Jill Forrester the Flower Power Generator

Jill Forrester the Flower Power Generator

This International Women’s Day, we honor Jill Forrester at Whitton Farms. She generates much more than your traditional flower power as the New South Board Chair, mother, and business owner X2.

Jill lives the flower power mantra every day. Over the last 16 years, their farm has grown from a sprinkling of zinnia seeds to a solid agri-business that beautifies and feeds their community (and the New South CSA)!

During her time as chair, Jill has stewarded New South through several big milestones: We’ve opened up Wholesale business to include all local small growers, welcomed 13 Certified Naturally Grown and Certified Organic farms into membership, and we’re opening a Memphis hub this April.

We sat down with Jill to talk about her farm and the meaning of flower power. Read the full interview below:

 

How did you start farming?

Jill: My husband Keith asked me what I wanted for my birthday. For nearly a year we’d been mowing several acres of ground surrounding our home. I told Keith I wanted a huge flower garden right by the road for all to see. When I was a child, my grandparents would take me on leisurely Sunday drives. We were always delighted when we’d come upon a beautiful garden during our outing. That’s what I envisioned: a surprise for someone’s eyes if they happened to venture through Whitton.

Whitton Farms started with a few zinnia seeds and a birthday wish.

“That’s what I envisioned: a surprise for someone’s eyes if they happened to venture through Whitton.”

Keith immediately got to work.  He ordered a pound of zinnia seed and purchased a 50-pound sack of sunflower seed. He tilled up a quarter acre, and together we scattered the zinnia and sunflower seeds. We had no idea how much we’d enjoy this project. Each day steadily watching the seeds germinate, and eventually grow into something quite magical. There’s something to be said for a mass planting of flowers. It was an experience that drew us closer together as a couple, and although hard work to maintain, was unbelievably gratifying for us individually as well.

By July, we had more flowers than we knew what to do with! At one point Keith remarked that I had so many flowers in the house, it looked like a funeral parlor. A sweet neighbor down the road, Mr. Lindsay Chandler, suggested we take his booth one weekend at Agricenter Farmers Market in Memphis to sell our buckets of flowers. Mr. Chandler had been flower farming for decades. He was an established and well respected flower farmer in the region, and offered loads of encouragement to us throughout the years.  

We took Mr. Chandler up on his offer, and decided to give selling flowers at the farmers market a try.

That Saturday, we loaded three cars with buckets of flowers and headed to market. We sold out that very first Saturday, and ultimately generated revenue that surpassed our weekly teaching salaries! You could say that kick started our passion for growing anything and everything we could think of on our little plot of land in the Arkansas Delta. Not only had we found a new passion, career wise, but we’d be able to work alongside one another daily. We were over the moon!

Farmer Jill’s son Fox smiles at the Whitton Farms market booth.

How involved is your family with the farm?

In terms of family members working at the farm, its currently just Keith and myself working at the farm, but the past my mom Marie, my sister Jennifer, and my brother Mark have all spent a significant amount of time doing farm chores and operating the booths at the farmers markets we attend. Keith’s mother Mary and our nephews Steed and Paul have also assisted us at market in the past. We are so thankful for our family’s support. Fox, our son, will be working with us this year at the Memphis Farmers Market.

What does “flower power” mean to you?

This is a difficult question for me to answer because term flower power means so much. We all know flowers have the power to evoke a series of emotions for growers and customers alike. With a vast array of stunning floral species cultivated in the US and abroad, it’s no wonder it’s a billion dollar industry. Flower power to me means that my farm is a contributing factor, although minuscule, in that industry.  And as a flower farmer I have the ability to watch my crop come full circle. I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to grow flowers for the past 16 years.

Business aside, I personally derive great joy throughout the entire process of cultivating flowers. Whether it crop selection, seed germination, harvest, bouquet building, marketing my goods, or setting up our booth at the local farmers market, all of these tasks are rewarding challenges for me. Flower cultivation motivates me to be a better version of myself. Each growing season, I strive to be a better farmer than I was the previous season. In regard to my career choice, I’ve never come across one solitary “thing” that has inspired me to work from dawn until dusk (and sometimes beyond) than the cultivation of flowers.

“Farming anything is a gamble, but the reward is much more than monetary gratification. It’s a being a part of something greater than yourself.”

Farming anything is a gamble, but the reward is much more than monetary gratification. It’s a being a part of something greater than yourself. Flowers generate love among us all. That’s the power of flowers.

Any words of wisdom for your fellow women farmers?

Start small. Grow what you interests you. Grow what makes sense for you financially. Good stewardship to me is 50% sustainable farming practices and 50% making sure your farm is financially healthy.

It is important to be the face of your brand, literally! Jill’s customers come back for more than just beautiful flowers.

Also, learn how to craft your own website. Be the face of your brand. If you want people to support your dream, you need to tell them your story. Surround yourself with plant people!

What is your favorite springtime veggie that you grow? How do you like to eat it?

Carrots. I love a good roasted carrot. I roast them in the toaster oven for 25 minutes with a bit of EVOO and fresh rosemary, which we also grow. Check out another fun roasted carrot recipe on the New South blog.

How do you balance the restaurant biz with the farm life?

We run a farm-to-table restaurant in Memphis called Trolley Stop Market. I have had the wonderful opportunity to build solid teams of folks who believe in my passion, and are dedicated to their craft. When you find good people, don’t give them a reason to leave.

Who have been your mentors (women or not) that have helped you along the way?
  • Lois Wilson, a lovely lady from Joiner, Arkansas who is a walking encyclopedia on Arkansas native plants. When I first moved to Whitton, she would leave books on my doorstep, seed packets in my mailbox, and invite me over to walk me through her extensive garden of natives.
  • Diane Meucci who lives off the grid in Arlington, Tennessee on a 5-acre shade garden called Gardens Oy Vey. Diane and her husband Wolfie have always been extremely supportive of our farming efforts.
  • Last but not least, I have to mention Chris Cosby, of Memphis, Tennessee. Early in my farming career, Chris was a lead horticulturist at the Memphis Botanic, and was always a wealth of information whenever I needed it. I love the plant people in my life.

 

What decisions have you made that have helped you along the way?

In the infancy of our farming operation, it was critical to live on a strict budget. We lived below our means in order to build the financial foundation of our farm. We also got to know our NRCS agent who introduced us to the high tunnel and irrigation grant programs.

Most importantly, we developed lasting relationships with fellow farmers (like we have in New South). Farmers love to help one another. Having a core group of farmer friends you can reach out to for advice, or to simply vent about what’s happening at the farm is HUGE for morale come the dog days of summer.



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