Episode 272: A Dahlia Love Story with Michael Genovese of Summer Dreams Farm
November 23rd, 2016
Today’s guest shares his inspiring story, a narrative that keeps me motivated to continue with this podcast. Please meet Michael Genovese of Summer Dreams Farm.
The first time I met Michael, his arms were filled with dahlias and he had a big grin on his face! That was just over a year ago, when I traveled to Detroit to experience The Flower House and serve as co-host of the Field to Vase Dinner that took place during the weekend exhibition.
Michael showed up on set-up day and frankly, things were a mess. The area where the big event tent was erected needed some major TLC, including grass cutting and the removal of some tree stumps and a beat up chain link fence. We had volunteers and time, and maybe a rake or two, but nothing close to what was needed to turn a wild yard into a gourmet dining experience in just a few hours.
Michael arrived from his dahlia farm in Oxford, about 45 minutes north of Detroit. His truck was filled with buckets of gorgeous and fresh dahlias that he wanted to donate to the Flower House project to support florists who were his new customers from his first year as a flower farmer.
I was blown away by the variety, color and health of his dahlias as he unloaded the gifted flowers. He must have chatted with a few of the volunteers inside the tent, because someone asked him about tools. I’m not exactly sure how this happened but we noticed that Michael disappeared. As it turns out, he drove all the way back to his farm and returned with enough of the right tools to (a) remove those trip-hazard stumps; and (b) yank out that relic of a chain link fence. A miracle!
Kasey Cronquist, administrator of Certified American Grown brand and Bill Stotz, whose spouse Liz Andre-Stotz was deeply involved in The Flower House core team, were part of this magical transformation, too. It was a sight to behold, and it made the dinner a huge success. That kind of kismet, connection and community only happens because of people like Michael. He is a rare individual.
We reunited recently at Lisa’s Detroit Flower Week where Michael and I both presented as speakers. We grabbed a few moments before the very special banquet held inside the Detroit Public Library to record this podcast.
Here’s a bit more about Michael Genovese, from his Summer Dreams Farm “about” page.
My story begins with immigrant grandparents, in post war Sicily, who left everything in search of the American dream. My grandfathers were, among other things, subsistence farmers in the old country. They settled in Detroit in the 1950’s and, like most other immigrants, raised much of their own food in their backyard vegetable gardens, while working low paying jobs.
My parents fulfilled the American dream, getting graduate degrees and pursuing professional careers. They, too, had a love of the land, and completed their Master Gardener certification prior to purchasing a small farm in the Oxford area. They decided to grow Christmas trees and established a choose and cut farm. For years they struggled, working their full time jobs and commuting evenings and weekends to develop their farm, while raising my brother and I. After years of sacrifice and hard work, they created a very popular Christmas tree farm, bringing enjoyment to the many families who come out to the farm in search of the perfect tree.
I was lucky enough to grow up on this farm, learning from their work ethic, and enjoying the fresh air of the country. After getting a business degree from Wayne State University, I joined the work world, but dreamed of starting my own farm, and saved to buy my own land.
In 2011, my parents received a little gift that would establish the direction I would take. My parents were asked to present a posthumous leadership award to Christmas tree grower, Harvey Koop, one of their mentors in the Christmas tree industry. Receiving the award were Mrs. Koop and daughter Janet (Koop) Brondyke. In addition to growing Christmas trees, Harvey Koop at one time was also the largest grower of dahlias in the world, with over 90 acres in production. His daughter, Janet, continued his legacy at Hamilton Dahlia Farm in western Michigan, growing cut flowers. It was after this presentation that Janet sent my parents gift of some dahlia tubers.
Those few dahlias grew into a passion for me, I had never seen anything like them. Over the next few years as those few plants multiplied so did my interest. When the flowers bloomed, I cut and gave them as gifts to friends and family. After seeing the joy and excitement in people’s eyes when receiving these flowers, it hit me that this is what I wanted to do.
In 2014, I worked with Janet on her farm, learning from her much like my parents learned from Harvey a generation earlier. We cut flowers, worked at the Farmer’s Market, and harvested tubers together. Janet shared a wealth of knowledge and years of experience with me. This gave me the confidence I needed to start my own farm.
The following year, I started on my own path, buying land and creating Summer Dreams Farm. Almost immediately I was overwhelmed. Still working full time to fund my fledgling business, I learned there were not enough hours in the day to get everything done. With limited time and equipment, and knowing it was impossible to accomplish everything on my own, I called on friends and family for help. Somehow, we managed to make it to August and my flower field turned from a green forest to every hue imaginable. But, the challenge was just beginning.
I started selling at a local Farmer’s Market and going to the area florists showing my flowers. After my first month, sales were going slow. I was working over 100 hours per week and had little to show for it. One morning, my mother took some flowers to Parsonage Events in Clarkston and that is when the tide began to turn.
Owner Liz Stotz was busy working on wedding arrangements when one of her employees went to her and said, “You need to see this”. Not knowing what it was, she begrudgingly left her task. She was overwhelmed with my mother’s armful of colorful dahlias, which happened to be one of her favorite flowers. A few days later she came out to visit my farm. I remember she was almost speechless when she saw the field full of color. At that point she had a choice. To keep my existence a coveted secret to set her apart in the area or share my existence with others. I am thankful she chose the latter.
One of the people Liz introduced me to was a photographer named Heather Saunders. Right away, Heather fell in love with my flowers and my story. Out of her passion for what I was trying to do and the kindness of her heart, she told me that she wanted to help. I didn’t realize right away how talented she was. That year, she captured images of my flowers in a way I never thought imaginable. Through her images I was able to start to share my story.
As the days grew shorter and the nights colder, there was still one more chapter in my story. The florists I had been working with told me about an event, the likes of which had not been done before. The florist and designer Lisa Waud of Pot & Box had purchased an abandoned home in Detroit with the goal of bringing it back to life one last time. On a brisk October weekend, florists from all over the country traveled to Detroit to turn this home into a three-day art installation, covering the home with fresh cut flowers. The day before the frost put an end to my season, we picked over three thousand dahlias to donate to the project. What this talented team of individuals did with them took my breath away.
At this event I was introduced to designers from coast to coast as passionate about my flowers as I was. Here, I was introduced to the American Grown Flower movement, and the farms and individuals behind them.
I share my story with you for many reasons. I am fiercely proud where I came from, of the hard work, risks, and sacrifices my family made over the years. I am equally proud of the business I have built. It started with a dream and it has turned into reality through sacrifice and hard work. I am excited for what the future holds. In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined what I achieved in my first year and I am eager for everything ahead of me.
Above all and most importantly, I am humbled by the support, mentoring, and experience that others have given me. Without the help of each and every one of the individuals described above and many more, I would not be who I am today or have accomplished the things I have. Quite frankly, none of this would exist without them. For the people in my life, I will be forever grateful.
Okay, you’re probably tearing up (as I am about to do), so I am going to stop talking and turn to the interview. You’ll enjoy meeting Michael and if you haven’t discovered him yet – and I know a lot of you have – check out his social places to enjoy his playful spirit and truly inspiring story.
Follow Summer Dreams Farm on Facebook
Follow Summer Dreams Farm on Instagram
Read Ali Dahlson’s interview with Michael for the Mayesh Wholesale Blog.
Thanks for joining today’s conversation! Be sure to view our show notes to meet Michael Genovese, see photos of his work, and learn how you can order his tubers, on sale now at summerdreamsfarm.com. I have to give a shout-out to Cathy Genovese, Michael’s mother, who’s probably his biggest fan. She’s a dear supporter and I’m so glad to have had a chance to meet her a few times recently. I wonder if Cathy will soon have to decide between Christmas trees and dahlias! you’re a lot stronger with a united voice than with a hundred individual voices
Thanks to you, our Slow Flowers Podcast listenership has spiked considerably, climbing from about 3,500 monthly downloads a year ago to 7,000 monthly downloads this month. I believe a good part of the reason behind this doubling our audience is because of the power of story.
Our guests feel safe and supported in the amazing Slow Flowers Community we’ve created here. While few of us have met face to face, we feel as if we KNOW one another. That’s due to social media, sure, but nothing beats actually hearing a story shared by the teller in her or his authentic voice.
This past weekend I attended the TEDx Seattle event and it may come as no surprise to those of you who’ve watched TED Talks online or attended a similar event in your city . . . that it was a terrific experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was inspired to attend because I learned that our good friend Lisa Waud of The Flower House and Detroit Flower Week had recently been invited to present at TEDx Detroit. I wanted to learn more about innovators and big thinkers in my own community.
One of the speakers, public radio host Celeste Headlee, paraphrased a wise saying that she attributed to Larry King, which went like this: “You will learn nothing by what you say today. You will learn volumes by what you hear.” That should be the motto of this Podcast!
Another former public radio correspondent Elizabeth Arnold, who now spends her time reporting on the Arctic, shared this – and it really resonated with me. She said: “As a journalist, my job is to Seek the Truth, to Bear Witness to the truth, to Report the truth and to put a human face on the truth.”
Both of these speakers ignited my imagination about the possibilities and potential of the Slow Flowers Movement. I was encouraged to realize that what we’re doing here on this Podcast is powerful. Through this podcast, you are invited to hear leading voices in our community; their stories move our emotions and spark our ideas about what is possible through community. I was personally inspired to take pride in what I’m doing as a “flower journalist” (I know, that’s rather pompous, isn’t it?).
I am motivated to make flowers more honest. To tell the truth about what’s happening in the floral industry, good or bad. And to report on it through the human story.
I hope you feel the value of this effort – growing listener numbers are one indication to me that it’s worth all the time and sweat equity that I have invested in creating unique programming every week for you — in fact for the past 173 consecutive weeks, which adds up to more than 3 years.
Thank you to our lead sponsor for 2016: Certified American Grown Flowers. The Certified American-Grown program and label provide a guarantee for designers and consumers on the source of their flowers. Take pride in your flowers and buy with confidence, ask for Certified American Grown Flowers. To learn more visit americangrownflowers.org.
More sponsor thanks goes to Syndicate Sales, an American manufacturer of vases and accessories for the professional florist. Look for the American Flag Icon to find Syndicate’s USA-made products and join the Syndicate Stars loyalty program at syndicatesales.com.
A big bouquet of thanks goes to Longfield Gardens . . . providing home gardeners with high quality flower bulbs and perennials. Their online store offers plants for every region and every season, from tulips and daffodils to dahlias, caladiums and amaryllis. Visit them at lfgardens.com.
A fond thank you to Arctic Alaska Peonies, a cooperative of 50 family farms in the heart of Alaska providing high quality, American Grown peony flowers during the months of July and August. Visit them today at arcticalaskapeonies.com.
And finally, thank you Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. Formed in 1988, ASCFG was created to educate, unite, and support commercial cut flower growers. Its mission is to help growers produce high-quality floral material, and to foster and promote the local availability of that product. Learn more at ascfg.org.
I’m Debra Prinzing, host and producer of the Slow Flowers Podcast. Next week, you’re invited to join me in putting more American grown flowers on the table, one vase at a time. And If you like what you hear, please consider logging onto Itunes and posting a listener review.
The content and opinions expressed here are either mine alone or those of my guests alone, independent of any podcast sponsor or other person, company or organization.
The Slow Flowers Podcast is engineered and edited by Andrew and Hannah Brenlan. Learn more about their work at shellandtree.com.