Penngrove farmer taps budding industry

Sonoma County is known for its rich agricultural heritage and idyllic landscapes that allow for the cultivation of a diverse range of crops, including cut flowers, a budding subset of the county’s legacy that grew to represent $4.5 million of the agricultural sector in 2015.

Flower growers large and small, including Penngrove resident and B-Side Farm founder Lennie Larkin, have helped contribute to the 8.6 percent, or $360,600, boost in the sector from 2014 to 2015 outlined in the recently released 2015 Crop Report, providing flowers for weddings, events, farmers markets, or for locally-sourced home decor.

Larkin, 34, found her way onto the local agricultural map when she took a post as a manager at Petaluma Bounty Farm, where she helped grow produce and flowers for local low-income families and seniors. Her love of flowers blossomed, inspiring her to cultivate a half-acre flower farm on her leased Penngrove land last summer.

“I think flowers really opened me up to beauty in a way that I hadn’t been before – I used to be a little more of a serious person and they just got me in touch with a different element of beauty in the world,” she said.

Larkin, who also serves as the west coast regional director of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, since expanded to a second plot in Sebastopol, growing as many as 75 different varieties of flowers through the changing seasons in gardens she manages with precision, pouring over research and curating colors with care.

“A lot of farms that grow flowers and sell bouquets put in every color of the rainbow, and that’s great for some people, but I’m trying to bring more of a refined palette to the everyday customer,” she said. “I’m focusing on color palettes that mix well, with lots of shapes and sizes.”

She also teaches classes and arranges her own bouquets, with the bulk of her business going to provide flowers for about 20 weddings this year. The Boston native is also a formative member of the North Bay Flower Collective, a network that seeks to promote and connect florists with local flower producers. She said the rapidly growing organization has been a barometer for the changing flower climate.

“(The collective) has grown like crazy – that has really been a place where you can visibly see how much the flower movement is booming and growing, people are joining the organization at least every week,” she said. “All these people farming on their own have a community, it’s been a really amazing place to connect local growers with one another and with local designers.”

Larkin also gets her flowers in front of consumers through a community-supported agricultural program, where she offers floral subscriptions in San Francisco and Petaluma, and through the Sonoma Flower Mart, a Sebastopol-based business that sells local flowers.

She said that locally-cultivated flowers provide a more vibrant product with more longevity than blooms shipped across the globe, which are often frozen for shipment and treated with chemicals. She said struggles arise when consumers underestimate the time, money and effort that goes into the often expensive local flower cultivation business, but added that buying local flowers has benefits.

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