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Valley entrepreneurs find their niches in the flower industry

Randi B. Hagi
A dahlia bloom at Mary Jo's Flowers is protected from pests in preparation for a wedding.

The flower industry takes many forms, from custom arrangements to agritourism to manufacturing, which produces hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business each year in Virginia. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi spoke with four local entrepreneurs, each cultivating floral businesses within different niches.

I started my flower power tour at Mary Jo's Flowers – a farm outside Lacey Spring in Rockingham County. At the end of a country lane overhung by trees, the rolling hillside was dotted by flower beds, hoop houses, and a greenhouse. There's also a windmill that Mary Jo Swartzendruber says she doesn't even hear anymore.

[metal screeching]

MARY JO SWARTZENDRUBER: So, there's gardens here …

Randi B. Hagi
Mary Jo Swartzendruber started working in agriculture in Iowa, and started her own business in 2005 after moving to Virginia.

This is Swartzendruber's 18th year in the business. She's been on this property for eight.

[sound of footsteps in the grass]

SWARTZENDRUBER: Here, we've got asters, more celosia. These will be marigolds.

Normally, Swartzendruber has to irrigate her beds, but there's been plenty of natural rainfall this year. Besides the unpredictability of weather, pests are her biggest challenge, since she grows all her flowers organically. She showed me several dahlia blooms that she was counting on for an upcoming wedding, and had covered with see-through mesh bags.

While she still does some custom wedding orders, her bread and butter these days is bouquets that she pre-makes and sells at the farmer's market in Harrisonburg.

SWARTZENDRUBER: My mainstay is always what I call a "garden bouquet."... that's a mix of a lot of colors, and that's something I am known for … I do lots of different combinations, but I gravitate towards purples.

She also sells wholesale flowers to other florists, such as Abby Chick of Blakemore's Flowers in Harrisonburg.

ABBY CHICK: People use flowers to celebrate. They use it to mourn. So when I talk to my customers, it's not just like a quick transaction. I hear a story about something usually pretty important in their life.

The shop first opened in the 1940s. Chick bought the place 10 years ago, when she was just 26. Steering the business through the pandemic has been intense – and in some ways, surprising.

CHICK: What was kind of the crazy thing that nobody saw coming, because there were so many industries that collapsed, retail floristry was actually one that kind of came back bigger and stronger than it had been in years. People couldn't get together, so we were sending out like 10 to 20 arrangements a day just to the local nursing homes … Honestly, it's reignited my passion for what I do, because I saw the service that we were providing to people in one of the darkest times in our history.

Randi B. Hagi
Flowers at Harmony Harvest Farm bloom against the backdrop of the mountains.

The pandemic also brought big changes to Harmony Harvest Farm in Weyers Cave, which Jessica Hall co-owns with her sister and mother. The 20-acre property, which has seven field acres and eight production houses, overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains from a breezy hilltop.

JESSICA HALL: Our kind of signature has been that we pioneered shipping directly from the flower fields nationwide to the retail public.

They were already shipping flowers when the pandemic hit, but it was mostly wholesale, to other florists. But when a lot of their business dried up in March 2020, Hall needed to find a use for all the daffodils they had growing. She reached out to a teacher friend in Pennsylvania.

HALL: They created a multi-age curriculum that profiled the daffodil, provided a coloring sheet, talked about the history and significance of the flower. We included one of our flower frogs and a 10-stem bunch of daffodils and coined it the "Happy Box." … We sold over a hundred overnight.

Randi B. Hagi
Jessica Hall is a Fort Defiance High School graduate who studied horticulture at Virginia Tech.

The "flower frogs" are another facet of the business. It's a metal base that anchors flower stems onto upright pins, and was widely used in floral design before green foam blocks took over. Hall and her family manufacture the frogs on the property and ship them worldwide.

They also host public events including bouquet workshops and "dahlia and desserts," and they participate in breeding trials for new varieties of heirloom mums. Hall drove me out to see the 'mum house' in a golf cart.

HAGI: Yeah, so what are some of the qualities that they're – [buzzer sounds] – oh, oh, sorry. [laughs]

[Hall clicks off the reverse button]

HALL: There's nothing – listen, all of my kids have gone all over this thing. It is fine. So we're looking for how many blooms per stem … quality of color, so a lot of those coppery, more saturated color. Also keeping in mind the late season that they bloom … how long of a vase life it has, the length of the stem, the size of the bloom, whether it's been easy for us to grow it.

Another floral agritourism destination is White Oak Lavender Farm near Cross Keys. I tagged along on a recent tour led by owner Julie Haushalter.

["I Want You Back" by The Jackson 5 playing in the background]

JULIE HAUSHALTER: Does anybody grow lavender?


Randi B. Hagi
Julie Haushalter holds up a bottle of clear lavender water -- a byproduct of the distilling process -- and one of the "liquid gold" lavender essential oil.

HAUSHALTER: [gasp] You do?!

In addition to letting guests peruse the lavender beds, petting zoo, and winery on-site, the Haushalter family also uses the flowers to make everything from ice cream to lotions to eye masks. Here's Julie explaining how they distill essential oils –

JULIE HAUSHALTER: We boil it, and it starts to steam, and it goes up through that screen bottom, and goes all through that lavender and it causes the lavender to sweat. … And so you've got these flower buds of the lavender like this, and the oil comes out and is sitting on top. The steam comes through and just scoops that up.

Creating yet another way for consumers to enjoy Virginia-grown flowers.

Randi B. Hagi
A tourist checks a lavender stem to see if it's ready for harvesting.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.