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Penngrove farmer taps budding industry

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Sonoma County is known for its rich agricultural heritage and idyllic landscapes that allow for the cultivation of a diverse range of crops, including cut flowers, a budding subset of the county’s legacy that grew to represent $4.5 million of the agricultural sector in 2015.

Flower growers large and small, including Penngrove resident and B-Side Farm founder Lennie Larkin, have helped contribute to the 8.6 percent, or $360,600, boost in the sector from 2014 to 2015 outlined in the recently released 2015 Crop Report, providing flowers for weddings, events, farmers markets, or for locally-sourced home decor.

Larkin, 34, found her way onto the local agricultural map when she took a post as a manager at Petaluma Bounty Farm, where she helped grow produce and flowers for local low-income families and seniors. Her love of flowers blossomed, inspiring her to cultivate a half-acre flower farm on her leased Penngrove land last summer.

“I think flowers really opened me up to beauty in a way that I hadn’t been before – I used to be a little more of a serious person and they just got me in touch with a different element of beauty in the world,” she said.

Larkin, who also serves as the west coast regional director of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, since expanded to a second plot in Sebastopol, growing as many as 75 different varieties of flowers through the changing seasons in gardens she manages with precision, pouring over research and curating colors with care.

“A lot of farms that grow flowers and sell bouquets put in every color of the rainbow, and that’s great for some people, but I’m trying to bring more of a refined palette to the everyday customer,” she said. “I’m focusing on color palettes that mix well, with lots of shapes and sizes.”

She also teaches classes and arranges her own bouquets, with the bulk of her business going to provide flowers for about 20 weddings this year. The Boston native is also a formative member of the North Bay Flower Collective, a network that seeks to promote and connect florists with local flower producers. She said the rapidly growing organization has been a barometer for the changing flower climate.

“(The collective) has grown like crazy – that has really been a place where you can visibly see how much the flower movement is booming and growing, people are joining the organization at least every week,” she said. “All these people farming on their own have a community, it’s been a really amazing place to connect local growers with one another and with local designers.”

Larkin also gets her flowers in front of consumers through a community-supported agricultural program, where she offers floral subscriptions in San Francisco and Petaluma, and through the Sonoma Flower Mart, a Sebastopol-based business that sells local flowers.

She said that locally-cultivated flowers provide a more vibrant product with more longevity than blooms shipped across the globe, which are often frozen for shipment and treated with chemicals. She said struggles arise when consumers underestimate the time, money and effort that goes into the often expensive local flower cultivation business, but added that buying local flowers has benefits.

“Bringing in flowers, especially those that are grown locally, can brighten a house but also increase connection to local soil and local agricultural economy,” she said.

Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar said that Sonoma County – especially Petaluma – has a climate that’s “particularly conducive” to growing high-quality cut flowers, which are becoming more readily available at local farmer’s markets and other local venues.

County agriculture officials pointed to a bouquet of factors contributing to the boost in the flower business, including a more sunny economy.

“I think during a recession, cut flowers are one of those things that are more of a luxury type of an item that people may not spend money on when times are tough. The fact that the cut flower industry has seen a resurgence is a good sign that the economy is coming back,” he said

Lou Neve of Petaluma-based Neve Brothers, a flower wholesale business that represents a large portion of the county’s cut flower production, said the business has seen success in growing flowers outside the realm of roses and tulips. Neve Brothers has added 10,000 square feet to its facilities, and Neve said the “market is better than it probably has ever been.”

Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Kim Vail said the floral industry also points to a coupling of tourism and agriculture stemming from the fact that area has become a renowned destination for weddings and events.

“It ties into the partnership that seems to be growing between the tourism industry, and how agriculture can benefit from that. We can work together and continually add economic value to the county,” he said.

Sonoma County Senior Agricultural Biologist Andrew Smith, who acted as the lead for the 2015 Crop Report, said some farmers have also integrated flowers into their existing crops as a way to attract beneficial insects and pollinators and in turn to sell along with other goods. He added that groups like the collective are key in helping to boost smaller farmers by allowing them to pool resources.

He pointed to the sweeping farm-to-table movement that’s igniting across the county as another contributor to the sector’s success.

“We live in a very food-literate and land-literate county and people not only value local food production just because it’s local, but also because of the way it’s produced and because of the production methodologies,” he said.

He said nurseries may see a shift if the November ballot brings changes to marijuana laws, potentially making way for the cultivation of marijuana in the greenhouse alongside flowers, which could bring in money for further expansion or summon a slew of other outcomes. Regardless of the ballot measure, he forecast that flowers will continue to brighten up the region.

“Especially for the small producer and for a few people right now with a good footing in the industry, cut flowers will remain an indelible facet to our country’s thriving nursery industry,” he said.

(Press Democrat reporter Bill Swindell contributed to this report. Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@gmail.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.)