The Value of Mentorship in Flower Farming Part 1: Find Yourself A Mentor

Farming is one of those areas where experience means everything, and you can't fake it for long. Most farmers therefore know that we’ve much to learn from one another, particularly from those among us with more years of experience in our ever-growing field. You know - more notches on the belt, bigger, gnarlier calluses on the hands, and honed-in muscle memory of how to run thriving farms season after season. 

This fall I wanted to jump back into education, and I embraced mentorship from both angles - as the mentor in a few cases (teaching flower farming both on my farm and planning a course at the local junior college) and the mentee in another. Both experiences were hugely valuable and I want to share some thoughts on the process in the hopes that all of you out there will consider connecting with each other this winter in either offering assistance, asking for it, or both. After all, each of us is probably both more experience than someone out there, and less than someone else - am I right?

Learning From The Best At Love ‘n Fresh Flowers

photo courtesy of love 'n fresh flowers

photo courtesy of love 'n fresh flowers

In early October I traveled to Jennie Love’s 2-acre farm in order to spend the better part of the day learning from her - or, as she has referred to it since - to dive into a marathon Vulcan mind-meld. I’d been wanting to do this for years, or more precisely, for 2 years, since the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers' 2014 National Conference in Delaware, when we visited Love ‘n Fresh in the pouring rain and watched Jennie power through a low tunnel demonstration like a champ. Jennie is that rare combination of plantswoman (dare I say, affectionately, plant geek), savvy business mind, and talented designer. I wanted to learn her secrets - or at least gain some tips. I had of course creepily read through her entire blog archive years ago, long before we became friends and colleagues on the ASCFG board, so I was ready. 

 I’ll let you all in on some lessons I took home from Jennie. 

Lesson One:

In farming and life, find a plan for balance early on. 

My first lesson was one in self-care and general bad-assery, when I arrived at Jennie’s studio just as she rolled in to meet me - on a motorcycle. I learned that this was a part of both a realization that life wasn’t getting any longer, and a plan to reclaim long-standing dreams and hobbies outside of the farm. Seven years in and after real sacrifices to her personal life and well-being, Jennie decided things needed to change. No doubt her success in her business was in part due to some of these sacrifices, but I think she wishes she had begun the quest for balance from the get-go when it would have been easier to build rather than fight to re-claim. I was particularly ready to hear these words, and have been patting myself on the back ever since for striving for a more manageable workload. 

Lesson two:

If you have an exchange once (with a bride, etc), you’ll have it again. Use this to your advantage (IE use template emails!). 

We broke our day into two main parts: wedding biz talk at the studio, and flower farming/design talk out at the gorgeous farm. Both were completely valuable to me. In terms of the wedding side of the business, I wanted to know what Jennie has implemented to help her streamline and manage inquiries, what language she uses to attract and book the right brides, how she screens for a sincere appreciation (or at least understanding) of local flowers, and how she set her wedding business up for growth. You can bet I scribbled tips on all of it, and asked questions until both of our heads hurt (sorry, Jennie!). One current running through all of the processes was a quest to set up systems that could almost manage themselves. I find myself wasting time writing similar responses over and over, when I could be using the to my advantage and crafting responses that reflect my genuine reactions in an articulate way. Why haven't I been doing this all along? 

Lesson three:

Figure out what level of service you want to provide (in weddings, etc), and make sure that’s what you’re charging for.

I left the studio thinking a lot about pricing. Jennie knows her market and how much it can bare. She’s also honed in on exactly what level of service she’s providing - for her this involves acting as a true advisor in the crazy wedding planning process. And she charges for it. This caused me to come back to my business and look at my prices and at what I provide, and to make some adjustments to both what I offer and what I’m charging (both adding in some categories and subtracting in others). I realized that I need to raise my prices a bit in order to give the level of service that I really want to give. I don't want to be the cheap florist who is counting every stem and making a quick exit right after rushing to set up a wedding. I want to stay and help out grandma with her corsage, add that little bit of extra greenery to the barn door, deck out the sweetheart table a little more. More importantly, I want to be there for the bride- and groom-to-be and support them throughout the planning process. This means I can't be undercharging for my services.  

When I finally exhausted my office-related questions (or perhaps just forgot some of them with my swelling brain), we moved to the farm. This was of particular interest to me as I had spent 2015 setting up a successful flower farm and 2016 growing a successful wedding business, but I hadn’t yet figured out how to do both. Jennie had long been my role model in keeping both aspects of Love ‘n Fresh running full speed ahead. 

Lesson four:

Conduct smart flower crop trials and then know when to give up. Really learn your land and plan your farm accordingly. 

I wanted to know how she approached deciding on the specific mix of crops on her farm. Just as I suspected, each year she grew increasingly more of what grew well and almost effortlessly in her climate (you should check out her blog to see what some of these crops are - I love how she thinks outside of the box). This should be a no-brainer, but I find that so many of us struggle with certain crops year after year and don’t know when to give up. Meanwhile, we’re probably missing out on other crops that would grow like weeds for us if only we found them and gave them a chance.

photo courtesy of love 'n fresh flowers

photo courtesy of love 'n fresh flowers

Lesson five: 

Know thyself and thy land.

When it came to floral design, I came away with some quite helpful snapped pictures of a centerpiece in progress, tips on arranging, and diagrams I scribbled and have been struggling to decode ever since (I’ve got to work on my handwriting). It’s such a treat to watch someone describe their method while they design with their personal style. One thing that really hit home was Jennie’s focus on her bridal bouquets. She admitted to me that she had to eventually give up on the idea of imposing time limits for this task. To make a bouquet that she truly loves (which she does every time without fail), she’s learned that it just takes her a while. She wants it to. And rather than try to change this or reel herself in, she accepts it. And, you guessed it, she charges accordingly. 

I left Jennie's feeling inspired and ready to take things to the next level. It was such a rich experience for me and I encourage you all to reach out to others for mentorship. To best take advantage of the experience, here are some tips I've put together after reflecting on my day with Jennie. 

Roger elliott photography

Roger elliott photography

Tips for Being Mentored:

Do your research.

While there is no such thing as a stupid question and no mentor worth their weight will belittle you for asking it, treat your time together like gold (or, you know, high-value heated hoophouse space). Ask the questions that draw from an expert’s years of experience, not the ones you can learn from a book.

Be prepared.

Send ahead a general list of topics you want to cover, and be reasonable about how many you will really get to. Two separate lists might be helpful - a  ‘Must Cover’ and an ‘If Time Allows’. There is never enough time!

Pay generously

...for the service being provided to you. I’m all for barters and favors in life, but in this case, I think we need to place real value on the level of experience it takes in order to advise someone else. In my mind, these are the kinds of things you should be spending your precious dollars on. The money will come back around. 

 

Thanks for reading! Next time I'll follow up with some tips for taking on the role of a mentor.