A Blossoming Tale at Lakshmi Farms

By Jason Thomas / Photography By Andrew Hyslop | May 31, 2017
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As the drowsy sun melted into the horizon and dusk shrouded the Earth, a little boy fell asleep in his mother’s arms.

In his slumber he dreamt of a farm, where he met day-old twin lambs as black as night, and petted a colt painted chestnut and white. He shuffled his feet to the clucking of chickens and the crowing of a rooster. He played in a field where marigolds and gladiolas and basil would eventually blanket the ground.

Goddesses kept watch at a distance.

Fantasy is reality at Lakshmi Farms in Anchorage, an operation that seeks to connect the community—especially children—to agriculture in a setting harmonious with the ecosystem.

Owner Prem Durham in three years has built an 18-acre sustainable oasis with a focus on education and community-supported agriculture that celebrates working with the land, not against it. In tribute to her Hindu religion, Durham named the farm after the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity.

Lakshmi Farms, not unlike a fairy tale, is divided into chapters: A little library championing literacy greets visitors at the front gate. The story unfolds with field hens that produce fresh eggs, and sheep and dairy cows to make cheese, yogurt, paneer and ghee.

And flowers. Especially flowers. Durham set aside an acre this year in her own “slow flower movement” experiment. Nearby, a swath of poppies will create a pollinator field for the farm’s bees.

“This was just green grass. I’m not a liker of green grass,” Durham says. “I’m always, like, ‘Which strip can I take?’ Imagine this whole field just red.”

 

LOCAL FLOWER POWER

Like the slow/local food movement, the slow flower movement is a real thing. It’s been 26 years in the making after the passage of the 1991 Andean Trade Preference Agreement, a federal act to combat drug production and trafficking in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

The agreement, part of the war on drugs, was designed to promote the production of non- drug-related crops, including flowers. The result was a deluge of inexpensive, duty-free cut flowers, especially roses and  negatively impacted the U.S. industry. Domestic flower farms also have battled rising energy, labor and land costs, as well as mass-market retail.

Currently, about 80% of cut flowers in the U.S. are imported, mainly from South America, and 20% are domestically grown. The environmental impact concerns Durham.

“For them to be flown, think about the carbon footprint,” she says. “Think about the pesticides and fertilizers those countries would use. It still runs into their rivers, still runs into us. It’s one world.”

In the early 2010s, interest in domestically grown flowers began to take shape, sparked by initiatives on the West Coast. A noticeable rebound is taking place as American consumers are asking about the origins of all products, including flowers, says Seattle-based Debra Prinzing, founder of SlowFlowers.com, who is widely credited for nurturing the slow flower movement.

“By using and popularizing the term ‘slow flowers’ five or six years ago, I coined a phrase that others picked up on,” Prinzing says. “We are following the ‘slow food movement,’ trailblazed decades ago, as well as the farm-to-table ethos that chefs and restaurateurs like Alice Waters began more than four decades ago.”

Add the influence of social media, especially Instagram, where photos of beautiful floral arrangements pop on hand-held devices, and flower growers are securely in the mainstream.

“That has sparked a curiosity about the flower farming lifestyle and drawn all sorts of folks into this world,” Prinzing says.

The local floral industry is blossoming. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of cut flower and cut florist green farms increased 20% from 2007 to 2012, citing the latest numbers from the U.S. Census of Agriculture. Membership in the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers has doubled in the past five years.

“There are a lot of ‘new’ flower farmers who are new to the industry,” says Dave Dowling, president of the Fredon, N.J.–based association. “They can excel if they work hard, grow quality flowers, and price their products correctly.”

The USDA recently released a report that shows floriculture is one of the top five most profitable crops for small-acre farming. That’s where Kentucky, and places like Lakshmi Farms, come into play. The rise in popularity has inspired vegetable farmers to add to their diversity by growing some basic cut flowers, says Alexis Amorese, horticulture agent for the University of Kentucky with the Boyle County Cooperative Extension Service.

“Many of the flowers that were grown in our grandmother’s garden are seeing resurgence in popularity,” Amorese says, adding that there are about 15 flower farms in Kentucky. “This has allowed farmers in nontraditional flower-growing climates to have a stake in the flower game.”

A BLOSSOMING TREND

Last year’s bountiful flower production at Lakshmi—zinnia, amaranth, celosia, strawflower, to name a few—left Durham with tons of seeds. So she made packets. Literally, out of yellow legal note pads, with handwritten instructions.

“I’m kind of kooky,” she says. “I taped it and hand-wrote it.”

The seed packets are for sale, as are the farm-fresh eggs. But it’s not about the money for Durham. Education is her mission.

“It’s community education,” she says. “It’s to open your mind and go, ‘oh, flowers.’ In the end that’s what I want to achieve.”

In a flower-focused “field to vase” initiative, Durham last summer hosted a photo shoot with popular wedding event planner Jaclyn Journey to inspire and change mind-sets about locally sourced bouquets.

“The slow flower movement is to engage the community about when you get a flower, try to get local,” Durham says. “When you have your event, try to support the local flower growers and the florists. There is an education part of it.”

 

A COMMUNITY CONNECTION

Lakshmi Farms is about much more than flowers, though.

It hosts a weekly community-supported agriculture pickup for Rootbound Farm in Oldham County, which drops off its organic produce at Lakshmi, allowing Anchorage residents easy access to its products.

“More than just a host, Prem is a local food champion,” says Bree Pearsall, co-owner of Rootbound. “She understands that the local food economy is only as strong as our commitments to each other, as farmers and consumers. Prem has helped provide recipe ideas and support to CSA members as well, as they are pushing themselves to eat more vegetables and try new things.”

Enlightenment is an everyday occurrence at Lakshmi. A few stalls have been converted into classrooms where workshops take place on a range of topics, like sewing and woodwork. Durham calls it barn school.

“At the base I would simply say that I grow soil, I grow community,” Durham says of her philosophy. “Whatever I do it ends up being those two things. I’m always digging in the soil.”

And not just at her farm.

Durham built and maintains a garden at the Anchorage Public School, where she invites students from every grade, from kindergarten to eighth, to grow flowers and food. Through her farm and the school garden, Durham has an impact on about 300 kids every year, building the community along the way.

“Just planting a tiny memory in them, it’s, like, ‘Wow, we came and picked this flower,’” she says. “With education we forget what we learn, but if we give an experience that’s hands-on, if they see the egg … ‘Oh, this is an egg. Is it from a farm? Oh, this is a flower that supports a butterfly...’

“It’s a connection. That memory. So when I smell a food, I think the smell is so important. It will take you straight to the first time you smelled it. It’s connecting the dots.”

 

LIVING HAPPILY EVER AFTER

The soil is alive at Lakshmi Farms. Durham talks about it as if it were sacred.

“I’m constantly growing the soil,” she says, explaining that she’s careful not to slice and kill microbes through tilling. “You grow the soil and everything comes up. Soil is a living organism, 100%. Your first thing is to take care of the soil.”

Minds grow under Durham’s watch, too. Aimee Cherry recently paid a visit with her daughter, Quinn, 10, and son, Bryce, 8, to see Dwight, the chestnut and white colt, and the twin, day-old lambs Sam and Richie.

“We get out of our normal day-in and day-out grind and let them see a little bit of nature,” Cherry says. “And learn. It’s hands-on life. We love it.”

“We love the animals and friends,” Quinn says, “and how everyone is together.”

When Pearsall, of Rootbound Farms, was pregnant with her first child, Durham and the other CSA members hosted a traditional Indian pregnancy blessing at Lakshmi Farms.

“It was a gift I will always cherish,” Pearsall says, “and is a testament to the deep connections that you can make in a thriving local food economy that values community and personal relationships.”

Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity, breathed on the little boy, awakening him from a deep sleep.

He gazed upon his mother, who smiled back at him. In her hair was a flower as bright as the sun. It was red, plucked from a poppy field at a magical farm.

At Lakshmi, connections build a community.

“I’m inspiring myself,” Durham says, “and inspiring others at the same time.”

 

MORE ONLINE at LakshmiFarms.com

Article from Edible Louisville & the Bluegrass at http://ediblelouisville.ediblecommunities.com/shop/blossoming-tale-lakshmi-farms
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