Kate Martin, from Arise + Shine Gardens, based in Batavia, Ohio, is an organic flower farmer focusing on Lisianthus, brown Queen Anne’s lace, and other specialty cut flowers. Kate is one of the 30 flower growers around the world that was highlighted by Erin Benzakein of Floret Farm in her e-book, SMALL PLOT, BIG IMPACT: Inspiring Stories, Profiles, and Advice from 30 Flower Growers from Around the World, published in October 2019.
I had the privilege to sit down with Kate and to spend the day with her and her assistant, Amber, as they’re getting ready for the colder time of the year. We started driving from her house in Batavia to her flower field about 10 minutes away.
When did you start dreaming about flower farm?
I grew up among strong women who owned farms and always grew flowers. I grew up in a suburban area outside of Detroit until my parents bought a farm two hours north the summer before high school. We used to visit my great aunt’s farm; my mom used to go spend the summers there on the farm.
I always said I wanted a farm. I wanted my 50 acres in the middle of nowhere when I retire. But, after my first grandson was born, I hated my work. As a single mom most of my life, the law firm job paid the bills. And then I got into patent law, and it was different, they were a lot nicer, until I got here. Ego, and just antiquated view toward women in general. Being in the military, there aren’t many people who scared me, if any. So, I’m me, and i was good in what I was doing and became very good at it.
I always preached to my kids, follow your dreams, do what you love. Why am i going to wait until I retire? What am I doing? Can i do this now? I can probably have thought it out better. But I’m following my dream. I’m bootstrapping it. I have cash but I refuse to go into debt over it. I crunched some numbers and applied for a two-year veteran farming program at Turner Farm.
My great aunt’s farm is still within the family, but no one is working on it. My sister wants me to come back. They had a couple of oil wells; the oil companies came in and it was an environmental hazard that was never cleaned up. My sister thought I could probably farm three acres, but the house was falling. I spent five and a half years in the Marine Corps and then I got pregnant, and I got married, and it was raising the kids, and ten years in, I got divorced, and then I raised the kids. I needed a paying job. I practiced as a patent paralegal, spent more time working both in Maryland and Cincinnati.
Cincinnati is my home now. I ended up adopting my foster daughter and she’s attending University of Cincinnati now. As much as I want to live closer to my grandchildren, they’re on the opposite ends of the country. I’m so excited because I can’t wait to spend summer with my grand kids on the farm. It will be an awesome experience, and the cousins will get to know each other.
What do you love about growing flowers?
When I was helping at Turner Farm, before the veteran program, I was a general helper. I went wherever I was needed. When I started the Veteran Program, my happy space was in the green house. There has not been one day that I regretted my decision to leave the corporate world. My worst day at the farm was was still a hundred times better than my best day spent in the office. I remember spending six hours picking beans in the hot summer in the green house, and I said to myself, I’m not gonna plant beans ever. I was also helping Melinda O’Brien, the Adult Education Coordinator at Turner Farm with a couple of flower arranging classes, and I’m like, “that’s where it is.” Believe it or not, specialty cut flowers is the most profitable product produced in the US, above peppers, tomatoes, corn, and soybeans. Now you can’t include conventional farming because they get subsidies from the government. But as far as organic farming, flowers are the most profitable.
I started all my plants from seeds because I love growing, besides, plugs are so expensive. My growing room is the front room of the house and it spilled over to the guest room. Soon, the operation will move to the basement. I created my own growing shelf and heating mats with the guide of youtube videos. This year was a hard year for me because it was my first solo out of the farm.
How did you start to get into flower farming?
I found out about the Veteran Program at Turner Farm, but I was freaking out because I was making a lot of money. The first year at Turner Farm was hourly, so I was working with the summer interns, and the second year they paid me a flat salary. I’m type A, for ten days straight, I was running the numbers, and the answer was always the same, I could survive, I could pay the bills, because I had two other sources of income, the foster care and military disability. That’s on borrowed time, but you can pay your bill fine. I talked to my daughter and she played mom on me, mom, it’s just an interview, would you stop. And I went on the interview, and the next day, they sent me the offer. I prayed about it, and I’m like, I guess I’m doing this.
What was your biggest challenge this year?
Turner Farm helped me a lot to be associated with them. First of all, Melinda who grows flowers over there, she’s my biggest fan, everywhere we go, she’s telling people about me. This year was tough, I’m growing some place else, at a friend’s farm. Trying to navigate the needs of my field and balancing it with the work my friend has to get done is a new challenge for me this year. Getting to know the new space, figuring out how to work it, what I need in order to grow, making sure I have all my tools and supplies I need on hand. My friend and his brothers grow corn and pumpkins and things like that, but rent the majority of their fields out to a local corn and soybean farmer. I was trying to rent but they didn’t let me, it was a quarter of an acre. I met them through foster care. When I had to travel, they were the ones who [would be watching my daughter for me. And that’s how I got to know them. Then I adopted her, and they’re like her second family. It’s like this tribe that was built around her and me. They’re amazing.
What’s your dream farm?
In the long term, I want to create a farm where we can also be a venue for weddings, and may be utilized my skills in Christian Yoga, and be a place for other veteran farmers to learn, just like Turner Farm.
Who has been your biggest influence?
Other than the veteran program at Turner Farm, I took a new farmer class through OEFFA (The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association), which I recommend highly. I also took Floret’s online Courses, and Lisa Mazon Ziegler classes. I work with a mentor assigned through the OEFFA class, which is a flower farm North of Hamilton.
You have a lot of Lisianthus in the field, and in Floret’s book, you’re known to have grown brown Queen’s Anne’s Lace. Why Lisianthus?
I started growing Lisianthus because they are one of the prettiest flowers I have ever seen. I didn’t have a good germination with my Lisiantus this year, but in farming, that’s what you do. I’m a researcher by nature, so I researched what I needed to grow in order to profit. Lisianthus is in such a high demand, and there’s still a high market for it around this area. I want to specialize in Lisianthus. I’m working with Amber, my assistant, and I’m willing to teach her the ropes so she could take it over someday. We are applying for a grant to build high tunnel at the field so we can extend our growing season.
Where is the name arise + shine comes from?
Before I got into farming, I was teaching christian yoga at my church. It wasn’t a good fit so I stopped teaching. When I was doing yoga, that was my goal, I was going to start yoga as a side business and I fell in love with it. My daughter has a degree in marketing, and I said I need to come up with the name of the business. She said, you’re coming in thanksgiving. You come up with a name, and I'll come up with a name, we prayed for it, and we’ll get together. Around that time, Danny Gokey came up with a song rise and shine, and i think it was praying and doing a lot of things. Rise and shine was on my list. When my daughter and I sat down to discuss names for the business, the first one on my list was rise and shine, she goes, shut up, I have arise and shine. And that was it. The name came from the scripture, [Isaiah 60:1 - Arise, shine; for your light has come, And the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. (KJV)]. Essentially, it’s now your time to rise and shine.
My daughter has been my saving grace. When I can, the first person I’m going to hire is my daughter, and she’s going to be my marketing director. She’s so talented.
I’m not sure whether Christian yoga is going to stay away forever, if there’s a way to incorporate that. I really want arise and shine farm, but there’s a arise and shine farm in Oregon, but they’re already doing organic food.
We’ll be back for more stories about Kate and her journey in the farm next year. Meanwhile, if you see her out and about, don’t forget to thank her for her service on this Veterans’ Day!