By Melissa Pasanen
At Tanglebloom Flower Farm, daffodils are part of the risk management strategy to protect the farm’s high-value flower crops like foxglove and delphinium. “I have so many problems with voles,” farmer-owner Melissa Masters says. “I heard they dislike daffodils, so I bought a bunch of cheap ones and interplanted them in the perennial beds.”
Melissa, 34, started her cut flower farm and floral design business in Brookline in 2014. The enterprise is about the same age as her son and, like all youngsters, each brings demands and joys.
The idea to focus on cut flowers came from Melissa’s own wedding for which she sourced flowers from a local farm in Ithaca, NY. Eighty to ninety percent of cut flowers bought in the U.S. are imported, Melissa explains. “So many people are buying local and organic food, joining vegetable CSA’s, but then they pick up just any bouquet.”
To launch the agricultural enterprise, she and her husband, Mike, purchased a home with land they knew could work for her flowers. “We could not afford traditional farmland,” she says, “but the good thing is you don’t need much land to grow flowers.” They did invest significant time in clearing land and preparing it for flower beds. The sandy soil is a double-edged sword, draining well but also requiring frequent watering. Melissa is thankful for the property’s deep well and has invested time in laying dripline to maximize irrigation and minimize disease.
Much of Tanglebloom’s production is done in a single 30- by 72-foot hoop house funded through the NRCS. Melissa also has 15 raised beds of annuals. She is working to plant more perennials and biennials like yarrow, lupine and scabiosa, or the block of 100 peonies she invested in last year.
“You have to be adaptable.”
Tanglebloom launched with a few retail accounts, some weddings, and a flower CSA of about 30 members offering a variety of options from spring through fall. Melissa did develop a business plan but, she admits, “You have to be adaptable. You have to go with the market, what customers want.” For example, demand through local grocery stores, boutiques and florists turned out to be lower than anticipated, so they are now a supplement rather than a significant portion of her business.
Melissa researched flower farms in Maine and Massachusetts, since there were few focused exclusively on flowers in Vermont at the time. Wholesale pricing for retail stores is difficult, she explains. Tulip bulbs cost her $1 a piece but many stores want to offer 10 tulips for $10. “We’re teaching consumers that flowers are cheap,” she says. Flowers can bring joy daily and people should treat them like a good cup of coffee or bottle of wine, Melissa suggests: “They don’t necessarily last long but are worth investing in.”
Melissa realized she’d make up CSA revenue with one or two more weddings
Melissa believes Tanglebloom was the first flower CSA in Vermont, but that has changed. “It’s a constant challenge to add value and set yourself apart.” In addition to increased competition, Melissa said that the CSA was high-maintenance with customer special requests and scheduling demands. At the same time, her wedding business was doing very well with packages priced at three different levels of service.
With the help of her husband, Melissa analyzed her financials, realized that she’d make up the CSA revenue with one or two more weddings and concluded that was the smart decision. Although she appreciated the local connections her CSA provided, Tanglebloom’s wedding package options also permit her to serve her community, not just destination weddings, which tend to have larger budgets.
Melissa describes herself as a farmer-florist, as coined by one of her role models, Erin Benzakein of Floret Farm in Washington State. The role combines her love of, and talent for, both farming and design and she’s trying to do better with both. “I believe very strongly in continuing ed,” she says, aiming to attend one workshop each year in either farming or design. Understanding color theory, for example, helps her select varieties and compose arrangements.
For future decision-making, Melissa keeps spreadsheets of crop plans and production. This year, Melissa will assume her first business-specific debt to build a better workspace than the garage she had been using. “There’s no natural light and it’s not cooled,” she says. The new space will cost about $30,000 and will serve as a processing room and design studio, as well as cold storage.
Melissa hopes to offer limited workshops and possibly a pop-up flower market. “Taking out a loan is really scary,” she admits, “but I have to bite the bullet.”
Success, Melissa says, means making “a meaningful contribution to the family’s income” and finding equilibrium in the “elusive” life-work balance. “I love this so much, I could do it all the time,” she says, “but I don’t want my son’s childhood to be just watching me work.” One of the hardest surprises has been finding affordable, quality childcare. “I thought having a flexible schedule would help, but it is not an asset,” she says; there is such a demand for spots that part-time slots are very hard to find. The family relies on her husband’s job for a steady income and insurance; Melissa looks forward to the day she can pay herself a fair salary. “When I think about sustainability, financial and emotional sustainability has to be part of that conversation,” she says.