and Brightflower Farms’ bouquets and bunches.

“My favorite part about this business is that it’s so beautiful,” Carlton says. “With our signage, we put Jeanie’s face on her flowers, so customers know the name of her farm and where she grows. Her product is exquisite and she definitely has something different that no one else has.”

FROM SEED TO VASE

Perhaps Brightflower’s blooms are so special because of the farm’s ideal growing conditions. Situated at the edge of the ‘Driftless Region,’ a part of Illinois and Wisconsin formed millennia ago by glaciers, the soil in which Jeanie’s flowers take root “is the best in the world,” she boasts. “We have all of this incredibly gorgeous, silty loam — 60-feet of topsoil.”

The parcel is located near the Apple River, the site of a former nursery that Jeanie and her husband Michael Staver, a food scientist and chef, purchased in 2006. This was not her first foray into growing and selling cut flowers. In the early 1990s, when the couple lived in Grays- lake, Illinois, Jeanie tended to a one-third-acre perennial plot. “I grew bunches of happiness,” she recalls, fondly. “I sold peony bunches and mixed bouquets to a couple of flower shops and also at the open-air market in Lake Forest.”

Her expertise growing perennials prepared Jeanie for a subsequent position as general manager of Montale Gardens in Wauconda, followed by a two-year stint as nursery operations manager for Chicago’s award-winning Craig Bergmann Landscape Design. Those experiences taught her much about raising flowers while also fine-tuningCut Flowers from Bright Flower Farm her business-management skills.

Yet, her entrepreneurial spirit inspired Jeanie to return to a growing operation of her own. It seems that she has been preparing to be a flower farmer her entire life. “I fell in love with plants and flowers when I was a little girl in Pomona, California,” she recalls. Being raised near orange groves and tending to a family plot populated with lemon, peach and pomegranate trees, as well as a vegetable patch, made a lifelong impression on Jeanie. “I’ve been collecting plants ever since,” she admits.

Unlike farmers in her home state, this grower faces the extra challenges of farming in Illinois’s Zone 5a (minimum temperatures of minus-20 to minus-15 degrees Fahrenheit). “I had to develop strategies for extending the seasons, such as installing a big greenhouse where I can grow things during the winter,” Jeanie explains. Field crops include woody shrubs that produce unusual twigs and foliage, such as willows and ninebark, as well as berry-and fruit-laden branches. Two hoop houses provide extra shelter from frost and snow, allowing her to grow semi-hardy herbs like lavender, rosemary, scented geranium, salvia, and perennial agapanthus.

As is the case with many family farms, labor is a challenge to recruit and afford. “I have some great workers,” Jeanie says of the neighbors and acquaintances who help her harvest flowers and assemble bouquets, especially during the peak of flower production season. “We call ourselves the B-O-B’s, or Builders of Bouquets,” Jeanie jokes. “So far it is only a women’s club, but we’d love to add some men to our BOB-team.”

LOCAL FLOWER POWER

It’s undeniable that demand for locally-grown flowers is changing how flowers are bought and sold in America. Yet even the most resourceful florist finds it challenging to connect with local sources when wholesalers stock their warehouses with commodity flowers that are imported from other countries. Jeanie originally approached shops in Illinois and Wisconsin, driving a car filled with flowers, which were the perfect calling card. She went from one florist to the next, introducing herself and building a relationship-based business. “I loved talking with the florists and sharing my lovely blooms, but in my rural area, the shops are far apart and I found it wasn’t the best way to market my flowers,” she says.

A little helpIn 2006, through a friend, she met Kate O’Connor, the Midwest flower buyer for Whole Foods. “Kate stopped by the farm and saw what I was growing – and she was amazed with the quality,” Jeanie says. That connection helped to launch a successful partnership with the retail chain – and gave Jeanie the confidence to expand the varieties of flowers that she grows. This has, in turn, benefited other independent floral designers who buy her blooms.

Jeanie believes that education is an essential tool to help customers value what she grows. Wholesale customers and DIY bridal parties can search Brightflower Farm’s web site to find a month-by-month bloom list for the peak May to October season. Jeanie’s offerings continue to expand, especially as she brings back cuttings, seeds and samples of interesting botanical ingredients from her family visits to California. Jeanie credits her passion for succulents, including echeverias and aeoniums, for her focus on what is now a frequently-used couture element of bridal bouquets.

One fan is Erin Joswick, owner of Daffodil Parker, a floral studio in Madison, Wisconsin. Whenever possible, this talented wedding and event designer snaps up locally-grown blooms from Brightflower Farm and other Midwest fields. “I personally believe in buying local and so do our customers,” says Erin. “Many of my brides only want local and they are willing to be flexible in their floral choices in order to hold a bouquet created with elements grown nearby.”

Erin values her relationships with Brightflower Farm and other cut flower growers in Wisconsin and Illinois. “These flowers are delivered to me by people who love, grow and carefully handle their stems. It’s always exciting to see what’s in bloom and the flowers are ten thousand times better than anything that has to be shipped.”

Jeanie’s stunning floral ingredients that have helped her farm gain its reputation, says Stacey Carlton of Whole Foods. “It’s hard to impress people who have been around flowers for their entire careers, but from the very beginning, we’ve been wowed by Jeanie’s product. It is incredible.”

Flowers by the Bunch

In 2008, Jeanie joined forces with Fair Field Flowers, a collective of eight fellow growers, to expand her floral deliveries into neighboring Wisconsin. Formed ten years ago, Fair Field Flowers is the reflection of kindred spirits who each raise uncommonly beautiful, high-quality cut flowers. The business was established to supply the region’s floral industry with American-grown (rather than imported) blooms.

After meeting Carol Larsen of Sunborn Gardens in Mt. Horeb, a suburb of Madison, and Joe Schmitt a longtime Madison grower, Jeanie asked whether Brightflower Farm could join their floral delivery program. She was impressed that the can-do group of growers has banded together to efficiently supply more than 50 floral customers in Wisconsin’s two largest metropolitan regions.

Cut Flowers from Bright Flower Farm“Our niche is that we are growing sustainably,” explains Carol Larsen. “The local and sustainable ethos has just exploded here in the Midwest, so that it is driving business for each of us.”

Fair Field operates as a transportation and distribution company, Larsen explains. Flower shops, studio florists, special event planners and grocery stores order the flowers and foliage from a regular availability list distributed by email. There are other customers that prefer to see, smell and touch the flowers; since they are on Fair Field’s delivery schedule, they can “shop” by hand-picking their flowers from the back of Joe’s van.

Three times each week, from May to October, Fair Field makes floral deliveries to customers in Madison and Milwaukee. To ensure that her crops are included, Jeanie rises early, leaving her farm at 5 a.m. to drive to Wisconsin, where she unloads freshly-cut flowers onto Larsen’s truck at Sunborn Gardens. Then she returns home, bringing floral varieties grown by her partner-farms to include in her Chicago deliveries. She is a huge fan of this business model, which accounts for 10 percent of her revenue. “I spent two years as Fair Field’s manager and found that I adored working with the florists,” Jeanie says.

While not technically a cooperative, Fair Field Flowers’ growers realize the power and potential of their collective marketing efforts. “I realized I wanted to grow more than I could sell at the farmers’ market, and in order to do so, I need Fair Field Flowers,” Carol explains. “None of us could imagine doing what we do alone.”

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