Our final Farmer Feature brings us halfway across the country to Michigan! Our buyer in Detroit, Andy, first met Michael Genovese of Summer Dreams Farm at the The Flower House’s Field to Vase Dinner in 2015. We’re excited to be carrying his dahlias through the season this year and look forward to continuing our relationship with Summer Dreams Farm into the future!
This farm’s sweet story is bound to make you want to move to the countryside and buy a plot of land to grow your own American flowers, but it takes a special kind of person to rise with the sun and work with the land, day after day. Michael just happens to be one of those people, so keep on reading to find out why!
So Michael, can you share a little bit about yourself, and how you ended up starting your farm back in 2015?
I am new to flower farming, but not new to agriculture! I was raised on a Christmas Tree Farm. Starting around six or seven I was out in the field helping plant, prune, weed, and work the Christmas season. I was also in 4-H throughout grade school and participated in the yearly fair. After High School I started my own small landscaping business to help pay for College while still working on the Tree Farm. At that time, I joined Michigan Farm Bureau and served on the Board of Directors for Oakland County as the Young Farmer Chair. In this role I volunteered doing public outreach, educating the public about agriculture, drafting policy for the organization, and traveled to State Capital and Washington D.C. to talk to our elected representatives as well as leaders in the Michigan Department of Agriculture and USDA about the significance of agriculture and policy important to us.
Once I graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit with a degree in Global Supply Chain Management, I started working in the auto industry while continuing to work on my parents on the Tree Farm. After a couple years with a desk job I knew I wanted to have a farming operation of my own. In 2012 we were gifted some dahlia tubers by Janet Brondyke who was the owner of Hamilton Dahlia Farm in western Michigan when my parents were presenting her an award for the contribution of her father, Harvey Koop, to the Christmas Tree industry. I fell in love with those flowers and had never seen anything like them. For a couple years I grew and divided those few tubers and started to give flowers away as gifts. I saw how much people loved them and thought that maybe I could turn this into a business.
Janet was one of the largest dahlia growers at the time with four acres. I called her and she graciously allowed me to go to her farm and work with her picking flowers, at her stand at the Hamilton Farmers Market and harvesting tubers in the fall. There I learned many skills that I would take back to my operation. In 2015 I planted my little patch of 5,500 dahlias and Summer Dreams Farm was created!
Tell us a bit about your operation now – where are you located and how big is your farm? A virtual tour, if you will!
My farm is located in Oxford, Michigan about an hour north of Detroit on the edge of suburbia and country. It is currently on the same property as the Christmas Tree Farm because I have access to irrigation but next year I plant to move about a mile down the road to where I have 20 acres and a seven-acre field I am preparing to grow dahlias on. This year I have over 90 varieties totaling around 20,000 plants in the ground covering an acre. It will be quite a site when it is all in bloom!
Do you have a team helping you at Summer Dreams Farm?
I am still working a full time desk job (to help pay for the upfront farming expenses) and helping on the Christmas Tree Farm. There is no way I would be able to handle everything on my own and I am incredibly grateful to have two amazing employees right now. This summer when harvesting flowers, I am anticipating I will need an additional one or two more part-time employees as my field will take around 90 hours of work per week to properly cut and maintain.
To do something like this takes a special kind of person, someone passionate and who truly loves what they’re doing. Where do you find the inspiration to get out of bed everyday and work on your magical farm?
Nothing is certain in agriculture. Not only does it consume a huge amount of capital and time to get started but there is no guarantee that you will ever earn a dollar. Last year from March to December I was working at least 75 hours a week, and during harvest season it was over 100. Some days I would much rather stay in bed and catch up on sleep but I know that isn’t an option.
There really is no sugar coating it, it is hard work and quite literally your blood, sweat and tears go into it. Most people think I am crazy and I think it takes a little bit of crazy ambition to take something like this on. What really gets me up is knowing what I will be able to achieve, pushing myself to do more, and knowing that people are going to love my product. Last year people were almost in tears when I said it was my last weekend at market, they didn’t know what they were going to do without their ‘dahlia fix’. The florists I am working with are just as excited, offering ideas and support while I am still getting established in the industry. It has been rough but as soon as that first flower blooms and seeing the excitement on everyone’s face you know it is all worth it!
I’m a west coaster, so I’m a bit unfamiliar with the farming world in Michigan! Can you tell us a little bit about the flower farming scene over there?
Michigan is actually the second most agriculturally diverse state in the country, behind California. The soil, climate, Great Lakes, and abundant fresh water allow us to grow a huge array of crops including cut flowers. There are loads of small cut flower farmers in the state but not too many major ones. That said, there seems to be a strong and growing movement across the state with people getting involved in the industry. Because of the cold winters here, all of the dahlias I grow need to be dug up in the fall and stored indoors over the winter.
Do you plan on focusing on dahlias only, or are there any other varieties you would like to experiment with in the future?
Right now I am concentrating on dahlias and want to build a reputation for quality and as a reputable producer. In the future I would like to branch out into a few more varieties of specialty flowers including peonies and ranunculus.
I know you said you have over 90 varieties (!!!), but you have to have a favorite, or five… Care to share a few of them?
It is going to be a colorful year! It is really hard to choose, when people first see any of them their first question is, “Are these real?!” If I had to pick I would say Kenora Lisa is near the top. It is a coral with some flashes of yellow that has petals that actually sparkle in the sunlight. I am a big fan of darker colors too, Rip City and Ivanetti are both amazing producers and look awesome. To round out the top five I would say Hy Patti for its unique pattern and deep copper/orange color and Peaches n’ Cream for its magical look.
Your dahlias are gorgeous; any tricks of the trade or secrets you’re willing to share with fellow farmers out there?
Well drained soil! If you are planning on growing dahlias the most important thing is that your soil drains well. Tubers are susceptible to rot if there is too much water around them, especially when the plants are young. It is also important to maintain your plants. Regardless of if you can sell them or not, every flower needs to be picked at least once a week. This most likely means you will be deadheading hundreds (in my case thousands) of perfectly good flowers of each week. It is sad but very important to keep up the quality and productivity of your plants.
Supporting local growers and educating people about what you guys have to offer is so important, and these days it seems like awareness is really spreading! Tell us a little bit about your experience and/or involvement with the American flower farming community.
It all started with my met an amazing local event florist, Liz Stotz from Parsonage Events. She introduced me to many other designers and florists in the area when she could have kept my existence to herself. One of the events I became part of through her was the three-day floral art installation, Flower House in Detroit put together by local designer, Lisa Waud of Pot & Box where I had the opportunity to donate over 3,000 dahlias. At this event I met amazing designers from all across the country and also Kasey Cronquist of the American Grown movement and Debra Prinzing of Slow Flowers. I was inspired by both and I am grateful to for these folks for growing the movement. It is an honor being able to contribute in my own small way to the movement. This year I will be selling directly to local florists, at Farmer’s Markets, Mayesh, and hopefully establish some connections out of state.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions about your blossoming business! One final question, and I know it’s only been a year, but is there any advice you would go back and tell yourself when you first started Summer Dreams Farm?
Good question! There are always things that you wish you could do differently but the biggest thing I would tell myself is don’t be afraid to take the leap! Don’t worry about showing what you have to offer even if it isn’t 100% complete or perfect. If you have a quality product and good presentation, people will be happy to work with you!