Feeding the Soul at Shining Hills Farm
By Vanessa Herald | Photos By courtesy of Shining Hills Farm 0
“Food feeds our body. Flowers feed our soul.” –Ryan Evans, owner of Shining Hills Farm and Garden
Upon first meeting Ryan Evans, proprietor of Shining Hills Farm and Garden, it is apparent he loves every aspect of being an organic cut flower grower. A self-described “purveyor of happiness that is grown from the earth,” Ryan followed his heart to the field of blooms and greenery. To this farmer, flowers are about enjoyment, happiness and innate beauty. “I am an advocate for always having flowers around,” he says. “Flowers speak to us on a higher, spiritual level, where food speaks to us in an earthy, grounding level.”
Established in 1998, Shining Hills Farm and Garden is a ten-acre organic cut flower farm in La Farge, Wisconsin. Ryan focuses on high quality floral cuttings from seven acres of perennial plants including wildflowers, trees and shrubs, along with one acre of annual cut flowers. The beautiful stems and arrangements he produces are sold to florist shops, the wholesale market and to venues for special events. Like many agricultural producers, Ryan’s adaptability and positive attitude allow the farm business to continue cultivating success over the long run. This includes the creation of his own design company, which creates the floral backdrop for events and weddings.
Much like early season salad greens or winter squash, flowers are cultivated from fertile soil. And just like our food, cut flowers are subject to the same unpredictable challenges of farming: weather woes, pest problems, plant disease and market fluctuation. Shining Hills has experienced more than its fair share: one 1,000 year flood, one 500 year flood, one 100 year flood, and two of the worst droughts in history.
“One has to be diverse and adaptable to keep the farm going,” Ryan explains. These two characteristics grow in abundance at Shining Hills—along with an understanding of the natural cycles of the earth—and they have led to the farm’s continued success.
Ryan grew up a city kid in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Upon entering college, he took work as a landscaper and gardener to support himself. Ryan instantly fell in love with this outdoor avocation, the connection with the seasons and the contact with nature. Following his intuition, Ryan permanently changed course. He left college and moved to the Kickapoo Valley to begin a farm business growing organic nursery stock. He obtained a job at a café, which was “the best way to meet anyone who drinks coffee, establish good rapport with the locals, and find out who’s willing to give up their back forty.” With a good attitude, strong intentions and a willingness to follow any opportunity, he purchased land as soon as possible and built a house and a packing shed. The farm became a reality, although the plans evolved through the process. Along the way, Ryan was inspired by a grower who suggested raising high-quality floral stock for florists and farmers markets.
The farming venture and flower sales were a wild success. Shining Hills cultivated strong relationships with local florists, high-quality florists in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and with regional cut flower wholesalers. The business thrived in the vibrant economy and demand was high. As Ryan explains, there is always a steady demand for flowers for celebrations, flowers for memorials and flowers for “breaking up and wanting to get back together again.” Beyond these steady markets, there are the “luxury” flower purchases, bouquets or stems purchased for the home or as a gifts, to enjoy and share the beauty of flowers. The farm was bustling with Ryan and five others employees.
Then catastrophe struck. This plague wasn’t a pest or soil-born disease affecting the fields. It wasn’t drought or floods. The crisis was the full weight of the economic collapse in the late 2000s, distinctly decreasing the demand for flowers. Shining Hills Farm and Garden’s revenue diminished as the “luxury” portion of the floral market withered. Ryan saw the business he worked so hard to grow slipping away. The soul searching began: How could Shining Hills continue to thrive, and how could Ryan continue to follow his heart?
First, the farm scaled down from five employees to just Ryan and one part-time staff person. Then Ryan crafted the business plan to be smaller and more focused. He added value to his existing product by introducing floral design and arrangement services. “I’m an artist at heart,” Ryan muses, and although he is a skilled grower with a long-term interest in design, he says he never felt experienced enough to pursue professional expansion into the world of floral arrangement. Serendipitously, while pondering all these opportunities, Ryan was invited to create various floral arrangements for the Coulee Region Wedding Magazine and then sculpt the flowers for Kickapoo Country Fair. The positive response provided ample encouragement to continue.
In following his heart, and his passion, the design services of Shining Hills Farm and Garden are now taking off. Ryan keeps the farm sustainable by continuing his cut flower production and harvesting from the annual blooms, wildflowers, shrubs and trees among his ten acres. He still sells in bulk to six florists with whom he has tended strong relationships over the past 15 years. But with the addition of his custom design services, Shining Hills has a stable new business venture and Ryan has a renewed passion for his work. The farm will evolve over time and the road may be rocky. For Ryan, the best tool is a good attitude, flexibility, and the ability to follow his heart.
Learn more about Ryan Evans, Shining Hills Farm and Gardens and floral design at www.shininghillsfarm.com.
Q&A with Ryan Evans of Shining Hills Farm and Gardens
Most Rewarding: “Flowers are not just pretty things to put on your table, but they feed your soul. The best part is seeing the smiles on people’s faces when they tell me how beautiful the flowers for their event were, or to see how happy a bride is going to be with her bouquet.”
Biggest Challenge: “The chaotic nature of weather and economy.”
Lesson Learned: “Attitude is so incredibly important. If a 1,000-year flood takes your crop and your topsoil, your attitude is important. It’s good to remember that all of nature is a cycle, and it continues.”
Favorite Farming Resource: “Pest and nutrient deficiency books for cut flowers. Beyond that, the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES).”
Advice for New Farmers: “Unfortunately, the Army took the best quote: ‘The toughest job you’ll ever love.’”