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Petaluma Profile: For Dahlia grower Kate Rowe, business is blooming

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Almost as east as East Washington St. goes, past the malls, houses and gas stations, a blur of color catches your eye out your passenger window. Pay close attention. If you don’t, you’ll miss one of the great treasures of Petaluma summer.

Aztec Dahlias and Farm Stand. Years ago, this 1-acre plot was transformed into a garden of earthly delights, with countless varieties of dahlia flowers. And during their blooming season, roughly July through September, you can wander this field and take home its gifts. There are pink flowers as big as basketballs and little yellow ones so perfectly round and compact they make you laugh. Unless you walk through the closely planted flower rows, you really can’t appreciate their magic.

So next time you’re speeding east, stop your car, get out and look. You’ll be glad you did.

But, how does someone come to choose the strange and specific vocation of dahlia farmer? Kate Rowe, a whir of bright energy — something like, one has to just say it, a shimmery explosive dahlia — runs this botanical paradise along with her business partner Omar Duran. For Rowe, the path to her dream job was long and circuitous, and though it still amazes her that she found her way here, she clearly couldn’t be happier that she did.

Rowe saw her first dahlia eight years ago at an Occidental farmer’s market.

“I had been so distracted and running a million miles a minute at work, and I saw this dahlia, and it was the first time I was present,” Rowe explains. “I believe it’s called Raspberry Punch — a ball dahlia — it had red tips and yellow centers — it was a perfect ball.”

That flower dropped a tiny seed in her heart.

Raised in a small Illinois town, Rowe is one of four kids who always helped with the family’s wholesale hardware supply business. When she left home for the University of St. Louis, she thought she might become a zoologist. But she settled on anthropology and business.

“I find people fascinating,” she says. And when you talk to her, it’s obvious that this is true.

After graduating, she moved to her favorite place — her family’s ranch in Wyoming. But then her dad lured her back to Illinois because the family business needed help.

“I realized my dad had given up all his dreams to support his family,” Rowe says. “So I wanted to help him.” That said, she admits, “when I left Illinois, I thought I’d never go back.”

But she dutifully did, to help her father implement an automated ordering system for the company’s nationwide sales reps.

“I was there a year-and-a-half and realized I could get stuck,” she allows. “My dad was trying to groom me for the business but I didn’t want it.”

To escape, she signed up for a 74-day mountaineering expedition in Patagonia.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says, going on to talk about the frostbite she suffered on her hands. “That was the most painful experience of my life.” But her experience with pain opened another door. “I became fascinated,” she says, “with the human body because of the frostbite and all the pain I went through.”

This interest led her to a yearlong massage therapy program in Chicago, where she eventually worked with athletes at a physical therapy center. But then she had an epiphany.

“I wake up one day and I think, ‘what am I doing? I’m a massage therapist in Chicago? What the heck?’”

She then had a stint learning Spanish in Guatamala and eventually found herself back in Chicago working for an investment banking firm.

“It was amazing money. But then I got sucked into the idea that all these people wanted my job and I should be so happy to have it,” Rowe said, referring to the MBA graduates who regularly sent resumes seeking her position. “I got sucked into the ‘You Should’ world.”

Of course, every experience offers a gift of some sort, and Rowe’s investment banking job taught her the art of the spreadsheet.

“This entire field is in a spread sheet,” she says, gesturing out to the endless rows of flowers. “It’s planted in color order. There are 487 varieties -- 5200 plants. The only way it ends up in this color order is I have a spread sheet.” It becomes clear that the field is not randomly planted but has been carefully orchestrated in gradations of color – the yellows slowly exploding into oranges which get brighter until they bleed into red, each flower upping the color ante on its neighbor.

So how do you get from working in a Chicago investment bank to … this?

The next step was when Rowe signed up to take Jerry Kermode’s woodworking class in Sebastapol, despite having never been to Northern California. Once here, she fell in love with the place.

“I love the people, the atmosphere. I felt like I met “my people,” Rowe says, describing her discovery of Petaluma. “You’re so close to a city and you drive an hour and you’re in paradise. I wanted to live out here.”

And that’s exactly what she did – moving alone to a tiny cabin.

“My first job was to paint a fence for $200. I was the happiest fence painter you’ve ever seen,” she says, beaming. Eventually, Rowe worked as an event producer, a job that took her to the Olympics in London and the Super Bowl. It was taxing and eventually, she burned out.

With that, Rowe takes the story back to that first dahlia she spotted eight years ago. After that initial passing encounter, she couldn’t stop thinking about the remarkable botanical treasure. She went back the next week and bought the plant. Other dahlias soon followed.

“Every year, I planted more and eventually I had 120 plants,” Rowe says. “When I was upset at my job, I’d shop for dahlias online.”

Eventually, Rowe’s dahlia obsession demanded to become more than just a hobby.

“I thought if I could be a dahlia farmer, that would make me happy,” she says, noting that some might think that sounds a bit out-there, but confesses, “When I was with the flowers, it was a very stark difference from what I was experiencing at work.”

In 2015 while getting a haircut, Rowe told her stylist, “I want to be a dahlia farmer.”

“Oh,” the stylist casually said, “I know someone who’s selling their dahlia farm.”

And that, as they say, was that.

And here Rowe is today, owner of her own dahlia farm, happily turning elaborate spreadsheets into her own magical reality, turning a patch of flowers into a piece of land she lovingly calls home.

(Learn more at AztecDahlias.com)

(You can contact Arline Klatte at arline@aklatte.com)