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I’m Never in the Doghouse

(FEDERALSBURG) – March 2018 – With gray clouds stretched across the sky and a sharp breeze blowing, Rick Uva hunches his shoulders against the cold and steers his golf cart into his fields to find his crew.

It’s about 40 degrees at Seaberry Farm — the Caroline County, Maryland, flower farm he started with his wife and young family a dozen years ago. On this mid-March day, the landscape remains mostly dark and dormant, although the flower season has already begun.

William Whiting is out on the tractor, hedging back willow that the farmers had cut for “woody stems.” These rather unpromising looking twigs are bundled and then shipped to stores in the region. The thin branches provide dramatic interest in vases and an early glimpse of spring as they are “forced” into bloom.

Out in the orchard, Joe Sharpley, Hunter Sharpley and Jacob Sauers are working on pruning cherry trees and gleaning budded woody stems from their work. They’ve worked at Seaberry Farm for years, and although Rick likes to say his job is to “yell at the guys,” it’s pretty clear he doesn’t have to yell. All three offer up information about their work while their hands stay busy, sorting and processing the stems. “We’re a team,” says Joe. “It’s all about communication.”

About half of the farm used to be a traditional orchard, but the farm is transitioning. “People love peaches, but they’re a hard crop to grow,” Rick says. “We’re better off training the peach trees to produce more woody stems for florists.”

A few rows over, Okame cherry, a very early variety, is in bloom. These stems already have been harvested. And just a little way over from those, a whole grove of beach plum is getting renewal pruning. There’s wood all over the ground, much of which gets chipped up and used on the farm as mulch. While flower farms are different from their neighboring grain and poultry farms, they do share an emphasis on recycling resources, improving soil health, and taking care of the environment. “Just like other Maryland farmers, we have a nutrient management plan that dictates how we fertilize our crops,” Rick explains.

The 36 acres he and his wife, Wenfei, bought a dozen years ago will unfold through the season in a series of blooms, going from the woody stems for forced blooms in late winter/early spring to a parade of herbaceous flowers that range from big, fluffy and romantic peonies to midsummer annuals and perennials to grand and colorful dahlias in the fall.

Wenfei will turn some of them into arrangements, bouquets and corsages for local weddings and events, while others will be sold to the “do it yourself” wedding flower market. Most of the flowers will head to retail markets like Wegmans and Whole Foods groceries. Like all entrepreneurs, the Uvas and their farm crew have to be willing to pivot and grow the products the market demands. Across Maryland, more than 40 growers raise cut flowers, serving a market that is well over $1 million annually, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

The Uvas were certainly prepared for it when they packed up their kids and headed south to establish Seaberry Farm. Both Rick and Wenfei hold doctorate degrees from Cornell University — his in horticulture and hers in horticultural business management and marketing. “We wanted to do what we love to do,” Rick says.

Back out in the field, Joe, Hunter and Jacob are doing what they love to do, too. “The best part of working at a flower farm is bringing bouquets home to my wife,” Hunter shares. “I’m never in the doghouse.”

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