Episode 1- Erin McMullen, Rain Drop Farms
Eric McMullen is a cut-flowers farmer and co-owner of Rain Drop Farms located in Philomath, Oregon. Her business sells cut flowers up and down the Interstate 5 corridor from Corvallis, Oregon up to Seattle, WA.
Erin has been a leader among farmers among her Pacific Northwest regional growers group, as well as an organizer of the annual conference for small farms hosted at Oregon State University. Her focus has been on increasing education about marketing and selling local flowers.
Role of Women in Agriculture
The significant contribution of women in farming has been a topic of the press this past year. The USDA has reported an increase in the number of women who operate their own farms or are becoming involved in farming as a second career. This is attributed to both better survey measures that now take into account that "farmer's wives" are actually farmers themselves in most cases- a fact that was obscured by only documenting the sex of the principal operator. Secondly, there has been a growing interest in farming among women. In fact, 30% of U.S. farmer operators are women (USDA, 2016). In the Pacific Northwest, nearly 40% of farm operators are women with the highest proportion being in Oregon and Washington.
Below is an excerpt of my interview with Erin. One important takeaway learned from Erin was that mistakes do not mean the end of you as a farmer. In Erin's wise words, “Every year is a do-over” in farming. Lastly, even small growers can have a large impact through collaboration and creativity.
Stacey Gose, Founder of TOUGHER
Abridged Interview (Full Interview: click here for Podcast)
Q: How did you get into cut flowers as a business for farming?
Erin: I just love to grow things. I am a total plant nerd and after veggie farming for a couple of years and moving to a piece of property that just wasn’t conducive to veggie farming I found out that there were so many varieties of flowers that I desperately wanted to grow. So it made sense to transition to somehow getting paid to do that.
Q: How much land did you start out with and what were the challenges you faced in acquiring it?
Erin: We started out on an acre of leased land. Now we own three acres and we lease an acre and a half from someone else. We’re planning on expanding again this season.
There are [land acquisition] programs and I see them happening to promote women farmers [and] beginning farmers also. But really just the land itself is so challenging to find- it’s limited. We’re seeing big chunks of it going to large scale filbert farms or conglomerates that are buying up farmland. It’s hard for us little guys to find anything that is worth anything. But on that note, we’re trying to be really creative with it and I personally have a lot of relationships with other farmers from working… both on our farm [and] working for the other organic farms.
Farmers have an amazing kind of community; it’s all knitted together. We have our name out there and trying to find somebody who has a little extra land they want something good done with.
Q: When you were young did you want to be a farmer?
Erin: No, not at all. Actually when I went to college, originally, I thought I wanted to be an architect, then I thought I wanted to be a journalist. And then it turns out that college, at least the college I went to, was a lot more party than education at that point and I just wasn’t able to focus. So I moved home and while I was there I started taking classes at the community college, and there were some horticulture classes. I mean we always had a garden, but I was never like, “Man- I’m a hardcore grower, I just want to grow stuff! I have a green thumb.”
After taking a few hort. classes, though, I just fell in love with it. And then I started working in a plant nursery, and after that it was just like, “Game on!” I took a job at an organic produce farm, and then decided to start my own farm.
Q: You are part of a local growers group that discuss issues facing cut-flower farmers in the Pacific Northwest where you are based. You also were one of the organizers that brought the newly established cut-flower growers section to Oregon State University’s Small Farms Conference. What were some of the takeaways attendees received from last year’s education tracks offered? And how do you benefit from being a part of a regional growers group?
Erin: It’s nice to have this regional group because we can share information, share varieties, and share buying groups. We’ve been doing cooperative buys where not all of us, most of us actually, are not big, so to speak. So getting in with the wholesalers at a level where they are not just scoffing at us because we’re just some backyard grower, as opposed to their big nursery production customers, helps us to get in and make it look like we have this big order. Then everybody, even the smallest grower, gets to try some of the cool stuff that’s out there.
What was fun about the OSU Small Farms Conference is… that most of the farmers attending are vegetable farmers or protein farmers.
Most of our [education] tracks [for cut-flower farming] were attended by flower farmers, which was great. The number one thing we were talking about was just the marketing and the awareness of local [flowers]. Kind of along the same lines as vegetables, local produce, the local food movement… that’s one of the biggest challenges we face is that people just don’t know that local flowers are a thing or that local flowers aren’t a thing and should be. That really was something we got a lot of input on, people wanting to know, Where can I sell my flowers? Why would I want to grow these if I don’t have a market for them? How am I going to set up this market?
Being able to work as a group, as a regional group, on that is something we are really looking forward to for the future.
Q: What are the pros of buying local flowers aside from supporting your local community?
Erin: The stats go all the way up to 80% of the flowers that are sold in the US are grown out the country. Supporting any farmer anywhere I think is a good thing to do because farming is not easy. It’s a hard job and we need farmers of all types to make it happen. So any farmer that is getting supported is good.
But when you look at the end product, [for example] a banana that is grown in Central America comes on a train or on a plane and it has a lifespan. They can pick it green and it can ripen over [its shipment to the US]. On the flip side of that, with a flower you are essentially cutting a flower at its peak. That’s the ideal. From a local point of view, I can cut my flowers at a point where the beauty has kind of started to show and it’s fresh. And I just take it right to my consumer and they get to enjoy it the whole time.
Where a flower that is cut, let’s say in South America, has to go from that field, through processing, onto a plane, plane comes into customs, it has to be check through customs, and then it either has to get onto a truck or onto another plane or some sort of [transportation] system to where it’s going.
Almost all of the flowers that are shipped into the United States are shipped to Florida. You can imagine us living here in the Northwest, flowers we are seeing from Florida have already been on a plane from wherever, and in order to get it to us as a consumer in a good state they have to cut it earlier, they have to put preservatives on it, or have to have it in flower food, have it refrigerated. Most of them are shipped dry, it’s not ideal for flowers. They would like to have liquid, water mostly. But depending on the flower, some flowers can do that. Roses are a great example. Roses can travel well dry and they can come to the States and be re-hydrated.
But one of the benefits of buying local is that when I cut my flowers on Tuesday, put them in a bouquet and put in the store on Wednesday, you don’t have that travel time that has already happened. So there are definitely a lot of considerations like that.
Other things to consider are the environmental impact of regulations in the United States versus other countries. [If lack of environmental protections influences your decision to want to buy American grown flowers] you can go into a Trader Joe’s, for example, and you can see that they are Rainforest Alliance flowers. That’s a great thing to look for if you are going to be buying commodity flowers. Look for those labels, look for organic labels. Past that, if you are a consumer and are interested in finding American grown flowers, there is an American grown flowers label. That’s a nice guarantee to ensure that your flowers are least grown in the US if you’re wanting to have a more local source.
Beyond that, [our flowers that go] into a grocery store have a sticker that says “Rain Drop Farms, Philomath, Oregon.” So you know when you see that it’s coming from our location, it’s so close to you.
Q: The bias against women in farming has been well-documented. Women have shared with me that often if an outsider comes onto the farm, it is assumed that women are just the “farmer’s wife” and not the operator. What sort of bias have you experienced, if any, as a farmer?
Erin: One of the noticeable things about flower farming is that a lot of flower farmers are women. I wouldn’t say that’s the standard, but it is a fact. There’s just a lot of female flower farmers, which is great.
However, that being said, [with] flower farming I feel like we get a little bit of a wink and a nod from the other “real” farmers. “Is flower farming really farming?” And of course my answer is yes, of course, we’re farmers. But I think that goes back a little to the need for flowers in people’s lives. People obviously need food. You gotta have that, total necessity. And I would make the argument that you need flowers also, but not everyone would. A lot of the assumptions is that we are a frivolous farming trade, I think. I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but I do definitely get that vibe from some other more mainstream people. I think, though, that any time anyone comes out and spends a day with us they realize we work pretty hard and we do all those things that veggie farmers do.
One of the challenges of flower farming is that the crops don’t go away. The dahlias for instance, we start cutting on the dahlias in June and it’s November and we are still cutting on them. Same dahlias. So I love them but, man, it is monotonous at some point. I would love to have a carrot crop I could pull out and be done with it and move on. We have a lot of friends who grow flowers and veggies, and the coordination it takes to do that is amazing. I have a lot of respect for that.
I don’t want people to go, “Man, Erin, you’re doing such a great job!” But I think that it’s important that all of us are supportive of each other. I have friends who will come to farmer’s markets and say, “I told so-and-so to come down and see you. Or somebody will come by saying, “That farm down there told me you have the best flowers.” And that’s great. That’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
I have a ton of respect for the veggie farmers in our markets. They are doing a kickass job.
Q: What words of advice would you have for someone who wants to start out farming?
Erin: I was never confident of myself as a farmer until maybe the last five or six years, once I got some experience and felt like I was doing a really good job. Looking back… that confidence is so important. And I definitely do stuff, I screw up all the time. [But] farming is great because every year is a do-over. Every year you can change what you’ve done and tweak things and fix it or just dump crops because they don’t work.
But if someone is interested in farming, even if you have no farming background, even if you have never grown a thing in your life, don’t hesitate about it. If you’re a man, a woman, whatever… it’s something that I think anyone can do.
And I think there are a lot of women out there who are kickass farmers who I am really glad [TOUGHER] is showcasing.