By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Laura Barker grew up with flowers so it’s not surprising she is rooted in the family flower business and has blossomed by expanding Black Creek into a thriving retail and pick-your-own operation.
Just off Highway 8 near Sebringville, is a little stand where flower lovers can stop and choose a small or large vase, fill it with water, grab a pair of clippers and walk the rows clipping flowers to fill their vase.
It often surprises Barker what they choose. “Most people tend to go for bold colour and large, showy flowers such as sunflowers, zinnias and dahlias,” says Barker. Why not? The bouquets are bright and cheerful. Barker, however, studied floral design and had her own flower shop in Stratford before joining the family business. She prefers foliage and finer fill plants. “I love the grasses out there, celosia, the red/green/copper of amaranth and dusty miller…those are some of the plants overlooked but I think they are a necessity.”
No matter. Customers get to choose whatever they want from the rows of annuals and perennials in the U-pick section of the business which is Laura’s business, along with the retail store which sells gifts and pre-made bouquets for $15. She also does flowers for weddings and her record for one weekend was three days without sleep. Now married with children, she’s had to scale back on the wedding flower side of the business though she admits she loves the detailed work it entails.
Barker was the third generation to run Black Creek Flower Farm when she joined in 2016. It started as a gladiola bulb business by her grandparents and was taken over by her mother and father, Robert and Karin McDougall. At one time, there were over 200 acres in bulb production. Five years ago, the wholesale business was scaled back but Barker’s mother still runs the gladiolus side of the business as Peeters Enterprises Gladiolus, selling gladioli bulbs in the fall, winter and spring and attending farmer’s markets with gladiolus in the summer.
It was Barker who started the retail store at the Sebringville site and the U-pick operation, now in its fourth year, which is continually expanding. Last year, Barker brought in picnic tables and hosted more workshops for families to come and create seasonal floral decor. This year, Barker is hosting a “fall festival” event September 16-17 with the first flush of pumpkins on schedule to be orange and ripe for the event. There will also be a food truck and face painting.
Some of those pumpkins will make it into Thanksgiving centrepieces of which Barker and staff typically make 300-400 per year. U-pick flowers are still available into early fall at a cost of $12 to $15 per bouquet.
“Flowers bring great joy to so many people and we try to keep it cost-effective for them,” says Barker.
The U-pick and retail store is what everyone sees when they drive into Black Creek Flower Farm but there are acres of flowers behind the store as well. It’s here that Barker and staff source flowers for the pre-made bouquets and experiment with new varieties to determine if they will succeed in the U-pick operation. There are fascinating plants in this section including bright blue globe thistle (which I later saw in the pre-made bouquets in the retail store), Mexican hat, tall veronica, non-scented artemisia, monarda, feverfew, stock and 10 different varieties of sunflowers.
Some of these acres were part of the family’s former cash-crop operation but Barker says intensive flower growing is more profitable than cash crop. So the farm is actually down to 10 acres of flowers and bulbs, with the remaining acreage rented out. It also allows them to employ crop rotation as a health strategy. Gladiola bulbs don’t see the same acreage for seven years to reduce pests and diseases.
Ten acres doesn’t sound like a lot but it is a pile of work! Barker says weeding is never-ending and is done both by hand and tractor-drawn scuffler in the larger fields. The family switched to growing in biodegradable plastic known as bio-film 10 years ago and that has made a “huge difference” in the weed workload. The biofilm requires a watering system as rain runs off the plastic instead of penetrating the soil but it also serves a moisture retention system during drought. The biofilm breaks down in one to three years after the family piles it or tills it into the soil.
The flowers are fed a fish and seaweed emulsion in the drip lines under the biofilm and also as a foliar spray. Pests come “in waves” and Barker uses sacrificial plants such as calendula to keep them away from other flowers as well as plants known for their pest-deterrent qualities such as marigolds and basil. “Honestly, having healthy plants is the biggest pest deterrent,” says Barker. “If a plant gets diseases, we just pull it out.” A large buffer area filled with native plants is left around the flower plantations which also attracts pests away from the flowers.
The business hires one to five seasonal employees to keep up with all the work.
The flower business is a good fit for Barker who says she inherited her creative genes from mom Karin, and her Oma Nelly Peeters. “At one point, I thought I wanted to be an architect but I soon realized I did not want to work inside,” says Barker. Tanned and fit, with her blond hair in a messy bun on top of her head, Barker exudes energy and says “I do well when I keep busy. I thrive on chaos and when I have a heavy workload,” she says.
Raising two children with her husband, Adam, adds to the busyness. Adam helps at the flower farm when needed and works full-time off the farm as a custom-for-hire machine operator, a thriving business in its own right.
Busy as they are, Barker says there is a relaxed atmosphere at the flower farm when you get to work outside with flowers in the sunshine. Since the work is seasonal and flexible, it allows her time to volunteer at her children’s school. If she’s away for an afternoon, she can get up early to pick flowers or work late to create bouquets.
In terms of profitability, Barker says each aspect of the business “is kind of equal. The U-pick doesn’t make as much money as designing floral arrangements for a wedding but neither is it as labour intensive. The retail store makes more money yet it has higher input costs.” This is Barker’s full-time job and she doesn’t require off-farm work to support the business as other small-scale farms frequently do.
The business is also admired and respected in the community as Black Creek Flower Farms was chosen as one of the stops on Perth County’s Mystery Farm Hop Tour which was held in July.
Before I finish the interview, I ask Barker to create a custom bouquet from the U-pick so I can learn from her skills in floral design. True to form, she DOES start with fillers such as dusty miller, grasses and amaranth. Flowers are cut and inserted and soon we are on a pink and purple theme which surprises Barker as she generally prefers more muted colour choices with three colours at most. Designer or not, the bouquet is gorgeous and uplifting, which is what flower picking should do for people.
“Just put in whatever your heart desires,” advises Barker. In July, some of the options were sunflowers, yarrow, coneflowers, scabiosa, zinnias, snapdragons and celosia. Having previously stated she thrives on chaos, it was interesting that when I pressed her to pick her favourite part of the business, she said it was the early morning flower picking. “It’s so relaxing and peaceful.”
Clearly, flowers work their magic on her, too.
As I leave with the bouquet, I learn Barker’s future plans include expanding the u-pick with more perennials, creating a seating area for workshops, and “trying new things to see what works and what doesn’t.”
Classes and workshops, which she leads herself, are definitely on the agenda. “People come to have a good time and they leave in a great mood,” she concludes. ◊