The upstate New York flower farmer is creating a farm and flower business that gives her the life she wants.
Spring has sprung at Native Farm Flowers, nestled in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains outside Saratoga Springs, New York.
In the last year, Barbara Jefts’ flower farm has blossomed. She doubled her land to 5 acres and built a second greenhouse, allowing her to grow new plants selected to help her stand out in the local market and maintain a farm that thrives over the long term. And she has pursued an array of creative projects — from wreaths and dried-flower arrangements to paintings on oil cloth — that both give her pleasure and offer income during the quiet winter months.
“Though I’m very able at this point, I have to think ahead,” says Jefts, who is 63 and runs the farm on her own. “I’m always thinking of a thousand things,” she adds. “I have to feed the artistic interest and also feed my pocketbook.”
By diversifying, Jefts says she is “doing well,” though she quickly adds that “my well is not a typical well.” Certainly, there is little typical about this woman, who in her youth groomed race horses, lived in a teepee and spent three years traveling the world on a motorcycle.
Divorced ten years now and mother to two grown children, Jefts has no aspirations to run a big farm. She just wants to maintain a life “that includes living with nature and having a wonderful little farm to enjoy, spending time with my family.”
But don’t let the modesty and simple living fool you. Jefts makes a solid living as a farmer, which is a true business achievement considering how few American farmers do.
Tending to a Healthy Farm and a Happy Life
She currently brings in about $50,000 in annual sales, a level crossed by only a quarter of the nation’s farmers, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2012 census, conducted every five years. Only half say their farm is their main source of income.
Women farmers struggle even more. Not only are female principal farm operators fairly few — there were 288,264 in 2012, which amounts to 14 percent of principal operators — their farms tend to be smaller in both size and sales (as is true for women-owned businesses generally). Only 9 percent have annual sales above $50,000.
Jefts hasn’t taken her place in the top 10 percent by accident. She has literally written down what she wants out of life and out of farming — and mapped out plans to achieve it — a tactic she picked up from a holistic management program under which she has mentored other women farmers. Funded by a grant from the Food and Drug Administration, the program provides vital assistance with strategic planning. It also introduced Jefts to other women in agriculture near her in New York and Massachusetts, a community that has become an important wellspring of support and inspiration.
Central to Jefts’ plan has been growing flowers and plants that can help her differentiate Native Farm Flowers in the local market, and that help her earn income throughout the year, even in the dead of the cold Northeastern winter.
The second greenhouse lengthens her fall and spring growing seasons and enables summer crops of more exotic, delicate flowers, including papery pink godetia, sprays of rose-like lisianthus and lustrous ranunculus. These blooms aren’t commonly grown in her area, she says, so give her an edge. Jefts has also added woody perennials, including lilac, hydrangea and dogwood, which are easier for her to tend, which will be increasingly important as she ages.
Financial and Creative Sustenance
Jefts retails her cut flowers at two health-food stores and the Troy farmers’ market and is beautifying an ever-growing number of local weddings. (She eats well by trading flowers for vegetables, eggs, dairy and meat with fellow farmers’ market sellers.)
She recently began growing willows, which will become winter projects making new products like trellises that can add off-season income in a couple years. She also makes and sells wreaths, cornucopias and other household decorations, often with dried flowers, and occasionally teaches gardening and crafts classes out of her barn.
Like many farmers, Jefts grapples with the challenge of efficient distribution of perishable and delicate products. Flowers are especially hard to pack and transport, so she keeps her focus local, driving van-fulls of blooms to retail partners and the farmers market.
She also provides flower arrangements for a growing number of local weddings — she did 14 weddings last year and already has 18 booked for 2016, thanks mainly to word-of-mouth recommendations but also because she stepped up online advertising.
Jefts says she gets criticized for doing too many things. Maybe she does, but the bustle and having new creative outlets are what keep her interested and passionate about what she’s doing. “My customers find it refreshing, I think, to mix it up.”
Barbara Jefts, Native Farm Flowers
Barbara Jefts (BJ) SOT: When you pick, you follow it down…that’s how you know where to go. They’re beautiful.
BJ: Picking is the real gratifying thing. You, you go out to the field and we have a, a cart with buckets, and you just literally pick, strip leaves off and fill these buckets. And the cooler gets so full that it overflows to the outside.
CARD: Barbara Jefts – Owner – Native Farm Flowers – Greenfield Center – New York, U.S.
BJ: I have about two acres, and that's really a lot of flowers when you pack them in row to row.
CARD: Barbara grew up in Albany, N.Y.
CARD: In 1972 she began studying art at the Rochester Institute of Technology but dropped out to travel the world.
CARD: When she returned she worked as a groom at a racetrack and lived in a teepee.
CARD: She met and married a tree surgeon, Donald Jefts.
BJ: I was very attracted to farming and growing things. So I found a federal program that was for people just as us who had no money but wanted to have a small farm. So I did a lot of paperwork, did a lot of interviews, and we were finally able to purchase a little farm in Glenville, New York.
BJ: I was going to produce vegetables and sell them at the very new farmers’ markets but there was a, a glut of vegetables and I had a few flowers and those seemed to go. And it worked with me with the artistic part of me that really needed to be filled. And flowers just won over vegetables completely. [LAUGH]
CARD: In 2006 Barbara left her husband and moved off the farm she helped build.
BJ: I took a job at a florist that I had previously worked for and I still maintained my flowers at the farm and did the farmers’ markets. A little rough going back to the old territory, but I had too much invested there. One of my customers here in Saratoga learned of my plight, and she told me that she had bought a piece of property in Greenfield Center so she invited me to use this piece of land for nothing.
BJ: The field was scattered with trees, and the first thing was to take them down. I went to my old farm, I moved all my perennials. I knew I needed things in rows that were easy to take care of. And then planting 50, another week 50, another week 50, so, having the, um, the flow of the flowers happen better. I learned very quickly to use the land in a much better fashion.
CARD: After 3 years, Barbara bought this piece of land. And she built a home on the property.
BJ: My biggest challenge is funding improvements on the farm. My flowers are ten dollars a bunch, so, you know, 50 bouquets is only $500. So last year I went and advertised in a wedding magazine. Weddings and events bring in a lot more money. And I got a lot of work this year. So in the past two years, my income has increased drastically.
CARD: Barbara now has three part-time employees.
BJ: I could become bigger. And grow more flowers and sell across the state or, you know, wholesale, but I wanna keep it large enough to support myself and small enough to oversee.
BJ SOT: Um, so fresh — these are already dried. Yep.
-Well, that looks good.
-These you just cut?
BJ: I'm not doing it to make a lot of money. I'm doing it to be able to be in the lifestyle that I choose to be. And I'm slowly working towards converting my field into things like hydrangeas, unusual lilacs — greens and shrubs that produce flowers that would be a lot easier for me to tend. Forward planning for flower farmers. Aging flower farmers. I fully intend to stay here. I'm not leaving. This is my — I have — I've worked too hard to be here.
Producers – Victoria Wang & Sue Williams
Director – Sue Williams
Editor – Cheree Dillon
Director of Photography – Sam Shinn
Production Assistant – Michelle Ciotta
Assistant Editor – Adam Finchler
Music – Killer Tracks
Posted: April 19, 2016