OSKALOOSA — An Oskaloosa native is forging her own path in agriculture by producing an unconventional crop.
Meredith Nunnikhoven’s family farm is located about five miles outside of Oskaloosa and is still going strong, but corn or soybeans aren’t the crops that she’s growing there: her crop is flowers of all colors, shapes and sizes.
Practical Farmers of Iowa, a non-profit based in Ames that seeks to support farmers as they build resilience in their farms and communities, hosted a field day on July 17 at Nunnikhoven’s farm “Barnswallow Flowers.” The goal of the day was for farmers to learn from Nunnikhoven about outdoor growing, diverse revenue streams and flower growing techniques.
Barnswallow Flowers is Nunnikhoven’s own take on agriculture in Iowa. It began as an effort to diversify a small family farm in order to provide stability and has transformed into a local business that supplies flowers to not only the Oskaloosa community, but to Pella, Des Moines and others as well. Peonies are a specialty for Barnswallow, but they also grow sunflowers, dahlias, zinnias, snapdragons and more.
Agriculture takes a special brand of know-how and gumption, and flower farming is no different. Nunnikhoven runs her farm on the motto “Use what you have and have what you use,” focusing on making connections in the local communities so that farms and businesses can benefit one another and collectively thrive.
She uses an old cottonwood tree to provide shelter for her shade-loving blooms, and she's sourced mulch from a nearby tree removal service in her quest to follow that mantra. She’s also brought her dog, Bella, along on the business venture with her as Barnswallow’s “wildlife manager,” chasing away raccoons and other wildlife that would be harmful to flowers.
“She literally saved my tulip crop,” Nunnikhoven said. “She’s also my best friend ... I don’t know if I could flower farm, honestly, without her.”
Woven throughout Nunnikhoven’s experiences as a flower farmer is an emphasis on regenerative farming practices that will provide stability for her farm in the years to come. She’s used cover crops to aid that effort, and her operation has a focus on chemical free farming.
“We’re really focused on remaining diversified through chemical-free regenerative farming. I haven’t used one chemical out here this year,” Nunnikhoven said.
Giving advice to the field day attendees, Nunnikhoven stressed the importance of collaboration and the exchange of ideas for continued education.
“Continued education is really important to see what’s going on in your area, what’s going on with other people and how maybe you can change things to work for you. Don’t feel bad watching other people’s stuff. It’s okay. It’s okay to educate yourself. It’s okay to come to these events and talk to me and learn from me. It’s okay to talk to other people, to battle things, battle problems, battle issues."
And there are battles, Nunnikhoven says. It’s taken years for her to establish an operation with flowers available for the entirety of the season, and there are still more battles ahead.
“When people talk about flower farming, they’re like ‘Oh, you’re a flower farmer, that’s easy.’ No, it is not easy. And you know why? Because all these flowers have their own personalities. They like to be cut at a certain time, they like to be cured in a certain way, they like to be designed in a certain way and handled in a certain way. No one understands that except you, the flower farmer.”
With her participation in PFI’s field day series, Nunnikhoven is doing her part to make flower farming and regenerative farming practices more accessible for Iowa’s agricultural community.
Nunnikhoven sells her flowers at the Pella Farmers Market on Thursdays. She also provides flowers for weddings and hosts seasonal U-picks.