Written by Janet Davies
Floralora is a lovely name, isn’t it? Sas Long named her company after a song her mother used to sing: Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, the Irish lullaby. Her sustainably-run flower farm and seasonal floral design company grew from the seed of an idea she got working in Toronto with food stylist Ruth Gangbar. “Ruth introduced me to Prince Edward County,” says Sas. “She knew I wanted to leave the city and learn about growing things and where our food comes from.” That was five years ago. Sas fell for The County, followed a dream and became a flower farmer.
She had studied sociology at Dalhousie, intending to go into social work, but says simply “Life led me into cooking.” Her interest in sourcing and supporting fresh locally grown food led her to explore The County. She began working with Vicki’s Veggies and before long decided she wanted to farm for herself. “The veg market was already served well here, but flowers felt like a niche not being filled. There were not many people field growing flowers in The County. In fact there are not many in all Ontario. When my mother passed away, I had the means to start my own business, and, honestly, it was also a way to help heal from that loss. By focusing my energy on creating something and growing things, I felt I was honouring my mother.”
“There’s a lot of awareness around the benefits of local grown food, but not so much around flowers,” she says. “Flowers are one of the worst crops for pesticide use, and most are flown from thousands of miles away so they can have a huge carbon footprint. People are starting to recognize that, and Floralora offers an alternative – locally grown, organic flowers.” There is also a definite trend toward informal, natural, garden-style flowers and arrangements. “We provide an alternative to larger wholesalers, too,” she says. “Florists can’t always get field-grown garden flowers to keep up with demand. I’ve had great reaction from florists and now I’m trying to grow even more unusual varieties for them.”
Sas sells her flowers in Toronto and The County. Most of her business in The County is weddings but she also supplies about 60 subscribers with a weekly fix of gorgeous fresh flowers. The idea works like the CSA (community supported agriculture) veggie produce boxes sold by small organic growers. “Selling CSA subscriptions give us cash flow in Spring before sales get started,” she says. “All through the summer we provide either a bucket of fresh garden flowers or a bouquet to clients every week.” Her subscribers include B & Bs, restaurants and private homes here and in Toronto and, not surprisingly, Floralora subs are popular gifts. Sas had planned to sell through Sobey’s in Picton, who are great supporters of local growers, but the punishing drought of 2016 put that on hold. “We go twice a week to Toronto for deliveries and farmers markets, including Dufferin Grove,” she says. “And we do the monthly Toronto Flower Market, which is all Ontario grown.”
Floralora does floral designs 9 months of the year for events using seasonal materials. “We grow heirloom squash and gourds, autumn broomcorn and grains like millet, and in winter we use evergreens and dried flowers for wreaths and centerpieces. This year for the first time we grew potted winter bulbs like amaryllis and paper whites, which went over really well.”
BECOMING A FLOWER FARMER
Becoming a flower farmer has changed Sas’s life. Coming to live in the country was a massive change. “I love downtown Toronto, but there was always something major missing for me. Nature. I would seek it out in little pockets you find in the city, but I needed more quiet and space.” She left the city and found peace and quiet in The County. Frankly it freaked her out at first. “When I first started working on a farm it struck me how incredibly quiet it was,” she laughs. “I had never spent so much time alone in silence with just my own thoughts. At first I wore earbuds and listened to music and podcasts, but not now. Now I love it. I see people who come to work for me go through the same thing. But you know it’s not really silence. The fields are filled with the sound of birds and the wind and nature.”
When she decided to start her business, Sas searched for a house with land. “I didn’t find anywhere right away, and I really didn’t want to lose momentum, so I rented land from my friends Joaquim and Amor Conde and planted about three quarters of an acre of annuals,” she says. “I got a handful of subscriptions, did a few weddings and one farmers market and just kept looking, with the help of a friend of my mum, Laurie Gruer at Chestnut Park. I almost bought a place on Fish Lake Road (up where Fiddlehead Farm is) which was absolutely beautiful, but I had my heart set on this area. I really loved the community down here in Athol and South Marysburgh.http://www.fronterra.ca/
In the end she bought a brick bungalow that was short on romance but offered a couple of acres of land, a heated workshop and was in move-in condition on the road to Point Petre. “That was 2014,” she says. “My sister bought the adjoining four acres as an investment and to help me, and now I pay her property taxes as rent, so I guess she’s like my landlord!” She has put up three greenhouses on the property to extend the growing season and has, so far, planted two and a half acres with annuals, perennials and flowering shrubs for cut flower sales. We asked her if she could help us replace a lawn with wildflowers, and she was enthusiastic, giving preparation advice and describing her wildflower seed mixes!
“The drought really hit us hard in 2016,” she says. “We managed to fill our regular orders but we couldn’t take anything new and had to cancel grocery and florist orders for six weeks – the six weeks that would usually be the most abundant.” Sas faced probably a flower farmer’s toughest challenge and survived. “This year we are investing in planting a lot more flowering shrubs, unique varieties of hydrangeas and all kinds of bearded iris and garden roses. Things wholesalers just don’t sell, or varieties that don’t travel well so you have to buy them from a local grower or not at all.”
WORKING THE FARM
“I have an internship program where I take two interns at a time,” she says. “This year there are 2 six month positions and 2 two month positions. It’s not much pay, but it’s an educational program and there are lots of people interested in sustainable farming, floral design and flowers. I also have a couple of local part time employees and some volunteers.” It has not been difficult for Sas to find labour. She advertises on social media and her website and gets applicants from all over the world. “I’ve had good luck and met amazing people.”
“I love my community. I love Point Petre. There are a lot of young people in the south end here, doing interesting things and there’s a strong food and farming community. I was welcomed with open arms and I have never felt so at home anywhere. As soon as I came I felt at home. Local people have been warm and welcoming and helpful. There is community here – people from here and not from here.”
Will she get involved in agritourism – inviting people to share her flower farm experience? “Nope,” she laughs. “That’s not really for me, I don’t think. I’m a friendly person, but I like my privacy and, honestly, I just want to farm and produce my products. I would love to find a way to connect with tourists and visitors outside of weddings, but I don’t really think tourists come here to buy flowers. Do they?” If they do, they should soon be able to scoop up armloads of Floralora flowers at Sobey’s.
ADVICE TO OTHERS
Sas says she would advise others thinking of moving to The County to try it out first. “Try living here for a little while in the winter,” she says wryly. “It’s different in winter here than it is in the city, and I know people who find it a challenge. I also know people who choose to live here seasonally, and that works for them. Me? I love it. There is great community here. I would say just Go For It! People are always excited to meet new people coming here, to find out what they’ve got in mind. Just figure out a way to get involved in the community, find things to do with others. Once you’re here, it’s such a cool place and easy to get involved.”
So Sas found her peace – and a lot of hard work. And she loves it. “The night time is amazing,” she says. “It’s so incredibly dark and there are a million stars. It’s so quiet. But then, I am down hehttp://buildanewlife.ca/wp-admin/update-core.phpre at Point Petre. One of my neighbours, Jenn Ackerman at Hollyhock Haven, has a lot of animals, and I’ll sometimes see her donkey just walking up the road by itself. So yes, it is different to living in the city!”
For startups or businesses looking to expand or re-locate to The County, you can fill out this Business Inquiry Questionnaire, and the Community Development Department will respond in 48 hours.