Flower Power

Melanie Harrington owner of Dahlia May Flower Farm
Melanie Harrington on her flower farm

To survive as a farmer is to combine remarkable resilience, dynamism and hard work, and Melanie seems to possess all three in abundance.

A small flower farm in rural Ontario thrives and blossoms during the pandemic

Like so many businesses, the global floral industry has been hit hard by the pandemic. At the height of the crisis, the iconic Aalsmeer Flower Auction in the Netherlands – the world’s flower trade capital – trucked mountains of unsold flowers to the compost heap. But while flower sales have dropped throughout the world, one small flower farm near Trenton is battling the trend, and winning.

Melanie Harrington is the owner, grower, floral designer and social media mastermind behind Dahlia May Flower Farm. She founded the farm in 2014 on the family property where she grew up, partly to honour her parents’ dedication to the land and partly to explore floral cultivation.

“I grew up with my father on the farm, learning the ropes behind farming and discovering the magic of flowers. Sadly, my father passed away when I was 25, and I lost my mother last year.”

It is easy to romanticize living a fairy-tale lifestyle in the countryside, surrounded by beautiful and fragrant flowers. Perform a quick search on Instagram using the hashtag #flowerfarmer, and you might just fall under the magical floral spell yourself. But the reality of Melanie’s everyday life tells a completely different tale.

“It’s not unusual for me to find myself falling asleep in a chair at midnight, replying to emails, with my phone still in my hand,” she says.

There are days when she has to wake up at four in the morning, drive to Toronto to pick up flowers from other growers and then race back to the farm before dark to harvest her own flowers so she can have everything ready for a long-weekend sale. Some say facing and enduring hardships builds character, and Melanie seems to have taken that phrase to heart, making the best out of life’s mishaps.

“There are a lot of moving parts in farming, and things can change very quickly. The most challenging experience we’ve had was an unexpected frost in early October a couple of years ago.” It killed her entire two acres of flowers just before Thanksgiving, and left them scrambling to source flowers from producers throughout Ontario for a last-minute order to fulfil the holiday demand.

Some say facing and enduring hardships builds character, and Melanie seems to have taken that phrase to heart, making the best out of life’s mishaps.

Melanie’s tenacity is her secret to reaching the next level of achievement. For many, grit is a powerful advantage to possess in entrepreneurship; it is passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term goals. That grit earned Melanie the Quinte Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2018. The farm was also named one of top ten flower farms to visit in Canada in 2019 by the CBC. She has inspired and influenced thousands of people, drawn immense support from the community by sharing daily stories with her followers, and successfully retained loyal employees through demonstrating care, equality, leadership and dedicated hard work on the farm.

“It’s definitely been challenging being a woman in farming at times,” said Melanie. “The flower farming industry traditionally used to be owned and operated primarily by men, but in the last six to eight years, I’ve been seeing more women starting their own flower farms. I also see an increase in young people moving away from cities and starting a new life in rural areas, growing and selling flowers. It’s very encouraging.”

The pandemic raised alarms for many businesses, including the importance of e-commerce solutions and concerns about what the future of retail might look like for bricks-and-mortar companies. A savvy online marketer – she has over 79,000 followers on Instagram – Melanie had already implemented an online store on the farm’s website in 2019, where customers could buy fresh flowers from their desktops or mobile devices.

“It makes things so much easier, more efficient and more organized for us in terms of receiving payment, getting orders ready for pickup and making deliveries to customers,” she says.

In addition to her online business, Melanie maintains a strong presence on social media, sharing photos and daily information about her work as well as her life on the farm.

On a personal level, she hosts a weekly barbecue to say thanks to her hard-working crew. To inspire young entrepreneurs, she once offered a small flower stand on her farm for a weekend to two young girls trying to sell the flowers they grew.

The relationship that Melanie has been building and nurturing with her customers and her community has paid off. As many businesses across the country have had no choice but to reduce their staff and services to save costs, Dahlia May has tripled their staff and added a free delivery service during these challenging times.

Since the delivery service was added, sales at the farm have more than doubled compared to the previous year.

“We are able to offer a free delivery service because the volume of orders we receive offsets the costs. It is made possible by the support of our customers,” says Melanie.

An ambitious list of projects awaits on the horizon. A new well was recently drilled and a parking lot was built in July; there is even a brand new heated greenhouse to be finished by the time you read this, which will extend the growing season into the colder months. The flower stands on the farm are bustling with customers again since the reopening, but the delivery service is still available and will likely carry on long after the pandemic is over.

“Our biggest plan, which has been simmering in the background for five years, is to build a state-of-the- art, multi-purpose work facility in the very near future,” Melanie says. “Our dream production barn will have walk-in coolers, dedicated processing and production areas and a year-round workshop space. As the seasons change and the days grow shorter, flower sales will be replaced by evergreens and seasonal wreaths at the farm. We also host popular workshops, where our attendees learn how to make their own wreaths and seasonal decorations.”

The art of agriculture holds a unique place in this world, and a farm that produces only flowers will always find a way into our hearts. To survive as a farmer is to combine remarkable resilience, dynamism and hard work, and Melanie seems to possess all three in abundance. Her openness to change and her intrepid spirit to always lean into the unknown will keep Dahlia May Flower Farm blooming for decades to come, filling our vases with bouquets of beautiful fresh-cut flowers.

Story by:
Johnny C. Y. Lam

Photography by:
Johnny C. Y. Lam

[Fall 2020 features]