If you’re invited to dinner at someone’s house here, you might bring a dish to share. But in Santiago, Chile, where Joan Ewer Thorndike grew up, that’s an insult to the cook. So flowers are the gift of choice, and on many street corners there were stands selling inexpensive, beautiful blooms.
Which was why Thorndike’s jaw dropped the first time she saw flowers for sale in San Francisco: $5 for a single flower.
“I was absolutely stunned,” she said. “It made my head reel.”
She realized American florists were focused on what she calls the “Hallmark holidays,” and put together giant arrangements for hotel and concert hall lobbies or “roundy-moundy” baskets with flower stems stuffed into foam. Not to mention fake floral displays.
“A plastic flower is a thing,” Thorndike sniffs. “It’s not a flower.”
She allows none of that in her organic cut flower business, Le Mera Gardens. It was an Ashland, Ore., flower farm that had fallen into disrepair, and Thorndike and others had attempted to keep it going. At the time she was looking for a business that would allow her to keep her young daughters out of childcare while providing a bit of additional income, and growing flowers seemed an ideal way to do that. In 1992 she took over the lease, and her daughters spent much of their summers and after-school hours roaming freely on the farm.
Gardening had been Thorndike’s mother’s solace in life, and Thorndike found love in it as well.
“I voted for flowers,” she said. “I had it in my bones.”
She wanted to grow beautiful blooms in a natural manner. As the business grew, she obtained USDA organic certification. The move struck some as overkill — you don’t eat flowers, after all.
But it was important to Thorndike as she “hustled flowers wherever I could sell them” in the early days. There hadn’t been a farmer in her or her husband’s families before, and “no one knew quite what to do with that,” she said.
She persisted and succeeded, with a major breakthrough coming in 2001 when Le Mera Gardens merged with Fry Family Farms, a major organic producer in the area. Thorndike manages flower production for the farm, supervising the workers who grow, harvest and ship flowers. From a base in Ashland, the combined companies have fields, propagation greenhouses and hoop houses in Medford, Phoenix and Talent, Ore.
She continues doing it her way. “We don’t have automation,” she said. “You cannot pick a good flower without using your hands and your eyes.”
The business sells to flower shops and a grocery chain, and does a thriving trade with people who are assembling their wedding bouquets.
“It’s our responsibility to send flowers out the starting gate in the best possible condition,” Thorndike said.
Over the years, she’s seen Americans increase their appreciation for and knowledge of real flowers. She credits farmers’ markets with doing for flowers what it did for local food. In Oregon, production of cut flowers is a $13.3 million annual business.
In early December, Thorndike was among three women chosen to be part of a “trailblazers” panel discussion at the Women in Sustainable Agriculture conference in Portland.
Thorndike told the 400 women attending, many of them beginning farmers, that she fell in love with growing flowers and enjoys that romance to this day.
She said sustainability can mean “sticking with it.”
“For all of you, that’s what I hope — that you will stick to it,” she said.
Joan Ewer Thorndike
Occupation: Owner of Le Mera Gardens, an organic cut flower business in Talent, Ore., that is associated with Fry Family Farms.
Personal: Age 59, married to Dan Thorndike, third-generation operator of a family metal fabrication business. Lives in an old farmhouse in Ashland, Ore. Two grown daughters, Camila and Isabella.
Background: Grew up in Chile with an Australian mother and an English father. Spoke English at home, Spanish on the streets and attended a French immersion school, so is fluent in all three languages.
From there to here: Emigrated to British Columbia when she was 22 because Chile was ruled by a repressive military regime and young women were expected to be attending university or married, not at loose ends. Met her husband and moved to the U.S. in 1984.
About Le Mera: Grows about 150 varieties of flowers, branches and greens. Sells to 11 flower shops in Southern Oregon, and to New Seasons grocery stores in the Portland area. About half of her business is do-it-yourself wedding arrangements.
Guiding business principle: “My first partner is my land.”