Here is my most recent publication – an article on the thriving local, fresh-cut flower growers in Southwest Wisconsin. This article may have generated the most gorgeous Isthmus cover ever.


Hans Larsen in the greenhouse at the Sunborn Flower Farm greenhouse.

When Nikki Holder began planning her wedding last August, she knew one thing from the start. She wanted her flowers to be exquisite — and locally grown.

“I come from a small community where my parents owned a lumberyard, and I appreciate how local businesses give back to their community,” says Holder. “And I love the sustainability of local flowers.”

Holder is a regular customer at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, and it was there that she connected with Sunborn Flower Farm, which has been gearing up to compete in the bridal market. She worked with Lisa Larsen, the farm’s floral designer.

Nikki and Cody Holder were married at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton in May, two weeks after she completed her degree at UW-Madison in human development and family studies with a focus on children of incarcerated parents.

Holder says it was a lot of work planning a wedding, writing a senior honors thesis, graduating and trying to find a job all at once. “But everything came together perfectly and I had lots of patient people — like Lisa — who were willing to accommodate my schedule.”

Holder met with Larsen at the beginning of September out at the farm and again in late April to pin down the specifics. Last-minute details were finalized in emails.


“It was easy to decide as I looked through her photos,” says Holder.” Every single arrangement was so reflective of the style we wanted for our wedding day.

“I had a crazy vision of a really big hoop, and they made a five-foot hoop for our ceremony from grapevines and a lot of things that came from their land,” she says. “It really added to the natural quality of the setting.

“For my bouquet, I didn’t want a tight little ball so Lisa filled it with peonies and shooting stars from their farm. It was wonderful. And it was reasonable,” says Holder.

Holder wanted some greenery running down the tables, but didn’t realize how expensive that can get. “It can cost $50 per foot, but Lisa was able to lay out greenery from her land to look tied. The greenery runner for five tables was $130. A lot less!

“The flowers exceeded my wildest expectations,” says Holder. “I told her my ideas and just let her do the designs. It was absolutely phenomenal.”

Debra Prinzing of Seattle is known as the architect of the so-called slow flower movement (also known as “field to vase” and “farm to vase”). Since Prinzing wrote The 50 Mile Bouquet in 2012, the loosely organized local cut flower growers movement has expanded throughout the U.S.


In Wisconsin, the number of cut flower operations grew from 64 in 2009 to 85 in 2014, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Their combined sales in 2014 were more than $3.5 million.

People like Holder appreciate that they are supporting local vendors, but there are other benefits as well: Compared to the flowers sold by many commercial florists, which arrive by plane from South America, locally grown cut flowers have less toxic residue, a smaller carbon footprint and a longer shelf life.

Taking local and natural one step further, Larsen finds some of her most popular blooms in the restored prairie surrounding one of their planted fields. “I forage out there,” she says, looking beyond the tightly-packed rows of vivid color to the grasses and flower heads bending in the wind on the hillside beyond. “Goldenrod, solidago, acinacea, shooting stars, wild baptisia. They are all out there, but we are careful how many we cut. Only a little here and there to preserve the prairie.”

Roots in a war

At one time most of the flowers in the United States were grown in greenhouses out East. Then air transportation made it possible to transport fresh-cut flowers from southern and west coast states, where it was not necessary to heat greenhouses through the winter months.

In 1991 the cut flower business morphed again when the U.S. suspended import duties on flowers from Colombia and other South American countries as part of the War on Drugs, trying to provide growers there with an alternative to growing coca for cocaine. By 2003, Colombia’s cheap, largely female, unskilled labor force and a constant flower-growing climate meant Colombian blooms outnumbered their U.S.-grown counterparts in American vases.

California supplies 20 to 25 percent of all cut flowers nationwide, but shoppers can assume that many flowers sold at supermarkets, florists or kiosks are imported from Colombia or Ecuador. For example, Walmart, Kroger, Safeway, Whole Foods, Albertson’s and Costco all source most of their flowers from Colombia.


Carol Larson, a founder of the local flower feast.

Many flowers on the market today may also be toxic. Because flowers are not food, chemical restrictions on what can be applied to them are far more lax. The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t test cut flowers for pesticides — bad news if you like to press your face into a beautiful bouquet.

It’s worse news for the people who grow those flowers, especially outside of the United States. Many of the agrochemicals are poisoning the water that the poorly paid agricultural workers drink. A report by the International Labor Rights Fund indicates that two-thirds of Colombian and Ecuadorian flower workers suffer work-related skin rashes, respiratory problems and eye problems while working 70-to 80-hour weeks in the peak seasons of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.



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