Ham Lake couple trust God as they grow family flower farm business

| August 10, 2020 | 0 Comments

Kristen, left, and Jonah with their three children: Chiara, left, John Paul and Lilly. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

“There are some Black-eyed Susans over here that I love,” Kristen Carlstrom said as she walked toward rows of yellow-petaled flowers with their signature chocolate-colored center. She crouched down and cradled one of the blooms in her hand. “These are totally unique,” she said, noting that her variety has more layers of petals than the typical flower. “The colors go beautifully with so many other things. I love how frilly it is.”

It was a late July evening, and the lowering sun cast a golden hue over the quarter-acre flower field. Kristen’s three children played nearby, with her oldest, 7-year-old Lilly, carefully cutting a small bouquet; 5-year-old John Paul offering to water the blooms; and 2-year-old Chiara eyeing the blossoms. As she walked between the rows, her Birkenstocks softly crunching the dry grass paths, she pointed out other flowers — Chocolate Lace, strawflowers, sweat peas — which she lovingly grows, harvests and sells in her family’s new cut flower business.

Kristen and her husband, Jonah, began Sparrow Farms this year, a project built on the dream of living and working at home together as a family, and leveraging the resources available to them. Neither Kristen nor Jonah grew up on a farm. High school sweethearts, the 30-year-olds met at the parish they still attend, St. Paul in Ham Lake. They went to college together at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio and married in 2012.

Six years ago, they rented a farmhouse near Ham Lake, on 20 acres with a field bordered by pines. After it sat fallow for a few seasons, they approached their landlord and arranged to begin farming it. This spring, they planted a plot with 50 different types of flowers. Kristen cuts, arranges and sells bouquets.

Kristen and Jonah are convinced that God has led them to begin this venture, but they wear no rose-colored glasses about the challenge they’ve taken on. When asked July 30 what he sees when he looks over the field, Jonah chuckled and said, “a lot of labor.” In the spring, he and Kristen ordered mounds of compost to prepare the field’s otherwise “sandbox” soil, spreading it over layers of salvaged cardboard to help retain moisture and quality. He built a fence to keep out deer, like the five he observed grazing across the road that evening, as well as an irrigation system.

Jonah holds a master’s degree in counseling, but decided the career wasn’t for him. He works as a house inspector, but is an entrepreneur at heart. The flower farm by far is the biggest risk he and Kristen have taken, he said. They hope that eventually it could become their full-time business.

When they began researching farming, they planned to grow organic food. They were inspired by the writings of Joel Salatin, a Christian farmer in Virginia who has become the godfather of a movement favoring small-scale, sustainable, family-based farming. The Carlstroms were thinking produce and chickens when, in the winter of 2019, Kristen came across a book titled “The Cut Flower Garden” by Erin Benzakein, a florist farmer in Washington.

“Basically, I just fell in love with it,” Kristen said. “It was kind of out of the blue for me.”

She had always kept a small flower garden with sunflowers and zinnias, but nothing large-scale. But once she began to think about flowers, she became convinced that was the direction she wanted to move.

“I knew we were going to take on something really big,” she said. “It was really important for me to be really passionate about it. And so, this was something that just really took a hold of me. And I had so much energy with thinking of doing really hard stuff to make it happen.”

She and Jonah took Benzakein’s online course on flower farming, and dove into researching what would grow well in Minnesota’s climate. “Before we knew it, we’re like, we’re really doing it,” she said.

Jonah gives Kristen all the credit for the flower focus. “I never thought I would be a flower farmer — I don’t think many men do think of that,” Jonah said, sitting near the field. He agreed to the online course, “and I was just sort of open with the Lord; ‘Wherever you lead us.’”

“Ever since leaving school, I wanted to do something in nature. I love working outside. I’ve been praying along the way” for God’s guidance, he said. “Basically, I want to come home and I want to work from home.”

The Carlstroms don’t know any other young farmers, but they’re not alone among Catholic millennials. Jim Ennis, executive director of St. Paul-based Catholic Rural Life, said there are like-minded young Catholics across the United States who are exploring and adopting a rural lifestyle, including small-scale farming. Many are drawn to a slower, family-focused pace of life away from the demands of city living and corporate work.

Like the Carlstroms, many don’t have farming backgrounds, Ennis said, and it’s hard work without the guarantee of financial sustainability. But it’s rewarding, he said. Farming is creative work, where people can work in nature, with their hands, alongside family members, for the benefit of their own tables and their community. And even young children can see, understand and participate in their parents’ work, he said.

“There’s something very innate in many people’s DNA to connect with God’s creation in a closer way,” he said, “and I think that’s very Catholic and very Christian.”

Kristen admits that sometimes she’s thought the idea of turning stay-at-home mom to cut-flower florist is “crazy.” But, “there was a lot of discouragement that came whenever I tried to let it (the idea) go, and a lot of joy that was there when we kept pursuing it,” she said, so they forged ahead.

The field is easily accessible from the Carlstroms’ house through a path in the woods. Kristen spends patches of time throughout the day tending its 20, 100-foot rows as she learns to orchestrate timing their harvesting with flowers’ longevity once cut to meet the needs of their customers. Already she’s prepared flowers to mark significant events, such as weddings and funerals. She also sells a bouquet subscription, where customers receive a fresh bouquet every one to two weeks.

“There’s a real time crunch … because as soon as a flower blooms, I need to sell it,” she said. “Now that we’re getting our feet under us with the rhythm of harvesting and processing the flowers and all that, we’re branching out into some more things.”

Sue Klejeski, director of family catechesis at St. Paul in Ham Lake, receives a Sparrow Farms arrangement every two weeks through its bouquet subscription. She learned about it on Kristen’s Instagram feed, and was inspired to receive her flowers.

“I think we can all use an extra dose of beauty in our lives — especially now,” said Klejeski, 59. “I’m mostly working from home, and having one of Sparrow Farms’ bouquets in my workspace is a source of peace and beauty in the midst of all the current craziness. Honestly, having a subscription allowed me to simply say ‘yes’ to flowers once instead of needing to justify it every time. I also appreciate the serendipity of seeing what is waiting for me each time. Kristen does a beautiful job arranging the bouquets and a subscription takes the ‘Should I? Which ones?’ decisions out of my life.”

Klejeski said she also backs the Carlstroms’ vision for “a family-centered business in support of a simpler lifestyle.”

“Their pride and joy in the venture shines through every encounter I’ve had with them,” she said.

Among the farm’s new offerings is “Feast Day Flowers,” bouquets prepared specifically for celebrating the Church’s liturgical year through a selection of saints’ feast days. They’re delivered with a hand-lettered tag invoking the saint’s intercession. August offerings include the Assumption of Mary (Aug. 15), the Queenship of Mary (Aug. 22), and the feasts of mother-son pair St. Monica and St. Augustine (Aug. 27 and 28).

Even as the Carlstroms labor in the first year of the flower farm, they’re thinking bigger. “We call this the ‘front door’ of the farm, because I feel like there’s going to be more that will come. And I hope one day we’ll be able to do this full time, where my husband will be here all the time and this will be what supports our family,” Kristen said.

She said her dream is for the farm to be a place that fosters community and respite, a place they share with others. That’s already happening at Sparrow Farms’ Mason Jar Mondays, where guests cut and arrange their own bouquets. They envision adding live music and food in the future.

Just as healthy food nourishes the body, flowers nourish the soul, Kristen said. “There is a healing aspect to beauty,” she said.

Jonah chose Sparrow Farms’ name in reference to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, where he tells his followers not to be anxious about their lives: “Look at the birds of the air: They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” and “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: They neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

“It’s just like this call of trusting and being abandoned (of one’s own desires to God), and knowing he’ll provide for us; we don’t have to worry,” Kristen explained. “That’s been such a constant theme for us of the Lord showing us that.”

Jonah added that in creating the farm, it was like starting from scratch, to the point of importing the composted soil.

“Where I’ve seen the hand of God is, it’s like an analogy to my spiritual life, our family’s life: There was nothing here, and we followed the Lord, and now there’s something. And I think there’s something very biblical about that,” he said. “It’s like the birds of the air, God provides a home for them, he makes the flowers beautiful, and we don’t even know how. And I think that’s where the trust is, how we want to be with the Lord.”

Launching the business in the midst of COVID-19 feels providential to the Carlstroms. As Minnesota’s shutdown began in late March, the Carlstroms were waiting on a vital order of compost. They thought their timeline had been foiled, but despite the odds, they received the soil when they needed it. Even planting a seed takes an act of faith, Kristen said.

At one point in the spring, Jonah joined Kristen in the field one evening after putting their kids to bed. She recalls telling him that even if the farm doesn’t succeed, she feels blessed by the experience because they’d learned so much from it. “Like, even if it’s a total failure and we just fall on our faces and laugh about that time we spent way too much money on this stupid, crazy idea … it would still be worth it,” she said. “I still feel like the Lord led us here and he’d have something for us. And I’d do it over again.”

As she said that, flocks of birds started swooping gracefully up and down, circling the couple. Kristen got chills, and she took it as a sign.

“I was like, OK, I think this is going to be OK. I think God’s got something for this,” she said. “He’s just been using that Scripture for us and just confirmed it again and again. We don’t have to worry. … We are laboring over these flowers, but they don’t labor over themselves and they turn out perfectly. And so that’s how it is for the Lord: He’s laboring over us, he’s ‘gardening’ us.”

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