Who would have guessed that a story that began with bookkeeping would end with a night song?
Linda Mimeault, one of a growing group who call themselves “farmer florists” can tell you all about it.
At her location, Night Song Farm in Glenora, she not only grows fabulous flowers but fashions them into beautiful bouquets for both brides and businesses.
Mimeault had no background as a farmer or as a florist but following her dream has led her to the point where she is now having to make some critical decisions about how big her Cowichan Valley operation should become.
“I’m definitely a grower first and even that came really late,” Mimeault said. “I actually have a background in teaching math and bookkeeping so this is almost 180 degrees opposite. And yet I find there’s a similarity to it because in both cases you take something fairly disorganized and create order out of it.”
It all began when Mimeaut was in her early 30s.
“I had never grown anything before then. I come from Montreal. An excursion on the weekend would have been to go to the mall.”
A move to Tofino turned her life around.
“I was there for eight years. I got to learn what nature was. Life was so much more real.”
But finding her way to flowers came by way of a friend who was starting a business. She taught Mimeault how to grow seeds in exchange for bookkeeping lessons.
“And that was it. I didn’t have land but I used my carport and started with vegetables. It just grew and grew and grew.”
Eventually she made her way to the Alderlea Farm property in the Cowichan Valley where she grew some vegetables. Four years later she bought her current property.
“I wanted more home-based work but not to go into competition with John and Katy at Alderlea. They’re good friends.”
After some thought she considered flowers, although she had never arranged a bouquet in her life.
Then Mimeault got some help from Community Futures in Duncan.
“I did a business plan boot camp, which was brilliant.”
Farmers are in the minority among the agency’s clients, according to Community Futures general manager Cathy Robertson.
“Primarily our clients come from professional services, manufacturing and retail,” she said. “We don’t get a lot of farmers reaching out for us. I don’t know if they are just bootstrapping it on their own or if that represents that in farming nowadays you need large sums of money to get going. You need to have the resources for capital expenses like land and building, which we [at Community Futures] don’t do.”
“My guess is there is probably also a lack of awareness about how the Community Futures lending program actually has really good benefits for farmers,” she said.
“Even on our business counselling side, farmers would represent the minority. Where we have had some interest is on the micro side recently, people who just need a couple of grand, just to get started,” Roberson said.
Mimeault’s plan included a bouquet subscription service and selling at the farmers market, but definitely not weddings.
She had planned her work and began to work her plan. Her first year at the market was tough. But, Mimeault found a way to start a subscription bouquet service and persevered at the market but a change was coming.
“More and more, I had people coming to my table asking: ‘Do you do weddings?’ Slowly that answer became: ‘Sure, I do weddings.’ Not that I had any idea of what that involved.”
She dove in and taught herself, via books, blogs and YouTube.
She’s pored over all kinds of information, learning the flower world, conquering a massive learning curve with pure enthusiasm, learning where to source the flowers she needed, which varieties would last in a vase and which were best for her growing situation.
Wedding flowers, which had never been part of the original plan, have become Mimeault’s main business by far.
“Between Mother’s Day weekend and Oct. 22, I will have done 87 weddings. I do, on average, five weddings per week. And I’ve turned so many people away because I just couldn’t take more.”
Mimeault said she needs to refocus because at present her workforce is herself and her two teenage daughters and one part-time worker.
“I don’t know if I want it to be that big. We did seven weddings yesterday,” she said on the Sunday morning when she found time to chat to the Citizen.
“This could easily become something where I have leased land and a gazillion employees, mass production.”
Wayne Haddow, who for 26 years connected the Valley’s farmer’s to their provincial Ministry of Agriculture, agreed, when the Citizen spoke to him following his retirement, that farmers like Mimeault face tough decisions.
“There is absolutely a tipping point where suddenly it stops being something you can handle yourself, with your family and maybe a few people. It becomes a leap of faith.
“That decision to hire and manage labour, it’s another level of ability that’s required to be successful at that. And none of us are getting any younger.”
It comes back to the familiar story of the registered nurse who was so good that now she’s a supervisor, and unhappy.
Haddow said successful farmers face that challenge all the time; they now find they’re more manager than farmer.
Mimeault already knows her future is not behind a desk.
“I really love that really personal relationship with the bride. It’s not that I don’t want to provide employment to other people, I am making the choice to be hands-on,” she said.
Mimeault has been watching her colleagues Stateside. Some of them are beginning to offer workshops, and as a former teacher, she thinks that might be good option.
“We have this real ability to be growing flowers. It’s so green, so lush, there is so much possibility.”
She grows more than 200 varieties of flowers at Night Song.
“At least half of this property is under intense cultivation. Every bed has two seasons’ worth of flowers. And all of the greenery out back will be used as foliage somehow.”
On a friend’s property, she also has a 150-foot greenhouse and a field of dahlias, which are the local mainstay flower.
Even with her overflowing backyard bounty, Mimeault still had a dearth of dahlias.
“I make use of our dahlia growers in the Valley. Every week, I buy massive amounts. At least I’m supporting people here,” she said.
Her own plantings are changing, too. “I’m growing a lot of perennials here: shrubs like hydrangea or roses, five varieties of Queen Anne’s Lace.”
That means her annual flowers must be grown elsewhere. And for weddings, Mimeault has to buy that bridal tradition: imported tea roses.
She does grow some roses: “the really old fashioned ones, the big scented ones” that become features in each bridal bouquet she makes.
But she simply can’t grow enough tea roses herself.
Another problem facing this grower is keeping up her garden without hiring more people.
“Where’s the economics in that? A veggie farmer would tell you the same. We sell what we produce at such a low value compared to the cost of growing it. I can’t justify hiring people to farm, so my children and I do it.”
Still, she looks at her site with a gardener’s perennial optimism.
“That really sustains you. Whenever you put your garden to bed you bury your disappointments. There’s some kind of rebirth that happens as soon as those seed catalogues arrive.”
But, even making plans is chancy. “Once you’ve dealt with whatever problems arose last season, nature’s going to deal you a whole new set of cards,” she said.
“But, I’m still here, still successful, still managing, still have happy brides, still have happy customers. No, I don’t have those super perfect dahlias. Maybe next year.”