Lillian Calhoun makes the daily 15-minute drive from her home to an 18 acre farm near La Mesa, New Mexico.
She often arrives before sunrise. In the winter, the ground is cold and air freezes as soon as you breathe out. Everything is dormant, a well-deserved rest after a vibrant growing season.
Calhoun is the operations manager of Calhoun Flower Farms. From June to October, the farm is bursting with color of every shade, flowers of countless varieties and a fragrance in the air that makes you feel like everything is going to be alright.
But to get to spring, you have to go through winter. There’s no avoiding it.
“Sometimes in season, my eyes are like stars,” Calhoun said. “It is amazing, but sometimes I feel like I forget to show the realer side. This is half of our year. It’s cold, it’s dirty, it’s brown, but we still love it.”
Ten years ago, Lillian, Susannah and Emily Calhoun co-founded what eventually became Calhoun Flower Farms. Emily Calhoun started by planting flowers between trees at her family’s pecan orchard in Fabens.
After Emily moved to Albuquerque, Susannah Calhoun and her dad took over and turned seven acres of the farm into dedicated land for a flower paradise. Lillian Calhoun then joined in.
During the growing season, Calhoun’s fresh bouquets can be found at Whole Foods and Savage Goods Cafe. The Calhouns also sell wholesale to local florists, create flower bouquets and arrangements for weddings and parties, and offer a special yearly flower subscription.
It’s all grown and made at the farm. At local events, there’s at least one Calhoun on hand to answer questions about products and invite visitors to take a piece of the farm home with them.
“I think that’s where flowers can really make a bridge between nature and the rest of the world,” Susannah Calhoun said.
Like all farming work, it’s not easy. And the number of people wanting to do the work isn’t exactly growing.
There are about 12 team members at Calhoun during the growing season, including delivery drivers. The team does everything, all the time. One minute they’re fixing a plumbing issue, and the next they’re separating dahlia tubers in the barn.
Most days, the farm team spends hours among the flowers. There’s a lot of talking, and laughing, as giant marigolds are clipped and gently tossed into large black buckets. Lavender season is especially fun.
“Everyone was in a daze, so happy and so light,” Susannah Calhoun said. “Anything and everything could happen. We had all the answers that day.”
The oldest lavender plants at the farm are 7 years old, and 5 feet in diameter. Even in the coldest parts of winter, they retain their oily, endlessly fragrant leaves.
To drive through the Upper and Lower Valley in El Paso is to see farmland disappearing. What was once acres of cotton and other crops has been turned into hundreds of houses. The city is growing, and people need places to live. And the farms that exist make up a decent part of the region’s economy.
In the 2017 USDA agriculture census, the most recent count, there were 656 farms in El Paso County with a $46.7 million market share of products sold. The top crops were grains and cotton, and floriculture had no county-level data.
“There aren’t many flower farms in this area,” Lillian Calhoun said. “Every zone and every plot of land is different, so flowers will react differently.”
Nationally, Texas has the most number of farms, with over 12% located in the state. Agriculture made up about 6% of Texas’ economy in 2019, according to the Comptroller’s Office. Cattle is by far the largest and strongest agricultural product from the state.
Agriculture is an important part of New Mexico’s economy. In Doña Ana County alone, there are 1,946 farms, according to the 2017 agricultural census. The value of products sold topped $370 million.
The average size of most farms in Doña Ana County is about 270 acres, surpassing Calhoun’s land by about 252 acres. But very few of those large farms grow the output of flowers found at Calhoun.
“We account for 20% to 30% loss of any flower, but we’re okay with that,” Susannah Calhoun said. “We have the freshest product.”
Even with that loss, there’s enough to carry the business through the blooming season and more. Susannah Calhoun said the flower farm has been an experiment in trial and error and is a constant learning process.
“I think when you farm, the more efficient you get you should be able to grow more or just as much on less,” she said. “It’s about becoming an efficient small farmer. We can compete with industrial farms over 100 acres.”
During the winter, the team takes stock of what worked that growing season, or what didn’t, or what practices could be tweaked. They also stock up on dried products and harvest seeds and bulbs for the following year.
“We’ve treated it as an experiment and as a way to learn more about how to grow flowers here for the next generation of flower farmers to come,” Lillian Calhoun said.
Including lavender, the Calhouns gravitate toward flowers that will thrive in the region’s zones – dominantly 8a and 8b. Like other farmers in the region, the Calhouns are highly conscious of water.
“We’re in the desert, we have to use things that are water efficient or we’re not going to be here much longer,” Susannah Calhoun said.
The Calhoun team knows everything about flowers because they’re there for every step of the process. They know the right time to harvest a sunflower, they know fleabane looks different from chamomile, they know that lavender seeds are tiny and difficult to harvest.
“It’s been really wonderful to have a space to truly allow people to dig into the earth and get their hands dirty, to be able to get here before the sun rises, and see that moment and see our work – from us collecting the seed, planting it, and see it grow from sprout to bloom,” Lillian Calhoun said. “Sometimes we’re lucky and get to see it handed off to the person who receives it. That part is incredibly rewarding, to see that physical manifestation of our work.”
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