Learning by growing
by Sally Colby
Amber Weaver began her post-high school education with a plan: attend North Carolina State University and eventually become a veterinarian. That changed when she decided the size of the university wasn’t a good fit.
Amber’s involvement in agriculture started when she was in FFA in high school, serving as both vice-president and president for the organization. “That’s where my passion for agriculture started,” she said. “I thought I wanted to be a vet, so I got my associate degree then planned to go to North Carolina State University for animal science. I decided that NC State was too big for me, and being a veterinarian wasn’t what I wanted to do. I moved back home and found the University of Mount Olive [UMO].”
UMO offers a degree in agricultural production, which appealed to Amber. But Amber said a horticulture teacher in high school and an enthusiastic instructor at UMO were the first to spur her interest in that field. As she completes her studies for a degree in ag production systems, Amber is growing flowers and produce on about four acres of the 39-acre farm she named Pinkney Farm in Kenly, NC. She’s also working off the farm.
A farm was gifted to Amber as a graduation present when she earned her associate’s degree. She knew a greenhouse would help her get an earlier start on the growing season, so her venture began with a secondhand greenhouse purchased from a retired FFA teacher. Amber had to move the frame, cover it with new plastic and run electricity and water to it.
The first flowers Amber grew were scheduled to bloom around Valentine’s Day. “I grew several flowers like ranunculus and anemone,” she said. “It was kind of an experiment – I didn’t have enough to sell – then I put my greenhouse together and finished that in March. I started all the cut flowers and produce I’m growing now in the greenhouse, and planted them out in the field in April.”
When Amber started growing flowers, her marketing plan was to sell to florists and event designers. “I had a lot of extra bouquets so I asked a local grocery store if I could sell them there,” she said. “Now I sell to a couple of florists and to a wedding designer.” In the future, she plans to manage her own wedding and event design business. As she becomes familiar with floral arranging, Amber’s found that people are becoming more interested in more natural-looking flowers, which fits well with both her plan and what event planners are seeking.
Amber has done a lot of reading about flower farming and produce growing, but said there’s nothing like actually gaining firsthand knowledge through working with others who have experience. Although Amber didn’t have a lot of formal training in floral design, she’s always had that interest, so she was motivated to learn on her own. Her horticulture instructor at UMO helped spur her interest, and the same instructor helped Amber obtain an internship at a nearby flower farm.
“I was already interested [in flowers], but I didn’t know how much time and effort it would take, and what I needed,” said Amber. “I wanted to get my hands dirty to see if I liked it. I worked at Foxhound Flower Farm all last summer and gained a lot of experience there.” During her internship at the Lillington, NC, flower farm, Amber learned how to grow the flowers that would be most suitable for arrangements, and more about what she needed to start her own farm.
Without a specific plan for this growing season, Amber’s goal was to make sure she would have enough flowers to sell. Her plan has resulted in enough flowers to deliver to florists on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Plants have an extra day to rest before Amber harvests again for weekend farmers markets.
In addition to learning about and growing flowers for cutting, Amber grows vegetables. Although she learned a lot about horticulture in college, Amber is also relying on help from her grandfather, an experienced produce grower. Without any previous experience in marketing, Amber has had to learn that aspect of the business.
Her first growing year came with some challenges. “I’m learning the different harvest stages and how to store each one because each one is different,” she said of her vegetables. “I’m having some pest issues with my flowers, and I’m trying not to use pesticides. The bugs are eating up my pumpkins on a stick, and my zinnias have a fungal problem. I’m learning as I go.”
For her first full growing season, Amber estimated the number of tomato plants she thought she needed. Her grandfather thought it was too many plants, but Amber continued to nurture all of them. “We had a lot of rain and all of my tomatoes flooded,” she said. “But because I planted way more tomatoes than I needed, I was able to put more out. It turned out to be a good thing.”
When Amber grew pumpkins toward the end of last season, she found that the soil on the farm wasn’t up to par for the crop. “This year I had the soil tested, then put lime and fertilizer down,” she said. “I have pumpkins growing now and they’re doing well.” She’s trying several pumpkin varieties, including the traditional favorite jack-o-lantern, Cinderella and white and blue varieties.
Amber sells produce and flowers each week at farmers markets in Pine Level and Goldsboro. Being at the markets helps Amber learn more about customer preferences, and she’s found customers are especially interested in sunflowers, marigolds, zinnias, amaranth, celosia and cosmos. This autumn, Amber plans to take pumpkins to Goldsboro for the market’s pumpkin day. She’ll also sell pumpkins to the florists who already carry her bouquets. The pumpkins will be ready in August, which Amber said should work out well.
As she continues to grow and sell flowers and produce, Amber knows she’ll have success and challenges. But she’s determined to pursue what she loves, and appreciates the support of all who have helped her.