Fresh cut flower farms spring up around Detroit

Sarah Pappas started Fresh Cut Flower Farm on the edge of Woodbridge in 2013. Her flowers now decorate local shops

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Detroit — Sarah Pappas talks about the white snapdragons, purple-pink dianthuses or yellow rudbeckias that sprout on her flower farm and get bundled in bouquets like people in her life with strict needs and wants.

Sarah Pappas has quarter-acre flower farm on the corner of Rosa Parks and West Forest.

“They want it to be cool, dim and still. And they want you you to change the water and cut the stems at least once in a week,” said Pappas, sitting under a shaded tree at her Fresh Cut Flower Farm. The “they” she was referring to were vibrant bouquets for sale last week.

From 4-8 p.m. on Thursdays, Pappas, 33, invites the community to explore her quarter-acre farm on the corner of Rosa Parks and West Forest. The farm faces a decaying abandoned building and is partially gated by a black fence, yet passersby can’t miss the hoop house and pops of petals swaying in the wind.

“I really just want people to experience the farm and get into it,” said Pappas, wearing a yellow and white floral skirt. Her short brown curls topple over her straw visor.

Pappas started the farm in 2013 after working in food systems and agriculture for more than a decade.

The west corner of Fresh Cut Detroit Flower Farm showing Dianthus, (purple flowers) blooming on July 6, 2017.

“(This farm) was a very good fit for where and when I found myself ready to settle down and begin something,” said Pappas, who grew up in a suburb of Hartford, Connecticut.

In the last few years, fresh cut flower farms have sprung in urban and rural areas across the U.S., according to Dave Dowling, president of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, which has more than 1,200 members. One reason, he said, is that flowers generate the highest income per acre.

“An acre of cut flowers will make more money than an acre of almost anything else,” said Dowling, naming corn, tomatoes and cucumbers as crops that have lower price tags.

Based in Fredon, New Jersey, Dowling said he knows several flower farmers in Michigan — the association lists more than 50 on its website — and the harsh winters aren’t deterrents.

“Even though you have a shorter growing season, they can sell a lot in those five months,” he said. “The biggest thing about having any cut flower farm is having a place to sell (flowers). If you have a beautiful flower farm in Detroit, but no customers willing to pay for what you’re growing, you’re not going to succeed.”

Pappas isn’t the only fresh cut flower farmer in the city. There’s Detroit Abloom in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. Ambassador Fridge, Coriander Farm and Fisheye Farms also grow flowers, as well as produce, in Detroit.

Sue Hudnut from the Greening of Detroit, a nonprofit that plants community gardens in the city, said these farms not only beautify areas, but they often utilize vacant land. Pappas’ farm, for instance, sits on formerly vacant lots.

“Whether it is a vegetable garden, a flower garden or just a beautiful green space that is maintained, it shows the community a work ethic and provides a small number of jobs,” Hudnut said.

“Kids also can see that there are different ways of earning a living beyond an office or a factory. What an exciting thing to have on your block for a city kid.”

Dianthus and Snapdragon flowers bloom in the west corner garden of Fresh Cut Detroit Flower Farm.

Picking local flowers

Serenity Sanford opened the gate and was greeted by Pappas’ chihuahua-terrier mix Ruti, short for Rutabaga.

The 23-year-old Eastpointe Community Schools teacher heard about the flower farm through a relative and decided to take the kids she nannies, ages 6 and 9, on an outdoor adventure.

“We go to the store and buy flowers,” she said. “They don’t get to see them being grown.”

The St. Clair Shores resident also wanted to scope out flowers for her wedding in September.

“I’m going to do my own flowers for my wedding,” she said, “and instead of getting flowers from somewhere where they come in from a different country, I think it would be awesome to get them (locally).”

Besides offering wildflowers for weddings, the farm delivers bouquets to a dozen local businesses, such as Astro Coffee and Sister Pie.

And for 10 weeks, customers can receive a weekly bouquet delivery for $250, or $150 for pick-up. The arrangements are based on what’s in season.

Our/Detroit, a vodka distillery on Bagley, has ordered bouquets since opening in 2014 and uses them to decorate the tasting room in the spring through fall.

“(They) give the space a nice seasonal pop of color,” co-owner Kate Bordine said. “It’s always fun to see what we’ll get each week to adorn the tables.”

The Farmers Hand, Corktown’s first organic market that opened last year, sells Fresh Cut flowers, among other Michigan-made products. The market returns 70 cents of every dollar back to their partners, which co-founder Rohani Foulkes said is a higher profit margin than traditional grocery stores.

Agriculture is one of Michigan’s biggest economic growth outputs, she said, falling only behind California in terms of agriculture diversity.

“Especially for the city of Detroit, where urban farming has been around for a very long time,” Foulkes said, “we find it incredibly important to support our small local farmers, support their livelihood and make sure they’re paid fair wages.”

The distillery Our/Detroit in Southwest Detroit displays bouquets from the Fresh Cut Flower Farm in its tasting room.

Blossoming in Detroit

Pappas hadn’t owned a farm until she got to Detroit, but a medley of experiences ripened her green thumb.

Pappas majored in Middle Eastern Studies at George Washington University. After graduating, she worked for an anti-hunger nonprofit, then called FoodExchange in New York City. There, she and several youth leaders tended to an urban garden at a senior center.

“We would walk, like a big bag of lettuce, down the street to this soup kitchen that was connected to the same organization. It was lovely,” she said. “I came out of two years of that work feeling really passionate about learning more about farming and feeling as though, especially in urban settings, doing whatever you can to support people’s food sovereignty is paramount.”

Thanks to an AmeriCorps Education Award, she attended a University of California-Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems program, where she learned about production scale farming. That experience led to two years on a 10-acre CSA farm in Poughkeepsie, New York, working with farmers employed by a nonprofit.

“That’s something our region struggles with currently — paying farmers to run nonprofit farm sites in a fair and reasonable manner,” she said.

Pappas landed in the Motor City in 2010 to work for the Greening of Detroit, where she ran farm sites and the apprenticeship program. For three years, she worked at Plum Street Market Garden, a greenhouse site next to MGM Grand Casino and operated by Keep Growing Detroit. She also visited farms across the city for the Garden Resource Program, which distributes seeds and other resources for family and community gardens.

In 2013, Pappas decided it was time to start her own farm.

A Garden Resource Program member brought his horse to till the first field.

More than 150 annuals and biennials now grow on the farm that Pappas expanded to an additional three lots. During the main season May through Halloween, four part-time employees keep the flowers blooming.

Pappas admitted she has “a lot of favorites,” but if she had to pick one, snapdragons — which just peaked in an array of hues — are her “true-blue.”

Her flowers, she promises, have “great vase life” and will last seven to 10 days if cared for properly.

Remember, she said, clasping a bouquet with her dirt-encrusted fingernails, “they prefer cool and shade.”

More than 150 annuals and biennials grow on the farm that Sarah Pappas expanded to an additional three lots.

Fresh Cut Flower Farm

W. Forest and Rosa Parks

Visiting hours: 4 p.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays