Ten Eyck twins put their own twist on the family business

Twin sisters Taylor Ten Eyck, right, and Morgan Willy

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Farmed flowers for sale: Twin sisters Taylor Ten Eyck, right, and Morgan Willy recently started their own farmer-florist business and were selling flowers Saturday at Indian Ladder Farms. Both sisters wear new wedding rings; while planning their weddings, they discovered an entire industry.

NEW SCOTLAND — The Ten Eyck family of Indian Ladder Farms has long been among the local land-use vanguard in its stewardship of 300 idyllic acres of earth nestled just below the Helderberg escarpment.

Indian Ladder became the first farm in Albany County to sell its development rights, permanently ensuring its lands will remain forever agricultural. 

And since the farm chose to retire its development rights, “instead of installing an 18-hole golf course,” as Peter Ten Eyck wrote in the Summer 2006 edition of the New York Fruit Quarterly, its “only course of action [was] to stay in farming.”

Which appears to have been a good decision, because both Indian Ladder Farms’ orchard and the fruit it bears are models of innovation. 

With its adoption of high-density planting, the farm established a 65-acre “orchard of the future,” where once 54 trees dotted an acre of land, thanks to a “revolution” in planting, now 1,000 trees cover that same area. 

A century on, the cattle have long since gone to pasture but the apple orchard remains along with a thriving tourist business with a restaurant, gift shop, cidery and brewery, and events venue.

And now, the latest generation of Ten Eycks are poised to put their own stamp on a branch of the local agricultural trade. 

Trading horticulture for floriculture, twin sisters Taylor Ten Eyck and Morgan Willy recently incorporated Twin Dahlias Flowers, a “farmer-florist” company that, when completely up and running, will not only grow flowers but also create bouquets and arrangements for sale. 

Farmer-florists, according to one description of the trade, “have streamlined the connection between grower and designer by being one and the same.”

Both sisters, 25, recently married, Ten Eyck said, and during the process of planning their weddings discovered an entire “cut flower, slow flower, local flower industry that’s kind of blooming.” A cut flower is any flower that is cut from the plant, trimmed, and can be used in a flower arrangement.

This past weekend was their debut selling flowers, and, although the sisters have yet to plunge spade to soil, they were able to source locally-grown flowers from Nine Mile Farm in Delmar and Lovin’ Mama Farm in Amsterdam, which the pair will use to create floral arrangements, “bridal bouquets, and things for events and weddings.”

Currently, Twin Dahlias Flowers is a part-time venture for the twins; during the day, Ten Eyck works in procurement for a defense contractor and Willy works in the information-technology industry. Both sisters graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with business degrees. 

At a previous job, Ten Eyck said that, for every birthday, she would give flowers to her co-workers. “I’d arrange them nicely in a vase and it would just make them super happy ... And so, then we kind of put two pieces together and so now this is something that we’re doing just as kind of a passion project ... It’s not our full-time job right now…”

Asked if she’d like to make it her full-time job, she said it’s “definitely too soon to tell.”

Part-time and passionate

This year, Willy purchased her own home, her sister said, and began planting some of her own flower beds, specifically dahlias, from which the sisters drew inspiration for their company’s name, Twin Dahlias Flowers. “And then we kind of got hooked from there,” Ten Eyck said. 

She said that she and her sister hope to start planting their own flowers for the business later this month and then again in the spring. They plan to plant on some family-owned property in Guilderland, not at Indian Ladder Farms. 

And, as for the flowers they plan to grow, she said, “Obviously, we want to do some dahlias, they’re a flower that’s really booming right now and a lot of people are getting more interested in.”

Her own favorite flower, Ten Eyck said, is the Café Au Lait Dahlia, which “rang[e] in color from a blush pink or peach to a creamy beige, Café au Laits are usually darker toward the center and fade to an elegant, pale shade toward the outside,” according to one description of the flower

Additionally, the twins intend to plant zinnias and sunflowers, which are two types of flowers that Ten Eyck calls “good starter flowers,” because, she said, she and her sister will have a lot to learn in the first year.

Although they will grow some of their own product, Ten Eyck said that she and her sister also plan to supplement their stock by getting flowers from other growers — which they will then craft into floral arrangements. 

One place the sisters plan on sourcing flowers from is Nine Mile Farm in Delmar. 

Ten Eyck went out of her way to praise Rebekah Rice, the Nine Mile Farm’s owner, calling her a “mentor” who is helping the sisters learn more about the floral business. Rice, Ten Eyck said, is helping the sisters learn about growing flowers as well as the all-important practice of flower arrangement. 

An education in efflorescence

When she and her sister decided to get serious about breaking into the business, Ten Eyck said, she contacted a lot local flower farmers in the area to see if any were willing to provide her flowers at wholesale prices and, also, if the farmer would allow the sisters to come to their farm to learn the trade.  

“Rebekah took me up on it,” Ten Eyck said referring Rice, “which worked out really well.” The sisters have now been over to Rice’s farm a few times, Ten Eyck said, learning-by-doing, helping Rice to prepare floral arrangements for weddings.

“[We] go over there and she just teaches us the different ways to make flowers last longer in the vase, and different strategies for arranging — particularly sound, environmentally-friendly stuff,” Ten Eyck said, for example, not using flower foam, which is terrible for the environment. 

Rice has also taught the twins how to care for flowers, for example, when and which flowers should “deadheaded,” a gardening term that describes “the removal of faded or dead flowers from plants,” which “is generally done both to maintain a plant’s appearance and to improve its overall performance.”

The sisters have also learned from Rice how to make flowers live longer.

While each variety of flower has “their own little preferences,” Ten Eyck said that the best thing anyone can do to make flowers live longer is to replace the water every day, and then every few days, “give them a fresh cut at the bottom so that they can really soak up all the water.”

Part of a national trend

With their focus on growing and selling their flowers locally, Ten Eyck and Willy have become part of a national revival of small-scale local flower farms known as the Slow Flowers Movement. 

Drawing on the Slow Food Movement for inspiration, the Slow Flowers Movement advocates for the sale of local, American-grown cut flowers

Its adherents promote the support and purchase of American-grown flowers, Ten Eyck said. In doing so, she said, the movement supports the local community, local farmers, small businesses, and environment — because flowers that are purchased locally don’t have to be transported thousands of miles (which a majority are) and also avoid having to be packaged.

“So, you’re eliminating a lot of waste that’s associated with flowers that come from other countries,” Ten Eyck added. 

“As the industrial age reshaped modern life, commerce formed around flowers, reducing many floral crops into commodities that are produced, sold and used with little regard to the environmental and human costs they cause,” writes Debra Prinzing, the founder of the Slow Flowers Movement. “This has resulted in a floral industry largely based on high-volume, low-cost production, greatly devaluing flowers to the point where it has been quite challenging to make a living wage as a flower farmer in the U.S.

“For various reasons, be it economic, trade or government policy, the floral industry since the early 1990s has undergone a major shift in the way flowers are grown and marketed.”

In 1991, in an attempt to stop the flood of South American cocaine into the United States, the Andean Trade Preference Act was enacted. 

The act eliminated tariffs on a number of imported goods coming from South America and sought to persuade the continent’s farmers to grow products other than coca, for example, flowers — which they did. 

In 2018, the United States imported $1.5 billion worth of cut flowers, of which $1.24 billion had been imported from just two South American countries: Columbia and Ecuador. The wholesale value of domestically produced cut flowers in 2018 was $374 million. 

“In 1971, the United States produced 1.2 billion blooms of the major flowers (roses, carnations and chrysanthemums) and imported only 100 million,” according to scientist and author Stephen Buchmann. “By 2003, the trade balance had reversed; the United States imported two billion major blooms and grew only 200 million.”

In one specific flower example, between 1991 and 2018, according to The Washington Post, the number of roses grown in the United States went from 545 million to less than 30 million, a decrease of 95 percent. 

Today, imports account for about 64 percent of flowers sold in the United States, according to the Society of American Florists, the floral industry’s trade association. In 1991, American-grown flowers made up 64 percent of the nation’s flower sales.

“Slow Flowers is a response to the dramatic changes of the past 25 years,” writes Prinzing — and the numbers substantiate her claims. 

In 1992, there were 6,065 farms in the United States associated with the cultivation of cut flowers. By 2007, that number dropped to 5,056, a 17-percent decrease. But, by 2017, the number of U.S. farms involved with cut-flower cultivation increased by 25 percent from 2007, to 6,768 farms.

In New York State, between 2007 and 2017, the number of cut-flower farms nearly doubled, from 223 in 2007 to 405 in 2017. 

Cut flowers are considered an ultra-niche crop, meaning they have an “exceptionally high-value,” and are able to provide a farmer with “a significant source of income” while using a minimal amount of land. 

They are are considered “one of the most profitable products one can grow in a field,” according to Holly Scoggins, an associate professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech.

In the United States, current floriculture retail sales — which includes flowers, seeds, and potted plants — are valued at around $34.6 billion, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. And cut flowers, specifically, can make up anywhere between $6.2 billion and $8 billion of floriculture retail sales.

“Flower Confidential”

The written word is also considered a factor in the revival small-scale local flower farms. 

Much like Upton Sinclair exposed the horrid working conditions of the Chicago meat-packing industry at the turn of the 20th Century in “The Jungle,” Amy Stewart’s “Flower Confidential” exposed the atrocious in which environment that South American laborers toiled.

However, whereas Sinclair’s “The Jungle” was a work of fiction, Stewart’s “Flower Confidential” was a work of investigative reporting, revealing that “the $40 billion floriculture industry looked a lot like factory farming,” according to The New York Times

Ten Eyck said that flowers imported from South American are loosely regulated, grown with chemical fertilizers, and may contain toxic pesticides.

In addition, the “flowers grown in developing countries were often tended by women and sometimes children, who were low paid and suffered abuses,” The Times said in a separate article

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