Producer starts a flower farm

Jodi Friesen and her daughter-in-law, Victoria, are turning a half acre of fertile land close to the Assiniboine River into a floral paradise featuring more than 150 flower varieties.

Friesen opened Miss Millie’s Flower Farm near Poplar Point, Man., last summer. Since then, she’s added a greater variety of perennials and annuals planted in rows with walking paths in between to allow customers to snip their choice of blooms.

The business is named after the family’s seven-year-old dog, a black pug.

Friesen’s flower business is located on the home site of her family farm. Her husband Gary’s grandparents originally immigrated from Prussia to begin farming on the fertile land near the Assiniboine River in the Rural Municipality of St. Francois Xavier. Gary now farms more than 2,000 acres of wheat, canola, soybeans and barley. 

Friesen’s passion for horticulture spurred her to earn a prairie horticulture certificate from the University of Manitoba in 2014. She also worked at Jeffries Nurseries near Portage la Prairie, Man., for more than 10 years, where she learned about plant propagation and development. Flower farms operating in Ontario and the northern United States inspired her to try out the business concept on her farm.

Being located close to a major river is a blessing and a curse. While the soil adjacent to the river is loamy and fertile, there’s always a risk of flooding every spring. In 2011, Friesen said, most of the land she and Gary owned was under water as the Assiniboine spilled its banks.

“Our farmland was all under water. We didn’t farm in 2011.”

A dike reconstructed after that severe flood has helped protect the Friesens’ land from minor flooding events over the past eight years.

Another uncontrollable factor — the weather — also caused damage to the family’s crops and Friesen’s early-developing plants in May. A narrow band of extremely heavy rain swept over their property, dropping about 175 millimetres of rain in a short time. Gary had to reseed wheat and canola, and Friesen also had to replant many of her flowers. She said the pounding rain caused a hard crust to form on the soil and she had to break it up in order to reseed.

Late frosts overnight in May also damaged some of her less hardy plants, but she is philosophical about these set-backs.

“It’s all part of it,” she said.

This year, about 95 percent of the flowers she’s growing are annuals, with the remainder being perennials grown from bulbs. Friesen has to plan almost a year in advance to identify and order the seeds she needs at the end of August for the coming growing season.

“It takes planning for next year. I’m planting things at the end of January,” she said.

She starts her plants in a greenhouse and is in the process of building a garage that will include a workshop and a cold storage area to preserve cut flowers.

She knows that images of her flowers are her business’s best advertising, so she and Victoria are active on Instagram posting photos of colourful blooms. She welcomes photographers to Miss Millie’s Flower Farm who are looking for an opportunity to use flowers as the subjects or background for a photo shoot. 

Friesen originally thought the bulk of her flower sales would be made to event planners and used for weddings, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed that because many spring and summer weddings have been postponed or downsized.

“The demand for weddings isn’t there,” she said.

While she sells some of her stock to florists in Winnipeg and other central Manitoba communities, this year the majority of her business is coming from people who book ahead through her website to come out to the farm and cut their own flowers.

She is allowing up to 10 people to be in the garden at one time. Each U-pick customer is given an enamel pitcher and flower snips. They are able to walk throughout the garden and cut the blooms that catch their eyes.

“You want some June blooming, July blooming, August blooming. The U-pickers drive all the way out here for the experience, and I want them to be happy.”

She hopes to be able to keep her U-pick business running until early September.

“(However), you never know what’s going to happen with the weather.”

Friesen also plans to harvest seed from some of her flowers, such as zinnias and scabiosa, to run germination tests and hopefully be able to save money on seed.

She’s also nurturing David Austin roses in shades of cream, pale yellow and pink this year. A favourite with brides, the tender blooms are designated for cultivation in Zones 4 and 5, but Friesen is hoping her garden’s micro-climate will allow her to keep the rose bushes alive over the winter, even though she’s located in Zone 3.

“I have planted them well and will protect them over the winter,” she said, adding she’s going to try using flax straw as a cover.

This summer, she’s particularly proud of her asters, which are blooming in a variety of bright colours.

“They look absolutely stunning.”

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