By Maureen O’Connell
Ask Melane Hoffmann her occupation, and she will tell you that she is a farmer and her crops are flowers. Melane, her husband Tom, and their three children live on Hidden Ridge Farm in Clarksburg. For the many years that I have known Melane, she worked outside the home while devoting many hours to her children’s schools and sporting activities and to local community causes, so last year, when I heard that she had started a commercial flower business, I was curious about her new venture. I recently visited Melane to tour her flower farm and to talk about her new business career.
You often hear about people who make a career change at that certain time of life called mid-life. It doesn’t always have to be a mid-life crisis or a reaction to an empty nest. Melane was in that stage of life when she wanted to do something different. Her children were grown, and she now had the time to travel down a new pathway. That pathway led to flowers. Melane and her family have lived for over twenty years in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve, and she strongly supports its tenets and goals. It is considered the country’s most successful farmland preservation program. The county has many large farms growing wheat, soybeans, hay, and vegetables, and others raising cattle, but there are many small, family-run farms that add immensely to the value of the Agricultural Reserve. Melane believes that her small, two-acre flower farm is a very viable addition to the preservation of farmland and to the Agricultural Reserve. She also sees her business as a means to provide local students a fair-wage job opportunity. To this end, she employs two students from Clarksburg High School’s Horticultural Program. They work two days a week, on their own time, not school time, weeding, handpicking harmful bugs, such as Japanese beetles, harvesting the flowers, and preparing floral bouquets. Melane teaches them about the plants, the good/bad bugs, and cultural methods of flower farming that protect the environment. For any students who might be interested in horticulture as a career, Melane offers them a valuable hands-on exposure to this line of work.
How does one get into growing flowers as a business? You first have to do your homework, and Melane did. You have to know plants. Which ones do best in our climate and our pest environment? Is there a market for your products? How much time and money can be put into this? Do you want to grow organically or chemically?
I asked Melane how she went about creating her flower farm. The first thing she had to address was her soil type. Was it alkaline, acidic, loamy, hard-clay, or rocky? Melane was lucky, her allotted garden plot was previously a hay field; it was loamy, but very rocky. The large pile of stones in the far area of the garden area attributed to this fact. In her first business year, she had to buy seeds or flower plugs to get started; this can be very time and labor consuming. This year, she had stock available from cuttings last year and transplants from growing perennials. Melane does not mulch her garden plots. She says it can be counterproductive and very costly. How does she water her plants? She does have a series of irrigation hoses throughout the plots, but she deliberately chooses plants that are drought tolerant. The bad bugs, like the Japanese beetles, can decimate a flower garden in a short amount of time, and diseases can reduce their flower output and significantly weaken a plant. Melane’s flower gardens are one hundred percent organic. She does not use any chemicals to control pests and diseases. I asked her how she deals with our area’s outstanding nemesis, the Japanese Beetle. Sheer manpower and buckets of soapy water. As needs be, she and her student workers pick them from the plants and drown them in the water. That does work, but it is very labor intensive.
Melane practices what she speaks. She does not use synthetic fertilizers. Why waste money on commercial fertilizers when your kitchen vegetable scraps, grass clippings, and fall leaves provide you the best fertilizer for free?
How did Melane select the flowers she was going to grow? She had an advantage in this area: For years she had beautiful home gardens. Through experience, she knew which plants would do well in our environment. They would have to survive in high summer temperatures, humidity, and drought conditions. They would have to face Japanese beetles, rose slugs, thrips, leaf miners, and more hungry insects. The key to a successful garden is the ability to choose the right plant for the right place.
Melane is now starting her second year in the flower business. Is it profitable? Is the time input worth the monetary return? Where does she sell her flowers? What are her plans for the future?
Melane said that when she began this business, a fellow flower farmer advised her: “Don’t give up after the first year. It takes time for any business to grow, and the flower business is no different.” After slim monetary returns last year, with start-up costs, soil preparation costs, garden supplies, and inventory costs, she thinks she might see a slight profit this year—but money is not what motivates Melane. As anyone who is into gardening knows, the return is that special connection to nature and your ability, as small as it might be, to contribute to the betterment of the environment.
Where can you buy Melane’s flowers? Currently, you can find her floral bouquets at Kingsbury’s Orchards and Lewis Orchards, both on Peach Tree Road, Dickerson. You can also pick up subscription bouquets at Novel Places Bookstore in Clarksburg.