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This All-Female Family Farm Grows Flowers for the First Lady and Everyone Else
Harmony Harvest Farm’s Stephanie Duncan shares what it’s like to help adorn the prestigious First Lady’s Luncheon with their homegrown flowers.
Stephanie Duncan gazes across the expansive Washington, D.C. ballroom and pinpoints this exact moment. The room is empty, but bursting with anticipation. It’s her favorite part no matter how many times she has volunteered. It’s the moment before the doors swing open to the prestigious First Lady’s Luncheon.
“Oh my gosh,” she says. “When you see the beautiful floral arrangements that are on the tables and on the main stage, it is just truly a moment of pride.”
The luncheon is a Washington bi-partisan, annual tradition honoring the first lady and is hosted by the Congressional Club. It’s made up of spouses of members of Congress and was designed in 1908 to help foster friendships among the legislative leaders.
It’s the flowers that captivates Duncan, co-owner and chief marketing officer of Harmony Harvest Farm, as much, if not more, than the people about to enter that ballroom.
“We're really proud that we're able to showcase this on a national level,” Duncan says. She hesitates, and then adds: “a patriotic level.”
A few days earlier, in the rolling landscape of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley is where the magic really takes place. That’s where Duncan, her sister Jessica Hall and their mother Christine Auville, also co-owners, spent two days harvesting crops from their 20-acre flower farm, grown for the luncheon. The family farm, located in Weyers Cave (population about 2,000), grows around 400 different types of flowers and ships mixed bouquets and bulk flowers nationwide. Varieties include anemone, ranunculus, peonies, hydrangea and dahlias. But, its calling card crop is the heirloom chrysanthemum.
Harmony Harvest is just one of many floral and foliage farms across the country that sponsor the First Lady’s Luncheon with hopes to draw attention to the plight of American flower and foliage growers competing against a massive floral import industry. Only about 20% of the flowers in the United States are homegrown. Harmony Harvest is a member of the trade group Certified American Grown that advocates a “buy American” message.
Duncan spoke with East Wing Magazine in a recent phone interview about Harmony Harvest’s dedication and participation in the annual First Lady’s Luncheon. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did Harmony Harvest Farm get involved in the First Lady's Luncheon?
A: We've been involved for many years. We have sent flowers, of course, and then also came and helped design and just be part of the team. It's always been a remarkable experience. We love it. We love being able to have this event with so many prestigious women because we are an all-women run farm. And, we are women in business. It's so nice to be able to show other women — like, hey, look at what we scrappy little girls are out here doing. But, also show the beautiful things that we're growing. And we just so appreciate the opportunity to be able to showcase our hard work. It's such a prestigious event. Right?
Q: What is it like knowing you are growing flowers for the First Lady’s Luncheon?
A: I don't know if you're going to want to hear this, but we grow all of our flowers the same because whatever flower is good enough for the first lady of the United States of America is good enough for my neighbor.
We care about all the flowers. So when we're growing, one of the things that we are adamant about is that this is for the first lady and we want it to be beautiful. But you know what? It has to stand on our values. If it's not good enough for her, it's not good enough for anyone. If it's in season, then we're taking it. We're not going to force something outside of our box to showcase because that's not who we are. We want our truest self at this event. Of course, we're going to take the cream of the crop. But at the same time, we try to give everybody the cream of the crop. That's what we want everybody to have.
“We love being able to have this event with so many prestigious women because we are an all-women run farm.” — Stephanie Duncan, Harmony Harvest Farm co-owner
Q: When do you start harvesting for the First Lady’s Luncheon?
A: We will harvest two days prior, two days before we leave. The reason it's two days and not the morning of is because we like to get everything cut. And we'd like to let it hydrate in a cold, dark cooler. It's able to recover from any shock from being cut off the plant, but then also allows us to go through and take another quality check to make sure things look just as good off the plant as they do on the plant. Flowers can be fickle. The flowers that are on the tables at the First Lady's Luncheon are going to be near days old, versus grocery store flowers or some stuff from your florist that could be weeks old.
Q: What's it like setting up for the event?
A: Oh, it is so much fun. We all get there and we know that there's a job to do. We all are very, very motivated to do, of course, the very best, perfect job.
It's very much a community. That group [of more than 20 farms who participate in the event] is all in it together. And honestly, every single one of them wants it to be the best design or the best bloom that they put out. Not only are we executing this amazing event together, but we're also learning from each other along the way.
A lot of these people don't get a chance to see each other except for at the First Lady’s Luncheon. So amongst the design and moving flowers and making sure we have everything together, we're able to have some conversations about our farms, about our crops, about what's growing. The added value of doing the event isn't just the notoriety of making flowers for the First Lady and The Congressional Club. But, there is this really wonderful sense of community that we're able to connect with each other and further our industry together.
Q: Have you ever observed a reaction of the flowers from the first lady?
A: I haven't exactly gotten to see the initial reaction from the first lady, but I can only guess that she's happy. I mean, she seems happy every time. They all seem very happy.
Q: Why is the First Lady’s Luncheon important to your business?
A: It's important for our business. But overall, it's important for the flower farming industry, floriculture industry. It is important because it gives us the opportunity to showcase what American producers are capable of, and what American designers can do. Sometimes we get so distracted with social media, and all these things that we get so much inspiration from outside our own country that we forget how beautiful things in our backyard are.
I think it's interesting that the different climates we have in the United States and the different types of farmers we have in the United States; this event gives us the opportunity to really show that spectrum. It is incredible how different flowers — things that can bloom in Arizona can't live [in Virginia]. There's just such a drastic difference in climate across the U.S. But it's fun to see it all come together. And sometimes you stand back and you think, “Oh my gosh, all these flowers, like they're just kind of all over the place.” But when they all come together, it is truly magical. It is a beautiful representation of our country and the flowers it produces.
“Whatever flower is good enough for the first lady of the United States of America is good enough for my neighbor.” — Stephanie Duncan, Harmony Harvest Farm co-owner
Q: What kinds of things have transpired at your business because of the First Lady's Luncheon?
A: We've actually been able to get some notoriety with our local Congress people. When they know that we're involved in this big event, and that we are very much attached to [Certified American Grown] that’s doing so many good things in the legislative space, it really gives us firmer ground to stand on. It gives us a really strong foundation to say, “The first lady finds this important.” And it definitely gives us a little bit firmer ground to stand on when we approach our [legislators] about things that happen in our own community. A good [example] is rural internet. Our internet is not great. That's not the best thing when you try to run an e-commerce business.
[Also,] making sure that the labeling is right so people, when they're buying bouquets in the grocery store, [are] given the opportunity to find this origin label on it. If it's coming from Virginia, what can we do to really promote that?
“It gives us a really strong foundation to say, ‘The first lady finds this important’.” — Stephanie Duncan, Harmony Harvest Farm co-owner
Q: How did Harmony Harvest Farm get involved with Certified American Grown?
A: We've been a Certified American Grown farm, since at least 2015. But, one of the things that we appreciate about Certified American Grown is the advocacy that they give to our industry. They're out there really telling the story of American flower farmers with our legislation. We appreciate that because we are a unique sector of agriculture. We're niche agriculture. So, we are very important, particularly when you start looking at the statistics of how many flowers are actually imported in the country versus actually used from our flower farms. And, yes, you could absolutely look at climate and say, “if Ecuador grows the best roses, then why don’t they grow the roses?” But, also you have to think of sustainability consequences [and] also ethical consequences.
We do know the labor practices they have in place [and] the environmental practices and protections they have in place. When you really start digging into it, you are finding the same thing as fast fashion. We're getting this thing that seems on the surface to be amazing and beautiful. And we're getting it for such a great price, but at what cost?
Certified American Grown has been good at reminding our [legislators] that there is this subset of American agriculture and that there's demand for what we're doing. If 80% of the flowers in this country are imported, clearly there's demand. We live in a global economy. But, how can we make that figure a little bit less? Let's put some of that flower money back into our U.S. farmers’ pockets.
Q: What would you say frustrates you the most about the floral industry in the United States?
A: I wish that more people understood the floral industry itself and were able to appreciate seasonality, location, geography, and realize that there's so much beauty in your backyard. It's totally hidden, depending on the season. But it might not be that one flower that you have to have right now. And if you have to have that flower right now, what are the consequences of that? Because on demand is great. But there's a consequence to it. I wish that we had the ability to really talk to people more about thinking about where their flowers come from, just as they think about where their food comes from, and where their clothes come from.
Q: What gives you hope in the floral and foliage industry?
A: My hope is that people start appreciating the labor of love that is growing flowers just as they appreciate the labor of love that goes into the beautiful tomatoes they're buying at the farmers market. My hope for the floral industry is that we take a step back and are able to really lean harder on our local flower farmers and getting things that feel more organic to where we are at moments in time and not be so obsessed with having specific flowers on specific days and specific colors if that means we have to go elsewhere to get them. I really hope that it comes back to enjoying the bounty of nature.
Q: What do you hope people at the luncheon and people in general take away from the floral and foliage industry’s participation in the First Lady's Luncheon?
A: Curiosity. I hope that they walk away impressed and that they want to know more. I hope that they leave there and immediately Google “flower farms near me.” I hope next time they go into the grocery store, they pick up a bouquet and look at the label and see if maybe the flowers were grown by somebody that they saw at the First Lady's Luncheon, because they saw how beautiful those flowers were and [they think,] “I want those flowers.”