Shelby Doggett always knew she wanted to be a farmer. Growing up in Rhode Island as a member of a family involved in horticulture and agriculture for five generations, it was in her blood. What Cheer Flower Farm, a venture she cofounded, gives free flowers to people in need. The farm, located in the Olneyville section of Providence, is building an urban oasis and developing a plan to offer green education to city dwellers looking for job opportunities.
After earning a degree in ecological agriculture and food systems from the University of Vermont, Shelby worked for The Food Project in Boston, which gets young people involved in growing fresh produce for hunger relief. Eventually she returned to Rhode Island and started working for a green design project sponsored by Riverzedge Arts in Woonsocket.
“When you work with people who wouldn’t have considered horticulture or agriculture as something they would like, and they discover they do like it, it’s really special.”
“I really fell in love with the whole experience of exposing kids to farming for the first time,” she says. “I was teaching a group of middle and high school students after school. We had a small urban farm plot and would do rain garden installations for actual clients. When you work with people who wouldn’t have considered horticulture or agriculture as something they would like, and they discover they do like it, it’s really special. I realized that I wanted to do some sort of social impact farming with job training involved.”
There were also other issues to consider. “The floral industry itself is very controversial,” Shelby explains. “About 80 percent of flowers that we buy are imported from other countries, and that limits the type of flowers that we see in stores because they have to be able to survive a very long plane ride and the journey just to get on a shelf. They’re also covered in pesticides and fungicides for similar reasons, so it’s bad for the workers. Also a lot of the places where these flowers are grown used to be subsistence farming but then got turned over into rose production, so it’s not as sustainable for the communities.”
Shelby started What Cheer Flower Farm together with two other cofounders, estate gardener Marian Purviance and businesswoman Anne Holland, both of whom had cut flower gardening experience.
“We had the concept, we had the name, and we knew we needed at least an acre so we could have fields and office space and parking,” Shelby says. “We knew we wanted to be in Providence for accessibility, and we wanted to be on a public transportation line. Because part of our mission is job training and providing education opportunities for the community, being in a central location and on a bus line opens the door to more people being able to participate. We also needed to look at cost and environmental contamination, so we did a lot of research into what the prior uses of the land were. Even if we are growing flowers and they are not for consumption, we would still have volunteers and staff working in the soil.”
They settled on the old Colonial Knife Factory site in Olneyville Square. “Because knife factory to flower farm makes perfect sense!” says Shelby. “It’s definitely a big difference from the history of industrial work going on there to very green flower farming.”
Long before they purchased the site, though, the cofounders had realized they were going to need assistance with developing their farm into a successful social venture. In 2017 they had connected with MJ Kaplan, a board member at Social Enterprise Greenhouse, who recommended Shelby for SEG’s 2018 Impact Accelerator.
The SEG Connection
“My experience with SEG was really early on in the idea of the organization,” says Shelby. “We had secured some funding and knew we were going to be able to find land, but we had no employees and a very loose budget. The Impact Accelerator began in January 2018, and we purchased the land at the end of May 2018. The timing was crucial because once we got started on the farm it was the middle of the growing season. Just to have those months beforehand in the Accelerator when I was dedicated to thinking about what the farm would look like – our mission, our partners, our finances, our customers – that was important. I’d worked at nonprofits and had grant writing experience, but starting a social enterprise was all pretty new to me. There were big placeholders, and a lot of it was still in the incubation of our minds.”
“Having an SEG advisor is like having a cheerleader, but they are realistic. They’re not just always going to say what you want to hear.”
As Shelby began to fill in those placeholders, she bonded with her SEG advisor, Jim Seymour, whom she still meets with regularly. “Having an SEG advisor is like having a cheerleader, but they are realistic,” she says. “They’re not just always going to say what you want to hear. I used to expect too much or set the bar too high for myself. Jim taught me how to underpromise and overdeliver. He’s been very practical about finances and what we can afford to do and how fast we can do it. He really helps me reflect. I’m very much a go-go-go person, and even though we’ve accomplished so much in a year and a half, I just see there’s so much more to do. He’s very good at saying, take a breath.”
The Accelerator also helped her develop as an entrepreneur and a leader. “I grew a lot,” she says. “I created the framework to speak more eloquently about what we were doing. Just being forced to write down our mission and vision and strategy and draw out our business model – going through the modules gave me the confidence to tell people this is going to work, we’ve done the research to back it up, and we’re ready to put it into action. The finance sections gave me new skills that I liked and could immediately apply.”
What Cheer Flower Farm, up and running for more than a year, has remediated part of its 2.7-acre site and now grows over 300 varieties of flowers on 17,000 square feet of fields. This past year, the farm donated to 15 nonprofits statewide, including Newport Hospital and Meals on Wheels, delivering free flowers to brighten someone’s day or to use in patient activities. “We might pre-make little posies or arrangements or deliver unarranged buckets of flowers, whatever our partners would like,” says Shelby. “The delivery package can vary. Some people will do flower arranging with dementia patients because they’ve found that it’s helpful for them to have that see-touch-smell experience with the flowers. They’ll do flower painting classes. So people utilize the flowers in all different ways.”
In addition to growing flowers to give away, Shelby plans eventually to add flower recycling and flower gleaning programs to the mix. This past summer, What Cheer Flower Farm held beekeeping workshops and art classes in the fields. There’s a barn-raising project to come. At present, the farm has 3.5 employees, including Shelby, a horticulture director, a program director, and a seasonal apprentice. In their first year of operation, they nearly doubled their operating budget. The farm has generated strong media coverage, and this year’s fundraising flower festival was a huge success. As for providing opportunities for green education, they’ve already got their foot in the door.
“In the future we will be a place that can offer low- or no-cost job training for people who want to get certifications in horticulture and agriculture that will add to their employability.”
“As a first step, we are partnering with other organizations that have formal job-training programs,” Shelby says. “Groundworks did our second field expansion last year. They had just completed their brownfield job-training program, so all the people who had earned their certification were able to come out the next day, apply what they had learned, and put it on their resume. YouthBuild Preparatory Academy also built two 45-foot high tunnels for us last winter. In the future we will be a place that can offer low- or no-cost job training for people who want to get certifications in horticulture and agriculture that will add to their employability.”
At root, though, it’s all about the free flowers. “Sometimes people wonder why not provide food or shelter,” says Shelby. “I think to go beyond basic human needs is something that people deserve even if it seems to be a luxury. Flowers make people smile and they make people happy and they make people feel loved. We’ve cultivated and domesticated these plants for centuries, and they have a significant purpose on this earth. I think people do see that flowers matter. Some of our clients tell us it’s the best program they’ve ever had for volunteers. Just the fact that someone went through the effort of growing the flowers and bringing them to the organization and getting them to you, it makes people feel special, and when you’re in a helpless situation it’s very impactful.”