Anna Mack, A Flower Farmer
HONEY SHARP INTERVIEWS ANNA MACK
Intrigued by a farm’s name called “Wild and Cultivated”, I had discovered on Berkshire Grown’s, “Map-o-licious” with listings , I headed to it on an off the beaten track part of Sheffield.
It was an unusual Berkshire day when the sky looked dramatically burdened with a moving display of heavy, slate colored clouds. A rain storm was looming but never occurred. I had an appointment to meet its owner, Anna Mack, who grows flowers for wholesale almost exclusively to florists such as Bella Flora at Guido’s, restaurants., galleries as well as floral designers such as Pamela Hardcastle, Ariella Chezar and Barbara Bockbrader,
Thin, lanky and close to six feet tall, Anna was wearing long silver loop earrings and olive colored rubber boots on the day in May we met. With a hoe in hand, she ambled towards me, passing her many rows overflowing with perennials coming into their own. Alone, we sat on some metal chairs between an old New England clapboard house, long tables with annuals still waiting in pots to be transplanted and a plastic covered hoop house currently growing over 15 varieties of dahlias. An abandoned trailer left by a friend was sitting in the field.
HS: Where are you from originally Anna?
AM: I grew up in Arcadia Valley, Missouri and got a BS in agriculture with an emphasis on horticultural therapy at Kansas State College.
HS: Interesting. What is horticultural therapy?
AM: It’s working with special populations such as youth at risk, older folks and veterans teaching them how to grow vegetables and work in gardens and farms. Basically it’s a form of rehab. However, I didn’t pursue it as a career. Instead I wanted to grow my own plants, flowers in particular.
HS: How did you first get interested in agriculture?
AM: I’ve always enjoyed how working the land gets me engaged. I remember when I was 7 years old having some amazing peanut butter, very different from what you’d get in a supermarket then and telling my mother: “we have to go to the store and get that kind of peanut butter.” She took me and I later learned it was a co-op actually, one of the early ones in the Midwest. The peanut butter was home-made.
HS: When did you begin growing flowers for cutting as a business in the Berkshires?
AM: I first came here in 1996 to apprentice in Housatonic and started my business soon afterwards. There was definitely a market for local cut flowers. In 2008, I bought this land with five open acres for cultivation from the Sheffield Land Trust. My next door neighbor is Ted Dobson who acquired around 80 acres and is famous for his arugula and mesclun.
This land was once part of a small farm — well, maybe they had three cows and some chickens. It had a house dating originally from 1840. It hadn’t been inhabited for 40 years and I’m slowly restoring it on my own pretty much.
HS: Do you do most of the work here all yourself and how much land do you actively cultivate? Do you use organic methods?
AM: I hire a person each season and am very pleased when I can get the same person. I grow perennials on an acre; annuals on ¾ of an acre and my dahlias on ¼ acre. But yes, I do most of the work including some delivery and yes I use organic products such as fish emulsion.
HS: So who are your clients since you are not doing retail?AM: They're professional designers and businesses such as Bella Flora where I deliver to Chris Whalen who then takes my flowers up to Guidos in Pittsfield. Sadly, the florist business has dwindled. You know, Dolby’s in Great Barrington closed.
Occasionally I personally do flower arrangements for weddings or other events. The biggest and most important one I did was at the first gay wedding in New York held at the Governor’s Mansion.
HS: What are some of your favorite flowers?
AM: For sure, bells of Ireland, hellebores and dahlias. As for wild in the spring, I like Solomon seal apple, peach or pear branches, viburnums, dogwood and other items that catch my eye. In the fall, I might choose American beech branches and red-twigged dogwood from my woods.
HS: Since you have certain regular clients who are sought after for their gorgeous arrangements, what are some of their favorites or special demands they have? Do you tailor the cuttings for them?
AM: First of all, my clients already understand that much is weather dependent. I can’t guarantee what will be in bloom. As to preferences, Pamela Hardcastle loves acidantheras, a delicate type of gladiola and wants them cut earlier just before they bloom. She also likes early sunflowers: when the petal is winking at you. By the way, I remember being so excited when Pamela first called me in the late 90’s for an order.
HS: There must be some tricks to planting and cutting times which you’ve obviously mastered. For example, my hellebores don’t do well when I cut them and put them in water.
AM: Well, you have to wait and cut hellebores when the stamen has dried. In general much depends on maturation.
HS: And when do you plant your annuals outside? I’ve always been told to wait till Memorial Day.
AM: I usually follow the full moon in May and then wait a couple of days when there’s less of a chance for a frost.
HS: How do you deal with some of the challenges of this business? Nature is so fickle and even harder to predict now.
AM: Well, I just say: OK I lost that crop. What a bummer. But there’s always next year. This year the tulips heaved and the crocosmia, dicentra and solomon’s seal were hit by the sudden cold in late spring.
HS: What do you do in winter?
AM: It’s my down time so I like to travel and definitely prefer warmer places with sea and sand. I’ve been to Central America, New Zealand and Europe. I feel I have the luxury to go for a while. I also like to see my family on the West coast. But then I also have to order seeds and begin organizing for the next season.
HS: And for fun here?
AM: I love food, having friends over and cooking and also going out to restaurants like Prairie Wheel, Allium and John Andrews.
HS: Do you grow some produce as well?
AM: Just a little and besides, Ted Dobson next door is very generous with his lettuce and arugula!