Verve is two acres of cut flowers and foliage grown on an old hay paddock, naturally sheltered from the relentless exposure across the rest of the Wairau Plains, 25 minutes west of Blenheim.
We live and work on a shallow and very free-draining stony loam in a fairly non-descript little side valley of the Wairau river. (I always think our valley’s name reflects its undistinguishedness… It’s just Centre Valley, you see.)
Although free of deficiencies, raising pH is a disciplined twice-yearly task and bringing our soil chemistry into a more harmonious interplay is an ongoing and organic goal. We are more intent on achieving this through making good compost than with an overly analytical approach and or commercial inputs.
Long springs and autumns, proper winters and warm dry summers make for relatively mellow growing conditions, reasonable season extension opportunities, and a deeply diversified portfolio of crops. (We can grow anything from peonies and lilacs to zinnias and amaranth – and well. Much to be thankful for, I know.)
The field is hugged to the east by the Centre Valley stream, in flood eight months of the year on average, and a solid knoll to the west on the epic Burnside Farm, quite possibly our single most valuable asset as it creates a little oasis and unique microclimate which we are so very grateful for. Our irrigation water is accessed as part of the Centre Valley Scheme, pumped from the Wairau river with its origin in the Southern Alps to holding tanks on our farm and gravity fed to the field. Without the shelter and the water there’d be no flowers here… and possibly not a real farm either.
The rest of our 10Ha small farm is home to a large genre-defying and exposed garden, about thirty head of cattle at any given time, the occasional orphaned lamb, a growing family of Indian Runner ducks, a rescued cat or two, a scattering of humans of course, and Jasper the Faithful, an old and gentle soul of the canine kind.
In spite of provincial childhoods and careers in the wine industry, we came to farming well and truly uninitiated. Certainly gardening is never something either my husband or I considered a pastime, least of all a vocation. We had not grown a single cut flower in our lives before sowing the first seeds on a sodden day in October of 2011, with an eight and a five year-old as help. What we did know was that Marlborough had no dedicated diversified flower farm (the model doesn’t really exist in New Zealand at all), that the climate was made for growing stuff, and that the little pocket of the province we had landed on had good soil, enviable water rights and great shelter from the notorious equinoxial nor’wester. (Sorry, I can’t say shelter too many times.)
Flowers had been calling me personally though, long before I ever thought a field of my own possible.
Prior to that momentous October day and after arriving in Marlborough as a South African via England in August of 2009, I had spent the better part of a year immersed at the other end of the supply chain, volunteering at a local florist and eventually being tutored in traditional floristry by the Marlborough institution that is Mrs. Bev Lyford, then in her garage in Rarangi. I am forever grateful for what was essentially the kindness of strangers, and of professionals. What I most gained, though, was the knowledge that I didn’t want to be “just” a florist, that Marlborough had no local supply of cut flowers, and that a strong business case could be made for vertically integrating the two and thus being both a grower and a florist. (Also that the New Zealand flower trade could’ve done with a bit of spunk at the time – hence, “Verve”.)
Little did I know that right about the same time in opposite corners of the US, Jennie Love and Erin Benzakein were blazing a trail along these lines and putting a name to what were just a jumble of ideas at my end still: that of the farmer-florist.
All the while public awareness of the virtues of local flowers as opposed to imported ones was gaining momentum on the back of the local food movement there. And Debra Prinzig was likewise coining the concept of “slow flowers” and communicating the principles of seasonality and traceability as it pertains to cut flowers with her “Fifty Mile Bouquet” and the field-to-vase hashtag.
Finding that my sudden and all-consuming interest in growing flowers, adding the value myself, subscribing to organics, and looking towards my local community for a market was a “thing”, out there in the world, that other women were already doing just that, that I could belong to a community of sorts… these were profoundly inspirational and affirmative sentiments and ones I clung to during those first few seasons. To say nothing of the fact that their flowers looked so very differently from what the commercial trade and retail florists could achieve… that their flowers had a sense of place – a terroir if you like, to borrow from the world of wine. In retrospect, the flowers had found me, more so than the other way around.
Several seasons have passed since.
The Killers have a song that implores: “you gotta be stronger than your story”.
Far from a romanticised meadow type set up where beautiful flowers effortlessly self-sow into existence, complete with elegant, unhurried pickers in straw hats, frolicking children and general placidness all round, ours has been a story we have had to be stronger than. Farming has been harder than I ever could imagine, and not as such. The physical demands I have mastered, the mental demands I am working on. Rather it’s the commercial realities of small scale farming, diversified crops and ornamentals ones at that, and their labour intensiveness – in a rural location far from an urban and critical mass – that have tested our mettle over the years.
For a while after we first got started it made more sense to grow and sell wholesale to other florists up and down the country at least in part, with the consequent infrastructure and logistics that that entailed, but we have well and truly wound our way back to our founding principles, and those of the authentic farmer-florist.
I have also heard it said that owning one’s story is one way of staying sane.
Our children have almost come of age and have done so on this very field I’m writing of. They will go off into the world in a matter of years with a vast knowledge of cut flowers and more importantly, an appreciation of the kind of work ethic farming such precocious and fleeting creatures demands. How this’ll serve them in their lives or if it’ll find application at all remains to be seen. Perhaps there is comfort to be found in simply claiming our story as truly ours, and the fact we have, all of us, been surrounded by immense beauty for what it’s worth.
All the while my husband and I have found peace in staying put and growing roots, too – on this field and in our community, after many years of seeking and roaming. We might very well be Marlburians and flower farmers for life.
Personally, my existence has been enriched immensely, in an untold number of ways. The flowers have played their part, it is true, but it is farming that has made me who I am. My politics, for one thing, are largely defined by my experiences on this field, by way of dirty hands so to speak. My interest in and commitment to organics, though tested thoroughly, has only been fuelled and made more sincere. Spiritually I have had to dig deep and often, and I think in coming to understand that gardening is truly a higher art my intellect has swelled and soared, too. I appreciate now what the American poet and farmer, Wendell Berry means when he claims the ultimate product of a season’s toil is the farmer’s mind. Perhaps more so even than her crops.
A great many souls have made a contribution on this field and shared in the Verve. Quite a few have probably left stirred, a little changed even. There have been employees, volunteers, overseas visitors, gardening clubs, neighbours and many a customer who have, in turn, touched us in many and important ways, too. For giving us a chance, for wanting us to succeed, for loving flowers and for valuing our work… we are deeply grateful to you all.
October 2017, Marlborough