Oh, where does the time go? When I blogged back in January about Blue House Farm, I promised I would feature a local, organic farm that grows sustainable flowers on a monthly basis so that we could all get to know the hardworking dedicated farmers that bring us such beauty, a little better.
I haven’t broken that promise, its just taken me a little longer to get to it :) At Bonny Doon Garden Co., we had a busy February with Valentine’s Day, and an abundance of wedding inquiries. And, gratefully, we have seen more business at the shop and with online orders. So much to keep up with! Along with that, writing creatively can be challenging. When I was younger I loved writing, mostly journaling as a creative outlet, but when I found I had a talent for floral design THAT became the most free-flowing outlet I had known. I’ve let the right side of the brain in the dust most of the time. Now that I have more “right side brain” responsibilities it’s giving me the challenge I think I need to grow, which brings me to our next featured farm, Fifth Crow Farm. Boy, do they know how to grow organic flowers! It’s obvious that there’s love and care with every bloom. I’ve never seen such natural perfection — if that makes sense!
I asked them a few questions and they have given me a detailed account of their purpose and background story. Enjoy!
Dawn: Please provide readers with a little history on your farm and how you got started.
Fifth Crow: Fifth Crow is owned by three partners: Mike Irving, Teresa Kurtak, and John Vars. The three of us met through, and are graduates of, the UCSC Farm & Garden program.
Here is a little history of how the three of us met and our backgrounds in farming:
In 2002, Mike Irving and John Vars met while they were studying sustainable agriculture at the UCSC Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS). Mike and John’s friendship continued to grow in 2003 when they both became second-year apprentices at CASFS and helped teach future farmers and educators. In 2004, Mike moved back East, where he managed a small farm for two years called Holly Hill Farm.
After UCSC, John managed Green Oaks Creek Farm near Año Nuevo State Park (2004-2005), where he honed his farming skills and greatly increased their production. After that, he managed the farm at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur for two seasons where he taught the basics of organic farming to dozens of interns.
In 2006, Teresa did the UCSC Farm & Garden Apprenticeship. From there she went on to work for the Ecological Farming Association eventually leaving that position to pursue graduate work with the aim of furthering her interest in food and agriculture-related policy and non-profit work. Teresa has a masters degree in Social Documentary from UCSC, though in between finishing she was sidetracked (or perhaps put on track) when she met her now husband, Mike Irving in 2006 at the Eco-Farm Conference. After Mike and Teresa met at EcoFarm they ran a small diverse farm together in Santa Cruz until January of 2008.
In 2008, Mike and Teresa partnered with John Vars and with a shoestring budget, a supportive local community, ambitious dreams, and a lot of sore muscles Fifth Crow Farm was born. Today Mike and Teresa are married with a son, Charles Oakley Irving (born March 1, 2015) and a daughter, Eleanor Joyce (born Febuary 2017). John and his wife Maggi are also having a great time learning to be parents with their baby girl (also born March 1, 2015) Naima Hope Vars, and they are expecting another baby in the spring of 2018.
Emily Leshner, flower production and sales manager for the past 3 seasons, came to Fifth Crow in 2012 as a vegetable production assistant. After one year in vegetables, Teresa saw an opportunity, in Emily to expand Fifth Crows flower operation and Emily became Fifth Crow’s first flower production assistant. Since then, they have greatly increased the flower team on the farm. This year the flower team boasted 4.5 full-time workers and the highest sales ever.
Dawn: How did you come up with your farm’s name?
This is probably the hardest question to answer and the answer is multifaceted. The owners wanted a name with a certain cadence to it, two short words. It was also important that the name is related to something about the farm or about farming, and that it was somewhere in the intersection of edgy, reverent, and cute. So one night, with a registration deadline looming the next day, Mike, John, and Teresa narrowed it down from a list of many names and finally decided on Fifth Crow Farm.
After the official name was registered, we learned about a Native American Myth, in which the Fifth Crow saves the world. We often reference this myth as part of our name origin story, because it has such a nice ring to it, especially with farmer’s market customers, but in all honesty, it was only after the fact that we learned about the myth.
Dawn: What does organic farming and growing sustainable flowers mean to you?
Fifth Crow: Here at Fifth Crow, we go a little bit beyond organic. Fifth Crow Farm sees it as an imperative to farm with future generations in mind. We want our farm to be more than just a business: we strive to make it an engine for positive change in the food system. We want to build an agriculture that is economically viable, socially just, and ecologically sound. To us this means stewarding our land in a way that not only respects but also improves habitat for wildlife and builds better soil for future farmers. It also means creating a healthy, fulfilling, and fair work environment while providing our customers with the best tasting, most nutritious, highest quality food possible.
Diversity and respect underpin our land stewardship practices and methods. We are committed to sustainable production methods and are certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). We do not use synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides and rather manage fertility with compost, cover crops, and organic fertilizers. We control pests and diseases with crop rotation, exclusion, beneficial insects, and only use organically approved sprays as a last resort. We grow a great diversity of crops not only to offer choices to our customers but because we feel it is a better practice than mono-cropping.
We have partnered with the NRCS (FDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service) to establish native hedgerow plantings to provide habitat and travel corridors for beneficial insects and pollinators as well as installing irrigation systems that conserve both energy and water. By raising our chickens in mobile chicken coops not only do we have a happy flock but we gradually spread fertility on the field that aids in controlling weeds and disrupting the life cycles of plant pathogens and pests thus enhancing the future growing conditions for row crops that will later replace the pasture.
While many consumers are aware of the importance of buying organic produce for its quality and health benefits, most do not recognize how vital it is to buy local, organic cut flowers as well. Organic flowers are better not only for you as the consumer but also for the environment and for the people growing and handling the flowers. According to the USDA, 80% of cut flowers sold here in the United States are grown in other countries. Most of these flowers come from countries in South America like Colombia and Ecuador, but some come from as far away as Kenya and Thailand. In order for flowers to be imported, they must pass a rigorous inspection by the department of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to make sure they are free of harmful pests and potential plant diseases. In order to ensure that their flowers will be successfully imported, cut flower growers around the world are led to use heavy amounts of pesticides and highly toxic chemicals, some of which are banned in the U.S. and other countries. Imagine that someone just handed you a pristine bouquet of a dozen red roses. What is the first thing you would do? Very likely, you would hold them up to your nose and inhale. Not only would these imported flowers lack a strong fragrance since much of the scent has been bred out of them—you’d be subjecting yourself unwittingly to the chemicals used to grow them. By bringing such flowers into your home, you are exposing your children and family to these toxic substances.
The application of these pesticides contaminate the soil and the groundwater supply, affecting the health of humans and wildlife, and the chemicals that enter the atmosphere find their way to other parts of the world in the form of precipitation. These pesticides also negatively affect beneficial insects like bees and other pollinators that are essential for maintaining the global food supply. In addition, the international flower trade is notorious for labor practices that severely restrict worker’s rights and well being, and the workers who grow and handle the flowers are exposed daily to the harmful chemicals used by flower farms. Studies show that this exposure has a significant negative impact of the health of these workers and their families, causing everything from dermatitis, nausea, and headaches to neurological issues and reproductive health problems. For all these reasons and more, it’s important to support local organic flowers.
Dawn: You grow some amazing flowers, how do you achieve such quality?
Fifth Crow: We start with healthy plants and healthy soils and pay close attention to a plant’s intrinsic desires in nature to ensure good seed germination and growth. We make sure that the plants are growing at the correct times of year and we have a finely tuned succession-based sowing schedule that we keep to which ensures we have plenty of high quality flowers at all times. We also pay close attention during harvest, only harvesting the best flowers, cleaning the plants of culls (or deadheading) as we go, which makes for an easy and fast harvest the next time we go out.
Dawn: Were flowers always in the plans, or did you start out with just produce?
Fifth Crow: Mike and Teresa developed a love of flower arranging at the UCSC program and continued growing and arranging flowers at Fifth Crow. As Fifth Crow grew, Mike and Teresa had less and less time to devote to flowers and they found themselves needing a dedicated flower person to help them meet the growing demand. After one year working at the farm as a vegetable intern, Fifth Crow found the flower help they had been looking for and Emily became the first flower production intern the following year. After one year as a flower assistant she became manager and the flower program continued to grow from there. Flowers now play an even more important and lucrative role in our diversified market farm. We currently have 4.5 full-time employees on the flower team, and each year we grow and arrange more and more bouquets and single-variety bunches, with this year being our most successful year yet.
Dawn: What would you say would be your specialty in cut flowers?
Fifth Crow: Being in Coastal California we are blessed with the cool/temperate weather most of the year. This allows us to grow high-quality cool weather sustainable flowers such as sweet peas, ranunculus, anemones, alstroemeria, dahlias, and snapdragons as well as an enormous range of unique filler flowers such as basil, cerinthe, ammi, bupleurum, daucus, and bells of Ireland.
Our true specialty is our unique hand-tied mixed bouquets available at our 7 farmers markets and a few San Francisco grocery stores. They are made with the highest quality materials and impeccable attention to aesthetics and are by far the best selling item for the flower department.
Dawn: What does the future hold for you, do you have plans to expand?
Fifth Crow: With Emily moving on this year and three babies on the farm with another on the way we do not have plans for any great expansions this coming year. For 2018 we are hoping to continue fine-tuning our current system and continuing to meet the demand for our farmer’s market bouquets while selling our excess to florists and our wholesale clients. However, Fifth Crow would like to expand production sometime in the near future. We would especially like to be able to accept some of the inquiries we have received for weddings and events which, for the most part, we have just not had time for.
We are still looking for one more flower production assistant for next year. Apply at https://fifthcrowfarm.com/jobs/.
Fifth Crow Saves the World
Thank you, Fifth Crow Farm for your insight into your farm and history! We are indeed kindred spirits with the organic flower movement. You could not have described how important growing organic, sustainable flowers are any better. I love how the “Fifth Crow” saves the world.
I look forward to continuing our relationship and thanks to you we’ll glide through wedding season with your naturally perfect blooms!