An afternoon with our Grab N’ Grow blogger, Lennie Larkin.
In this post we decided to turn the interview tables on our blogger Lennie Larkin and ask her all the burning questions we’ve wanted to know about her life’s work outside of sharing her gardening know-how on the blog.
We drove out to the new site of Lennie’s B-Side Farm on one of those +90 degree days last week to walk the grounds and see the new digs. Over an ice cold glass of water while sitting at really old and long redwood table, Lennie told us all about her journey from growing up in Boston to becoming a farmer here in Sonoma County. She shared stories of her time at Petaluma Bounty and her new flower business that’s in full bloom. This post is best enjoyed over a fresh garden salad topped with some of Lennie’s favorite edible flowers – borage and calendula and, of course, rose petals. Enjoy!
Tells us who you are and what do you do …
Well, I’m the owner and the farmer at B Side Farm in Sebastopol – where I grow an insanely wide variety of specialty cut flowers. At the moment I’m farming on two parcels of leased land– one is just 1/3 of an acre that I packed full with specialty and rare perennials this spring, and then I have a 3 acre plot across the street with annuals in it.
I sell my flowers through many different channels. First and foremost I use them in floral designs for my wedding business, for a ‘Bouquet CSA’ where people sign up at the beginning of the season and get a fresh bouquet each week, and for resale and wholesale accounts to a close-knit group of florists all over the Bay Area.
But I’m a teacher at heart, and so much of my work is centered around educating people about growing and arranging flowers. Whether this is through workshops I teach at my farm, or just conversation I have with customers about specific varieties of flowers and why it’s so important to buy local – I’m always teaching and preaching local flowers.
That’s a great name for a business. How did you come up with it?
I’m music-obsessed and have likened the kind of flowers I grow to the ‘b-side’ of a record – it’s where you find the more hearty, substantive, rare and weird and beautiful stuff.
So, how did you get into farming here in Sonoma County?
Well in spite of a pretty suburban upbringing in Boston, come high school I had somehow become addicted to the outdoors and thought I wanted to be a farmer. Things changed a little after I went to a liberal arts college and started working in adult education and social work for a number of years. I found my work to be really important – I had this budding career in refugee resettlement as a mentor and caseworker. I felt professionally fulfilled but personally kind of drained, empty, and lost in the city. At some point I started to realize I needed to be outside working with the soil – I just didn’t feel grounded anywhere else – what a horrible pun, but it’s true!
So I decided to just jump in and make a big change. I applied to the farmer apprenticeship program at UC Santa Cruz and ended up getting hired on to work there for an additional year after the program ended. At that point I was really interested in growing food and teaching others how to grow food. I thought back to the teenagers I used to work with as a case worker, and the real need for not only increased food access but food and land education.
That’s when the Farm Manager position opened up at Petaluma Bounty Farm – and I jumped at the chance and moved up here almost blindly. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done – I ended up staying in the job for three years and now can’t imagine living anywhere else than Sonoma County.
Can you tell us a little more about Petaluma Bounty?
Well, I knew of it because all of the previous managers had gone through the same the program at UC Santa Cruz. The Bounty is a non-profit educational farm, a pretty rare and special community farm that is dedicated to changing the food system on a really local level. My role there was to work with the community to grow sustainable food and get it into into the hands of people who need it, and in doing so teach farming skills to anyone who wanted to learn.
Does the community come and work the land with you?
Oh yeah – almost daily. It is a very social place. On any given day there were teens, families, and college students working together – you name it. Sometimes a family new to town would stop in as a way of connecting to the community, sometimes we’d get interns looks for school credit, sometimes budding farmers.
How did you make the switch to become a “Flowerpreneur?”
(Chuckles)…is that a word?! (Yes it is! – Ed.) So, I started to grow more and more flowers to bring beauty to the Bounty Farm and to sell at farmers markets to bring in a little extra income. We also wanted to attract bees and other pollinators and I sort saw that flowers might also attract people as a gateway into farming. I was entirely surprised at how much I started to love the flowers. I’ve never really done anything artistic in my life other than play music. Creating art with flowers really opened up some new doors for me and – this sounds cheesy- but brought happiness and beauty and calm into my life.
My second year at the Bounty I started a little flower farm in Penngrove on the side. I had made some great connections with florists in the area and the process of getting my flowers into their capable hands was both exciting and seamless. The business started to take of a life of its own.
Sounds ambitious and awesome all at the same time!
It was exhausting but I felt completely alive and engaged. I’d get up at 6am and head out to my farm for few hours and then go over to the Bounty Farm and work the day over there. In the evening I’d be back on my farm again to finish out the day designing bouquets or harvesting flowers. I was working around clock – it was pretty crazy and I hardly saw my friends or boyfriend or family.
I loved the Bounty, loved the community, but it became pretty clear in that third year with them that growing flowers, teaching flowers, and designing were passions I had to see through.
I’ll bet a lot of people reading this are thinking, “Wow, I wish I could do that.” How hard is it REALLY to be a farmer?
It is unbelievably hard to sustain yourself over the long run as a small organic farmer. The burn out rate is high in this industry – you work yourself to the bone and are running full force at 100% with no plan for self-care or rejuvenation, much less planning for any sort of future or retirement. You literally have no life and no sleep for the first two to five years. Around year 5 is when a lot of people give up because they’re just exhausted. Many don’t pay themselves for a number of years – it just doesn’t always add up.
Don’t get me wrong, there are amazing and smart farmers out there making it work, looking closely at their bottom lines, and refining their systems to stay in it for the long haul. But it feels like an uphill battle.
That being said, everyone can be a back yard farmer even in the suburbs – it enriches you. There is such value of growing your own food and flowers, and I really think everyone should try it.
So you recently started offering some flower design and gardening workshops at your farm. Can you tell us a little about those?
I could talk about my workshops all day – they’re my pride and joy! The classes I offer are meant for anyone who loves flowers and loves to get outside. No experience or green thumb or design skills needed. I keep them pretty small and personal, and most are held on the weekends or evenings.
The Garden Flower School is a 2 hour workshop that I offer a few times throughout the season. It’s half garden geek-out and half floral workshop. We walk around the garden and talk about what’s growing, cut flowers, and then bring them to the shaded porch to make arrangements. Students then chill out and have a glass of wine while I do a demo. Then everybody gets to make their own arrangement from the flowers they picked. I walk around and help people with their designs that they take home.
What makes you a good teacher?
I think my enthusiasm for what I’m doing is what jumps out at my students – the love of flowers is contagious. And I intentionally create a super supportive environment – there’s no way to feel nervous or inhibited when arranging flowers at my farm.
After all, I’ve only discovered my own design style over the past few years – it’s not like I’ve been doing this my whole life. I just kept trying new things until I figured out how to create my own brand of natural arrangements – so I love helping my students start to figure out what works for them.
Who are the people that typically enroll in your workshops?
It’s a really fun mix. Sometimes it’s people who are out to learn a new skill. Other times it’s people looking to make a career change or hobbyists who are huge flower nerds like me. And then there are people who are just looking for something fun and different to do for an afternoon. We pick some flowers, have some wine… how can you go wrong?
Looking ahead just a bit, where will you be and what do you think you’ll be doing in 2020?
As is clear, I’m really jazzed about the workshops. I hope this will become a bigger part of my business. I hope to one day be a land owner. I hope to keep working with brides who are excited about the sustainability work I’m doing and want to support local businesses through their weddings.
I’m also on the hunt to expand my bouquet CSA. The popularity of local produce CSA’s and the growing local flower movement are great indications that there’s a desire out there. People want a connection to where their food comes from and they’re starting to think about the story behind their flowers, too.
How does a Bouquet CSA work?
People can become members and receive fresh cut flowers and arrangements on a regular basis just like when they join a produce CSA and get a box of fresh, locally grown veggies. Right now, I’ve got weekly pickup spots in Petaluma, Sebastopol and San Francisco, and still have space for folks to jump in for the remainder of the season. The dahlias are about to start blooming – who would want to miss that?!
Ok – moving on. What is the craziest thing you’ve ever seen or heard as a farmer in Sonoma County?
Birds eating my brand new drip tape I put down in my annual flower field. Crazy! Birds eat seeds and bugs. Not drip tape. I think they’re just thirsty.
What frustrates you most about trying to be a farmer here?
I have a hard time dealing with customers that expect prices to be really low because they see flowers being sold for pennies at the supermarket. My flowers are fresh, they’re bursting with scent, they’ll last far longer than anything imported that you’ll find at the local store. They just have more life to them – it’s clear from the moment you see them. Until they see them, smell them, touch them, and watch them last for days and sometimes weeks on their kitchen table, people don’t really understand that it’s expensive to grow flowers locally and sustainably, and beyond that, that they’re worth every cent.
What organizations do you trust and rely on to be successful?
I’m very involved in the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, a professional organization for the cut flower industry. I went to my first conference in Dallas a few years ago and was blown away. The conference had sessions for all sorts of topics that really helped me be a better farmer. I became an advocate and shortly thereafter was given an opportunity to speak at the next conference. That went well and I was nominated to be on the board. So now I’m the West Coast Region Director – a really rewarding role to fill.
I am also very active in the North Bay Flower Collective. It started just a few years ago with a few local flower farmers that met informally to share ideas. And now, it’s grown to include dozens of both florists and flower farmers. We buy and sell from one another, share tons of information, tour different farms and floral design studios, and just generally support one another’s businesses in every way imaginable. It’s great to be a part of a thriving local industry like that.
That’s really cool. So, you’ve been our primary blogger for Grab N’ Grow for over a year now. How has the blog changed since you started and what are some of your favorite stories? What can we look forward to in the future?
My community up here in the North Bay is largely centered around agriculture. I know a lot of cool people doing cool things. So one of my favorite things is to sit down with friends of mine that are doing all these cool things and ask them all the questions I’ve always wanted to ask and to share that with Grab N’ Grow blog readers.
It’s been an amazing platform to be able to write about all the innovative things that are going on in Sonoma County. From Hedda and her journey into herbalism to Jordan growing food for the bees, to Wendy Krupnick teaching gardening. It’s been a great way to showcase these amazing people. It’s also been a way for me to dive back into those topics that I’ve always wanted to learn more about.
Like Cucumber Beetles for example. I wrote that blog post when I was dealing with that pest on my farm and none of my tried and true methods were working. I had to go back into the archives of my farming education to find the answers that I shared in the blog. I really loved the feed back – the comments and questions from the community were great.
The first six months of posts were all based on questions I was getting from the Petaluma Bounty community. In the future, I am excited to reach out and connect to more innovators in the community that I’ve been wanting to meet, and use this as means to learn and share that knowledge with our readers.
Thanks so much Lennie for taking the time with us today. Please tell our readers where they can learn more about you, B-Side Farm and your Flower CSA.
Oh you’re so welcome – this was fun. In addition to my website – www.b-sidefarm.com, I have a really active Instagram account – @b.side.farm – that’s pretty fun. I try to brighten everyone’s day by posting really beautiful pictures of flowers. And right there on my website people can get more information about the bouquet CSA and sign up for my email newsletter – that’s the best place to learn about what’s going on at the farm, and what new workshops are coming up.