Plantmasters - A Family Affair
Welcome to my first 'seed to table' farmer interview. I am excited to share the stories and images of many local D.C. area flower farms over the next year with all of you. When I first started my business in the Fall of 2017; one of the first farmers to introduce me to the world of local flowers was Carol Carrier; the matriarch of Plantmasters. She has been a regular vendor at the Montgomery Farm Womens Cooperative Market; where I first met her, for many years now. I knew from the beginning that there was something about local flowers that imported flowers just weren't providing me. Perhaps it was putting a face and personal story to the flowers, their superior scents and vibrant colors, or just that I felt more connected to the world outside my front door by buying and supporting a local farmer, family, and business. Either way, she was unknowingly the beginning to my flower "addiction" and I thought very appropriately the first farm to be featured on my blog.
It was a balmy late summer day and you could start to feel she shift of the seasons beginning in the color of the fields when I met with Carol at their flower farm in Gaithersburg, Maryland; just outside of Washington, D.C.
Up until just recently, all of their growing was done at their farm which also happens to be their residence in Gaithersburg. However, a few years ago, their son, Leon III purchased a house and land about 7 miles away which they have appropriately named Endless Row Farm and have been slowly transitioning their operations there; with big dreams of additional hoop houses, a propagation and workshop building, and even potentially a community flower festival. During our interview we were lucky to have Katy Murray of Katy Murray Photography come along and document our morning at both farms. So let's begin....
Q: For readers not familiar with your farm and business, start out by sharing a little bit about how you got started; what your farms name is, when it was founded, and what, if any, history is there behind how you came to be called Plantmasters?
Well, we were very young and my husband, Leon II was just out of college. We started discussing what the next step should be, and if it was time to get a "real job". Up until now Leon, who had a horticulture degree, had been working at the Montgomery Farm Womens Cooperative Market while in school. I remember telling him that I wanted him to do something he loved doing. Looking back, I don't think we would've ever imaged where we would be today.
Our first season we grew marigolds. So many marigolds. I think by the end of the season we were throwing them at each other; but we have learned a lot since then and have diversified significantly.
I'm not sure I want to tell the story behind our name, but my eldest son loved the cartoon, 'Masters of the Universe'. We actually even held a competition to help name the farm but eventually settled on Plantmasters as a play off the cartoon.
Q: What is the size of your farm and how much of it do you utilize to grow? Are there any varieties that you have more success at growing?
Leon and I's farm is 2 acres and Endless Row, located on our son's property is 5 acres but the total in production is probably around 4.5-5 acres. With regards to varieties; we really just grow what we love. We would probably be just as successful if we only grew blush, white, and burgundy flowers as that seems to be the go-to color palate for many events in our area but it just wouldn't be as fun for us. I have a dahlia obsession and many of the studio florists know us for our dahlias; but we really do grow so much more than just dahlias.
Q: How long is your growing season?
Our cutting season usually runs from April through December and we are generally the slowest January through March. That said, we are never 'not busy' on the farm. Between crop planning, seed starting, propagation, holiday wreaths, and all around farm related duties we always seem to have a never-ending to-do list. During the winter we provide forced branches, forced bulbs, and evergreens. We also offer a variety of dried flowers which are used for everything from arrangements to wreaths. Our busiest holidays are Thanksgiving and Mothers Day.
Q: What does a typical day look like on the farm?
Regardless of the time of year, our day starts at 7am. On Monday's we unload the truck, on Tuesday and Friday we cut flowers, and in between we are doing field maintenance and building projects. We are at various farmers markets in the DC area Wednesday through Saturday.
Q: Do you have a favorite flower that you enjoy growing?
I think that every season and every year has it's favorites. This summer we have seen some of the most beautiful lisianthus ever. I personally love liliacs and of course, dahlias. I think that gladiolas are underutilized and there are so many beautiful ones available.
Q: What is your greatest challenge as a flower farmer?
Labor is a big challenge for us. Everything on the farm is done by hand and therefore can be very time consuming. For us, we strongly believe in treating your employees right but it's mostly entry level positions and because the farms are located at our personal residences we also have to find someone we feel comfortable with and can trust.
Q: What is the greatest challenge facing American flower farmers?
Consumer education on imports. For example, if a consumer visits a grocery store and see's a bunch/bouquet of mini carnations on sale for $4.95 they don't think about the origins, work, or people behind those carnations; just the cheap price. Once you back out airfare, customs, a wholesalers cost, and production costs you have to stop and think about what is actually left for the employees who harvested them? The average person wants to be paid but then doesn't want to spend and it doesn't work that way. My costs are significantly higher than the importers mostly due to labor costs and yet the average consumer wants to buy products at a rate in which there is no return on investment for me to provide for my employees, business, or self.
Q: What percentage of your flowers are sold direct to the trade (i.e.:florists) vesus the general public and where do you sell them?
We have always sold at farmers markets from day one; but it has been within the past 10 years that studio florists are really started to find and work with us. It's been a great relationship and they really like the style we grow; which has been creeping back into popularity.
The flowers we grow are the ones people have sentimental attachements too. Either through scent, color, a memory from their childhood, or perhaps a parent or grandparent use to grow them in their gardens. Everyone loves the lush garden looks right now and that’s where we are.
I would say we sell 2/3 of our products at farmers markets and 1/3 to florists.
Q: What is your hope for the future of American flower farms?
You know, I have patrons at the Bethesda market in the winter who will show up with no coats or winter wear. They essentially woke up and drove themselves from one building to another and never once connected with what was going on in Mother Nature. My hope is that we start to become more like a European model where they go to the grocery store and buy flowers to just put them on the table. Here in America flowers are looked at like a luxury and only for special occasions but they are so much more than that. They make people happy, they reduce stress levels, and they bring us back to a part of the world the we have deeply lost our connection to.
You can visit Plantmasters at one of their farmers market locations below:
- Montgomery Farm Womens Cooperative Market , Bethesda, MD - Wednesday & Saturday (7am - 3pm) all year
- Potomac Village Market, Potomac, MD - Thursday (2pm - 6pm) seasonal
- 14th & U Street Market, Washington, DC - Saturday (9am - 1pm) seasonal
- Columbia Heights Market, Washington, DC - Saturday (9am - 1pm) seasonal
- Glover Park Market, Washington, DC - Saturday (9am - 1pm) seasonal
- Kensington Farmers Market, Kensington, MD - Saturday (9am - 1pm) all year
- Olney Market, Olney, MD - Sunday (9am - 1pm) - seasonal