Meet the Farmer: Fivefork Farms
An afternoon with head farmer, Grace Lam of Fivefork Farms
Interview and Photos by Michelle Martin
Spring in New England is my favorite time of year. Just when winter seems like it will never end and you can’t take any more of it, the temperatures start to rise and we begin to see the first hint of green after months of grey. I had this first sense of relief from winter on the afternoon I spent at Fivefork Farms. The sun was finally shining, temperatures had risen above 50 degrees and there was no sign of snow left. I arrived mid afternoon and was warmly greeted by Grace, one of five Lam siblings, and the lead farmer at Fivefork Farms.
Fivefork Farms specializes in sustainably-grown, seasonal flowers ranging from the classics – peonies, sweet peas and sunflowers – to the unusual – parrot tulips and hybrid hellebores. They are committed to growing flowers using organic and sustainable practices. As such, their farm devotes much time to replenishing the fertility of the land and cultivating flowers without the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers.
During the course of the afternoon, Grace showed me around the farm and gave me a glimpse into a ‘day in the life’ of a flower farmer. It’s hard work, similar to other types of farming, but the payoff seems so much greater when your reward is bountiful colorful blooms. She shared some of the challenges of starting a new farm, as well as the back story that led them to where they are today.
What was your inspiration for starting the farm?
Grace was always attracted to working the land ever since we were little growing up. She was the one that itched to germinate the first seeds for mom’s backyard garden and the one mom could always depend on with backyard garden chores, even weeding. We still joke to this day that when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Grace would always respond saying that she just wanted to pick vegetables.
Grace’s departure from finance and desire to farm coincided with the family’s search of a vacation property. We found this beautiful piece of land in Upton overlooking the Blackstone Valley and decided that this was the perfect juncture for our family to pursue our dream of starting our own business. Because of our varied skill sets in agriculture, design, business and construction we thought that this would be a great way we could come together as a family to start some beautiful. A simple flower can evoke so many emotions and memories — love, happiness, excitement, sadness. For us, the idea of being able to transport to happy memories of our childhood is pretty incredible and it’s also amazing to witness how something so simple can have the same kind of impact on other people we meet.
The farm is relatively new. Can you share a little bit about the history of the farm and the story of how it got started?
While our flower farm was formally established in 2012, we can't remember a time when our childhood home wasn't overrun - indoors and out - with beautiful plants and flowers. Our passion for growing flowers started at a young age working alongside our mother, whose love of plants and gardening continues to inspire us decades later.
Our sister Grace, the youngest of the five Lam siblings, was especially drawn to working the land. She worked as a farm apprentice for her senior project in high school and years later, after leaving a finance career in New York City, started working as a farm apprentice at Dragonfly Farms in Pepperell, MA. Shortly after, Grace began pursuing her dream of owning and running a farm full-time on her own. While searching for agricultural properties to launch the farm, Grace began cultivating a 1⁄4 acre plot (our mother’s garden) in the spring/summer 2012. From those humble beginnings, Fivefork was born. Last year, we acquired a 32-acre farm in Upton, Massachusetts. Today, the farm operates as a partnership between the five Lam siblings... and mom and pops too! We’d love to think that the success of our farm stems from our collaborative spirit. In our day to day operations, each sibling brings a different skill set to the table. Drawing from our prior or current work in agriculture, finance, marketing and design, each of us has a role to play.
You are lucky to have such a big family that works together and is so close! It seems everyone has their unique talent and contribution that they make to the farm. Can you elaborate a little more on each family member’s role?
Each of the family members plays an integral role in our farm operation. Because we all have such different skill sets, we can leverage off each other’s expertise to form a cohesive business! For ease, we’ll start from the eldest of the siblings and work our way down the list.
Lyh-Ping (we call her Ping): By day, she works as a cancer researcher for a pharmaceutical company in downtown Boston. Ping is also the most gregarious of the five, so we like to send her out to the markets to meet our customers and establish relationships with our potential partners. With her healthcare background, Ping is also our in-house nurse!
Lyh-Rhen (pronounced Lee-Ren): Lyh-Rhen is the creative brains behind our whole operation. He’s our in-house floral designer and creative arts manager. Lyh-Rhen designs and creates everything our customers see – from the marketing material and website to wedding florals and market and CSA bouquets. Over the years, he has worked his way through various jobs in the floral, art, and hospitality industries after graduating from Dartmouth College with a degree in Studio Art. He has trained under some of the most talented floral designers in Boston while working at a high-end flower company and several boutique firms in the city. If not in the design studio, you can find Lyh-Rhen tending to our small flock of chickens and ducks or sprucing up the farmhouse with fresh florals!
Lyh-Hsin (pronounced Lee-Shin): Lyh-Hsin is our Mr. Fix-it and farm utility man. Up until a year before our farming operation began taking shape, Lyh worked as a Site Manager for Habitat for Humanity constructing and renovating houses in the Boston area. With his background and training in building and design, he’s always busy building and designing new structures and implements that make the farm run more efficiently and effectively (and not to mention, fixing everything that his siblings break!). Lyh-Hsin also manages our fertilizer program. When not in the workshop building and designing, he’s brewing and spraying our crops with an organic compost tea or out in the fields harvesting and helping with the day-to-day activities.
Joyce: Joyce is the only one of the 5 siblings that does not live in Massachusetts. By day, she is a busy-bee taking on the bright lights of New York City as a financial analyst. With her finance background, Joyce takes the lead in organizing the farm’s finances to ensure that the bills get paid! She takes frequent trips to the farm on weekends and you’ll most likely find her harvesting flowers in the fields (her favorite task when she comes home) or at the farmers markets meeting our customers.
Grace: Grace is the youngest of the Lam siblings (by 40 minutes, that is, since Joyce and Grace are identical twins). After spending 3 years living with Joyce in NYC and also working on Wall Street, Grace left finance in early 2012 and began her farming career as an apprentice at a local vegetable farm in Massachusetts. Today, she is the lead farmer at Fivefork and the woman in charge of the farming day-to-day operations including the seeding, planting and harvesting schedules and all our flower production in general.
Daniel & Helen (Dad and Mom): are the most invaluable farmhands! Mom loves growing orchids, peonies, dahlias and roses in her own greenhouse at our childhood home and the one Grace inherited her green thumb from. Mom can usually be found in the greenhouse where she’s making sure we’re on the seeding schedule or in the kitchen cooking us a meal fit for a king!
Dad: There’s not enough words to describe what Dad does around the farm. He’s our farm all-star most often found chopping wood, or pruning the expansive grounds and making sure the grass lawn is manicured.
What does the timeline for growing flowers look like? Is it a year round process?
The timeline for flower farming really is almost year-round with the exception of one true rest month in November after the frost sets in and snow starts falling in earnest. Before the end of the fall season (late September into October), we work hard preparing flower beds outside and in our unheated hoop houses to plant our spring bulbs, corms and tubers (tulips, daffodils, anemones, ranunculus, to name a few) so they can take on a root structure before the ground freezes over. At this time, we’re also hand-digging over a thousand dahlia tubers so they can be safely stored over the winter and cleaning up the fields so they can be put to bed until the spring. In December, we really start planning for the next season’s crops and get all our seeds ordered, and seeding and crop schedules prepared for the next season’s crop. By late January we’re already starting to seed spring flowers in starter trays in our heated greenhouse so that they can be planted in beds in our hoop houses by March. With flowers we start from seed, it is imperative to seed in successions so we sow and plant each flower variety multiple times throughout the growing season. By succession planting, we make sure we have a steady stream of flowers throughout the season instead of having all the flowers come at once.
By the beginning of March, we are looking toward being able to give a first plow to our fields. This didn’t happen this year, due to our harsh winter and snow... Also at this time, our early spring crops in our hoop houses are starting to take on their first buds. Once the season really begins in late March/April, we get into a daily ritual of seeding, planting, weeding, stalking and harvesting until October!
What are the intricacies of running a flower farm that make it different from, say, a vegetable/fruit farm?
Flower farming is very much like vegetable farming. We plan and prepare our fields very much like a veggie farmer would do. If there was a difference, I’d say that the flower farmer has a bit longer season since it’s easier for us to grow crops in a cold frame or unheated hoop house by growing in crates.
What are your favorite types of flowers for growing? For arranging/decorating?
Ask any of us and we’d probably have a different answer on any given day and throughout the seasons. Our spring collection holds a special place in our hearts quite frankly because they signal the end of cold weather and the start of a new season! As delicate anemones, frilly ranunculus, fragrant hyacinths and giant parrot tulips fill our hoop houses with color, we set our eyes on the promise of sweetly scented sweet peas, cheerful poppies and romantic peonies yet to come. And yet, if we really had to choose a favorite, we’d have to wait until later in the summer – when the dahlias make their appearance. With beautifully symmetric, multi-petaled blooms ranging in size and shade, dahlias can add color and texture to an array of settings and occasions.
Fivefork Farms is a partnership between the five Lam siblings that unofficially started the day their parents, Daniel and Helen met. Located in the Blackstone River Valley in Upton, Massachusetts, Fivefork operates on 38-acres of land once owned and farmed by the family of Eli Whitney. Their passion for flowers, which was passed down by their mother, is the backbone to the working farm today. Fivefork Farms specializes in growing flowers for their CSA, local famers' markets and florists and designers. They also offer services for special events such as weddings. To learn more about the farm, visit their website at www.fiveforkfarms.com.