Ellen Kerchner’s parents were botanists who spent summer vacations exploring the western United States and teaching their daughter about wildlife, nature and the outdoors. Those road trips led Kerchner, owner and farmer at Ellen’s Flowers, to her life’s work.
“Every chance my mom got to share that knowledge with me, she did,” Kerchner recalled. “It was a routine of learning to pay attention and see what was going on around us as we explored Colorado. They’re both science teachers so I think any opportunity had to have a teachable moment — and they took advantage of it. I was fortunate for that to be part of our day-to-day life.”
There were river trips in Colorado and adventures in Utah, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, California, New Mexico — “If you could reach it by car from Colorado, we did some sort of trip there,” Kerchner said.
“Having spent that much time in the outdoors makes me appreciate things that are more natural and wild and showed me I wanted to pursue a life in agriculture.”
Kerchner studied at Middlebury College in Vermont, graduating magna cum laude in conservation biology and environmental studies in 2015, then spent eight months at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming.
“We horse-packed in supplies for groups on 30-day wilderness trips, and we’d resupply them throughout the course of their trip,” Kerchner said, “then we managed a ranch the organization owns. There was a bit of land stewardship there that I was looking to experience and get my hands on also — and being able to spend time in the outdoors and help others have that experience and see the benefits of spending time in wild places.”
She went on to spend eight months working at Venetucci Farm in Colorado Springs, followed by another eight months at Paicines Ranch in California.
“We ran cattle and sheep and I was there for a year,” Kerchner said. “I wanted to go around and get different experiences at different places with different land conservation and agricultural practices, to gain some understanding of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to practice my own form of agriculture.”
In 2017, Kerchner and Sarah Hamilton, her childhood friend and fellow farmer, started New Roots Farm in Pueblo. For the next two years, the pair grew and sold organic vegetables.
“Through that time, we also grew flowers on the side,” Kerchner said. “We wanted to create a habitat for beneficial insects that would help keep our pest population under control because we’re growing organically, so we don’t use chemicals to control those guys.
“Since we had those flower rows interspersed with the veggies, I started cutting them and bringing them to market, and I just realized how much I liked working with the flowers, learning how to grow them and when to cut them and the design aspect of it, and how put a bouquet together. After that second year, Sarah and I decided to go our separate ways — I started the flower farm and she continued with New Roots and brought her parents [Patrick Hamilton and Susan Gordon, who previously ran Venetucci Farm] on board. New Roots is still a thriving farm in Cañon City.”
Kerchner spoke with the Business Journal about her journey from New Roots to Ellen’s Flowers and the art of flower maintenance.
How did you launch Ellen’s Flowers?
I started it all with my own capital. I started small the first year — I did one farmers market and funded it out of my savings. The second year I just did the flowers and, at that point, I had made enough money in the first year to cover buying seed and that stuff at the start of the season when I didn’t have sales coming in. Then I made enough money [in year 2] to pay myself back for my original investment — to cover everything else and still be profitable in that second year. This year it’s the same sort of thing. Farming is a weird industry where there’s a long part of the year where you have no income in the winter — at least the way I do it — so you have to manage your cash flow so there’s money on hand in February when you start ordering stuff for the following season. But it’s about leaving money in the bank.
How was working in Wyoming and California vital to what you’re currently doing?
Part of going after those different experiences was developing that skill set, but also trying to set myself up to go through that problem solving and be quick thinking to get the job done. Experiencing different agricultural sectors was important because everyone has their own way of doing things. You’ll always come up against different problems; you have to know how to fix a tractor and you have to know how to do accounting or how to do irrigation. There’s a lot that goes with farming or a tool you need to learn to build. I knew if my future was going to be in agriculture, having those different experiences was going to be important, so I could be prepared for whatever happened when I opened up my own place.
After this, you started New Roots?
Yes, so after that stint on the ranch in California, I came back to Colorado. The family who managed Venetucci Farm, their daughter [Sarah Hamilton] was my best friend. She worked on that farm every summer essentially since she could carry a shovel. She’s an experienced farmer, and that was the year Venetucci Farm closed due to the water contamination. She was also looking for an opportunity to start something on her own. We decided to open a farm together. We grew organic vegetables in Pueblo for a season and called this ‘New Roots Farm.’
It was small and we hustled that summer. We had very little in the way of financial capital, but her parents were incredibly generous with letting us borrow tools and equipment. ... It was just making it happen and doing it on the cheap as much as possible.
We were also fortunate to have loyal customers from Venetucci Farm come to our business. We had 25 families sign up for a summer of vegetables for us and that was the biggest thing we could have happen. That’s what’s called community-supported agriculture shares. Those folks sign up for a season of produce in February and they pay upfront. That money went toward getting the season started. We had no financial resources to invest in any significant way, so it was important to have those people invest in our farm and commit to us financially.
The next year we moved to Cañon City and upped our CSA — community-supported agriculture — up to 40 families that summer. We did more farmers markets and sold to a ton of restaurants.
Leaving Sarah and New Roots must have been difficult.
Anytime you start something new, it’s bittersweet. Starting a new business with a partner you trust and care about was helpful. With New Roots, I had someone I trusted and could lean on to help make decisions. Starting Ellen’s Flowers without Sarah was scary because I didn’t have that ear to bounce ideas off, but having that experience with her gave me confidence to do this. And I see her almost every day. I’m fortunate to have such a close friendship with her and see her business thriving in the way it is.
It’s so exciting to have two young, female farmers in Colorado Springs trying to bring local flowers and food to the community and to support each other. This year we bought a tractor together and we share it. I have it 50 percent of the time and so does she. Having someone nearby and someone you trust allowed us to do some creative things on the infrastructure side to share costs. I’m excited we got to have two years of farming together.
Was it tough learning about each flower’s needs?
That was probably one of the biggest learning curves for me coming from vegetables. There’s a certain temperature your cooler has to be for veggies and you’re good to go. But flowers — that’s totally different. Different varieties need a host of different things to succeed. It comes down to a ridiculous number of spreadsheets as I try to memorize it all — and being incredibly organized. Right now, we only have a walk-in cooler we store everything in. I just change the temperature of that cooler as different things come in that need different temperatures for storage. Vinyas are a common flower that most people know about. They don’t like to be stored cold. They need to be in a cooler that’s at least 45 degrees whereas some of the other things I have love it at 38. It’s a matter of keeping a tally of what’s going in and keeping track of your inventory. They can be very finicky. It takes a lot of knowledge and keeping on top of it.
So there’s a lot of trial and error involved?
There’s definitely that — but we joined the Association for Specialty Cut Flower Growers and that was one of the best decisions I’ve made. People in the association have been growing flowers for 25 years and by joining, you get access to those growers and their knowledge and presentations. They do scientific studies and research with universities to study those things to get down to the brass tacks of what different flowers need. Joining that organization was incredibly helpful because I didn’t have to do all that trial and error. I could just read the research paper on it and know vinyas need to be [stored] at 45 degrees.
Talk about your goals for your business.
For the next couple of years, we want to increase production in Cañon City. That means, for us, starting to hire people. Right now, it’s just me and my boyfriend [Matthew Kostner] growing. We also want to diversify how we reach customers. We currently sell primarily through farmers markets. … We also do a bouquet subscription; it’s that CSA program. Members get a bouquet weekly through the season and we do events. Moving forward, we’re trying to reach customers where they are. We’re thinking about shipping bouquets to members in Colorado Springs for that bouquet subscription so they could have a bouquet show up weekly. Going to a ton more farmers markets to reach other parts of town and lean hard into events — weddings, parties. And there’s always the possibility for agritourism; having events on the farm and educating people about what we do and showing them why our flowers are better.