With COVID-19, Pollinate Flowers was able to expand their dry flower program, which helps them utilize more of their plants and extend their season. “It’s part of using all the stuff we’re growing,” John Peterson said.
Photo by Aliya Hall

by Aliya Hall

When John Peterson and Jeremi Carroll first moved to Newberg, OR, in 2012 to grow their farming dream, they started with one shovel.They had a permaculture farm in mind, and although it took some trial and error, eight years later they now have a biodiversity oasis in their own backyard.

“This has always been my dream to have a crazy secret faerie garden,” Peterson said. “So there’s that part that’s cool and turning that into a business.”

The couple owns Pollinate Flowers, whose ethos hinges on regenerative farming and sustainable floral design. Despite starting with produce, Pollinate rebranded in 2018 to hone in on the fresh and dry flower market, with smaller amounts of their produce also available for purchase.

“We didn’t have a real streamlined process for vegetable production, and a lot of other farms already have it figured out and we were trying to find our niche,” Carroll said. “No one in our area was really doing cut flower production … but with wineries in our area it’s a market that’s untapped.”

Carroll described Peterson as a “plant nerd” whose focus is on the farming aspect; Carroll focuses on the floral design. The bouquets are made using the 1,000 species of plants they have on their property that they grow similarly to a forest. Carroll said they “utilize all layers the forest creates.” For example, they use vertical space by building an arbor over the path so they can produce grapes and hops.

“Each layer is producing something,” Carroll explained, adding there’s the over-storage, shrubs, vines, an herbaceous layer and a root layer.

Although floral design may appear to be a sustainable industry, Peterson said it isn’t. Chemical sprays are used and are much harsher than the chemicals used on food crops. Pollinate doesn’t use sprays of any kind or till their property because soil health is paramount to their operation.

With 80% of cut flowers grown outside of the U.S., COVID-19 has also heavily impacted the industry, giving large producers no market to sell and no choice but to compost their entire season, Peterson said. This gives local florists, however, a chance to shine.

“We’ve done better than previously because people and florists are looking to us,” Peterson said. “They’re more interested in local flowers than in grocery store flowers.”

In June, Pollinate was able to open their first retail location, where customers could buy bouquets and wreaths; they can purchase online too. Pollinate also sells flowers subscriptions to both customers and businesses. Peterson said last year most of their income came from wineries and other large events, which have diminished during this time, but they’re still seeing an “upward trend.”

“We’re more profitable this year [2020] than last year,” Peterson said. “Growth is happening, so despite everything, people still want flowers.”

He said that it’s a different business plan, because instead of selling a couple hundred dollars’ worth of flowers they’re selling closer to $50 at a time. “Our business has grown but we’ve worked a lot harder for it,” Carroll explained.

COVID-19 also allowed them to give more time to different aspects of their business, such as their dry flower program and wreath kits. They were able to experiment and set up the infrastructure that will allow for them to extend their work season into the holidays.

Peterson said that in the floral design world, there are specific species that are prioritized but there’s a wide range of species that also work and make more unique additions. He used Silver Berry as an example that probably wouldn’t be found at the Portland Flower Market but is still a fun winter evergreen shrug to use in arrangements.

Pollinate also uses plants at different stages, like seed pods or leaves at differently colored stages. Carroll said there’s always certain elements that are needed for arrangements, like big focal flowers, secondary flowers and fillers. When it comes to planting, they coordinate with the trends seen in the floral industry, and plant their color schemes for the upcoming year.

“I accommodate that with things I like,” Carroll said. “I’m big on natural, organic design and interesting green foliage and textures.”

For their dried flower program, Carroll said it was an experiment this year to see what dried well and what didn’t. Normally, drying flowers is a secondary process for a lot of growers, Peterson explained, and they’re trying to incorporate it into the business to be as important as their fresh flowers. This means they’ll plant some species specifically to use for drying, making sure to harvest at peak times so they can hold onto their color.

“It’s part of using all the stuff we’re growing,” Peterson said. “They’re here and beautiful and we just have to put it all together.”

Beyond everything above ground, Peterson ensures protecting and amending the soil is important. In addition to compost, they add limestone or kelp meal and test their soil every year.

They use a broad fork to open the soil and work compost down into it without having to break the soil structure. At the end of the season when they trade out a plant, they cut the plant to the base to hold the soil in place and let the roots compost down below before putting a fresh layer of plants on top of it.

Going forward, Pollinate is planning on branching out into making essential oils from their plants and starting a flower co-op. As the business continues to grow, Peterson said it’s rewarding to be sustainable from an economic standpoint as well.

“You have to make enough to not just keep it going but pay yourself so you have an income to have a comfortable life, or you won’t be able to do it very long,” he explained. “It’s rewarding to see it come to fruition.”

For Carroll, it’s creating beauty and finding an integral role for him in the farm. He said when he delivers the flowers it’s a “full circle” moment.

“We planted and harvested and then handed [the flowers] off,” he said. “People are more excited about flowers than produce, and getting to see that expression of joy and gratitude is really rewarding.”