Q &A with Flower Farmers Frank and Pamela ArnoskyPosted by Whole Earth | 01.28.2024
Q & A with Flower Farmers Frank and Pamela Arnosky
Frank and Pamela Arnosky have been growing Marigolds and other flowers at their family farm for over 30 years. Through the four seasons their Arnosky Family Farms Texas Specialty Cut Flowers can be found in markets and stores across Central Texas and in the Big Blue Barn, their own market in Blanco County where customers can find flowers in pots, bouquets, flower, vegetable, and herb seedlings to transplant, eggs, jam and most of all community. You can follow them on Instagram.
What path led you to farming in the Hill Country?
When Frank and I chose to farm in the Texas Hill Country, we were drawn by the beautiful vistas, the good bottomland soil along our creek, the long growing season, proximity to great markets, and the cultural diversity of Texas. As has been said, “Texas is a whole ‘nother country.”
Frank was raised in Detroit and went to Michigan State University to study Horticulture. He always knew that he wanted to farm. He came down to Texas A&M for graduate school in 1981. Pamela loves the outdoors and wanted to live outdoors, to homestead, and live simply. Her degree was from Texas A&M in Geography, in both Cultural and Plant Geography (which includes folk medicines and traditions, and plants getting from place to place, whether they moved through nonhuman mechanisms, or were carried intentionally by the people moving from place to place).
Why did you decide to grow flowers for market?
When Frank and I married, he had a small greenhouse bedding plant business over near Brenham. We spent the first summer after marriage, and two more summers after that, supervising high school trail crews in national parks/forests, with the Student Conservation Association. When we moved to our first farm, a 12-acre owner-financed, juniper-choked piece of bottomland along a creek, on the Hays/Blanco County line in 1990, Frank thought we would be doing a greenhouse business in plants grown and sold to independent garden centers.
We lived in a tent and built a small cabin, in which we still live. But instead of a greenhouse business, within two years, we realized that with Frank’s diverse horticultural knowledge, we could farm commercial cut flowers. Fieldwork was easier for me to keep up with, as the mother of eventually four children, than working in the greenhouse.
Our first sales were at farmers' markets and to local grocery stores. We scaled up the production over time, as our expertise grew, and we first leased, then purchased additional farmable land. Today, we farm in three locations. The Blue Barn Farm is our flagship location, but we have peony operations in the Davis Mountains of West Texas and in the Northwoods of Minnesota.
Flowers simply make people happier. We have come full circle, and grow fresh cut flowers and also bedding plants, and potted flowering plants again.
Did you grow flowers as children?
Frank grew gardens with his Hungarian grandmother in Detroit. He made crosses of gladioli when he was just a kid. He was always a naturalist and approached the natural world systematically; his brain is set up that way, to catalog new information, and then be able to retrieve it and apply it to new situations. His skills include drawing and painting, and he even worked as an illustrator for entomology.
Pamela was a wildflower enthusiast from early childhood and was raised in East Texas. From a very young age, she felt connected to Lady Bird Johnson and her message about wildflowers. Camping, hiking, bicycling, canoeing, and identifying floral/fauna were hobbies for both Frank and me.
What are your favorite flowers?
Pamela’s favorite flower is the next one coming into bloom. Every one of them is a miracle. We love whole landscapes full of unexpected wildflowers, like the Davis Mountains flora after the summer rains begin. For cut flowers, Pamela has been through phases when she adored Icelandic poppies and Texas Bluebells, but her most incredibly heady experience of flowers is being in a field of blooming peonies: pinks, whites, reds, plum-colored ones, fancy or double, all fragrant! It is breathtaking!
Frank is the true plantsman in the family, who collects seeds and plants, including tree seedlings. He has bred our own line of Celosias over the past 30 years. As a hobby, he has a small collection of orchids and a collection of bearded iris.
The Big Blue Barn was a community effort. How were you able to revive the 19th century tradition of barn raising in 21st century Texas?
Back in 2004, Frank spoke at the sustainable farming conference in Pennsylvania, and then took a driving tour of the Amish country. The barns there are all works of art, all built in community barn raising: people do together what could not be affordable or attainable alone. Function and beauty are both vitally important, and Frank came home from the conference and proposed the idea. A goal! Pamela, being very goal-oriented, immediately started the planning process, calling together the wide Community of people. Gary Weeks, the furniture maker, was key in rendering the architectural drawings, and Phillip Sell was key in executing the arched trusses that are the crown jewel of this structure that was deliberately built to be a historic iconic structure out here in our valley. The Barn Raising itself was a 5-day joyous celebration of Community-in-Action!
What is the story behind your Mexican Marigolds leading to the creation of the multicultural Texas Marigold Festival in Blanco?
As farmers, we are part of the very foundation of civilization. Everything is built on top of agriculture. There is a concept from Ghana called "Sankofa.” Roughly, it means reaching into the past and bringing forward the knowledge that is needed now and into the future. The knowledge of growing things is part of that, as is the importance of flowers in cultural traditions, and all of this must be carried forward by each generation.
We began growing marigolds 30 years ago because of San Antonio artist, Debra Vasquez, aka Kwetzpalin. She was the first person to find our small farm, and to tell us why it was so important for us to grow these flowers. Each year, the observance of Dia de los Muertos has been growing, and many of the same people return year after year to get their marigolds (Cempasuchitls) directly from our farm. Since our farm produces the most marigolds of any other farm in the USA, we jokingly began calling it the Marigold Capital of Texas.
Now we are in the Post-COVID years, when people are seeking Community and want to celebrate the cultural heritages of their families and also of the geographic place they live. Marigolds connect us all. Marigolds originally came from Central Mexico, but spread throughout the world, and today, in South Asia, marigolds are used in religious ceremonies in India, Bhutan, Nepal, etc.
Just like the flowers, we all came from someplace else. Other inhabitants were here before us. Not one of us got here without influences from multiple sources! The Blue Barn has become a cross-roads where people from all of these different cultural traditions come through. The Marigolds are also important to the other species, not just the humans! The Marigold Festival celebrates all of these.
How can we make our cut flowers last longer at home?
Cleanliness of the vase and water are paramount in floral vase life. Some folks swear by just changing the water daily, and recutting the stems, keeping down the bacteria in the water, which clogs and rots the stems. That is why floral preservatives were developed, and they contain a sugar (to feed the buds), an acidifier (to bring down the pH in the water), and a biocide compound (ex. chlorine, to suppress bacteria). We use a hydrator in the water when we harvest. The hydrator is like a soap, that increases the wettability of the water, so the stems take up water more readily. Zinnias are the perfect example where the addition of just a drop of chloro in the vase water can increase vase life dramatically.
If you had to pick one thing for us to plant in our backyards, what would it be and why?
Frank’s choice: Marigolds. Pamela’s choice would be to have most of your landscaping be flowering 'natives', but also to have you maintain a flower bed of the seasonal annuals that thrive here. Our yards ARE habitat for the non-human species that are here.