Slow Flower Hero

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In 2012, with the publication of The 50 Mile Bouquet, readers met Joan Thorndike, a gifted flower-farmer based in Oregon's agriculturally rich Rogue Valley. I featured her in a chapter called "Grower Wisdom," and introduced Le Mera Gardens, one of the state's first certified organic flower farms.

Le Mera Gardens grows about 150 seasonal, specialty cut flowers and botanical varieties sold in bulk to florists, DIY weddings and special events, private clients, restaurants, hospitality venues, and local charities in southwest Oregon and northern California. Despite demand for it, Le Mera Gardens does not ship flowers, reflecting Slow Flowers' value of a small transportation footprint.

The agricultural enterprise spreads across a number of urban parcels in southwest Oregon, from Medford to Ashland, with a propagation house, 12 hoop houses, a double-shade house for hdrangeas. and approximatelv five acres of open fields. With increasingly hot summers and too many seasons of watching their plants burn, Joan says in all seriousness that she and Steve and Suzi Fry, owners of parent farm Fry Family Farm, dream of shading their open fields to stav in business.

Over the decades, selling wholesale flowers to area florists remains Le Mera Gardens' top priority - representing at least 50 percent of annual sales. "I've alwavs sold to florists from the verv beginning; they are my primary buyers," Joan explains. "There's something really wonderful about working with florists. They are my very best teachers. About 10 years ago, there was a lot of talk about (retail) florists closing and going out of business, but that hasn't been our experience. One or two of my customers have changed ownership, but the flower shops are still there, and even a new one has emerged."

What has changed over the years are florists coming to Le Mera Gardens from further afield - from communities like Klamath Falls, Oregon, and Mt. Shasta, California. Also, more recently, studio designers are becoming a significant share of business, as are farmer-florists who treat Le Mera Gardens as their "backup farm." Joan values new additions to her customer base, a sign that locally grown and seasonal flowers are loved and established in her communitv.

Joan texts and emails her core customers each week, in addition to maintaining her website's harvest and availability calendar, which aids in their ordering. She recently upgraded Le Mera Gardens' website and plans to spend this coming off-season to build an online wholesale shop. In addition to her primary wholesale channels (farm-to-florist), Joan has always sold direct to consumers, primarily DIY flower lovers. She consciously differentiates each channel through pricing and product offerings. The farm also produces huge guantities of mixed bouguets sold at area farmers' markets, locally owned or managed grocery stores, Portland-based New Seasons Market, and at the Fry Family Farm Store. All direct-to-consumer retail bouquets are labeled Fry Family Farm.

After decades operating Le Mera Gardens out of a refrigerated box truck as a mobile flower shop for florists and DIY clients, things changed dramatically in 2020. "When COVID came, I couldn't figure out how to place a customer and myself in my truck's small enclosed space, no matter how many masks and hand sanitizer we had. It was impractical, " Joan savs.

"As of 2020, I set up a 'flower market' inside our farm's warehouse. Every Tuesday and Thursday during our long growing season, I welcome florists, designers, farmer-florists, wedding and event Dir clients, and the community to shop from the market, by appointment. Several of our florists prefer placing weekly orders and have their drivers pick up flowers. Watching how carefully and deftly drivers handle sometimes unwieldy buckets of flowers, greens, and grasses has taught me how very important drivers are to their flower shops. I rather think they enjoy witnessing the "guts" of our farm, and I know they love the treats we send back to the shop with them - in-season fruits and vegetables from Fry Family Farm, and sometimes even a fresh pie from our farm's commercial kitchen."

The DIY program appeals to destination-wedding couples who are attracted by the Rogue Valley's proliferation of wineries, ranches, farms, and other romantic venues, not to mention the region's natural beauty and Ashland's famous theatres. Many embrace the unique character of place by choosing locally grown flowers for their nuptials. When they contact Le Mera Gardens, Joan encourages them to reference her seasonal flower availability calendar for planning. She asks them to "paint a picture" for her of their dream wedding, to describe quantities and state a budget, guiding them through their choices.

"It used to be that people would give me a mile-long list and ask if a $200 budget was enough! But now, it's rare that people don't get it, which tells me two things: There is a much greater appreciation of fresh flowers now, and people appreciate the value of floral diversity that we grow. People who come to us already have mentally made the choice that they want the diversity of seasonal flowers grown on a local farm." Joan sees this positive shift as tangible measures of success for the Slow Flowers Movement.


Photos by David Perry, Ann Nguyen, Rob Jaffe, Isabella Thorndike Church, Rick Urbanski