At the end of a harrowing growing season marked by wildfires and pandemic restrictions, first-time grower Gaby Lee harvested the final patch of her half-acre flower farm in Pescadero recently.
On the surface, it appears that Lee’s business, Lunaria Farms, fits squarely in the Coastside’s history of flower growing and that she’s part of a comeback after much of the industry went abroad. But Lee stands apart from the area’s legacy. She’s growing medicinal flowers, and she’s tapping into her Chinese heritage to do so.
“I wanted to show how flowers held so much more magic and power and usefulness than we thought,” she said.
It began when Lee, 28, noticed a dearth of locally grown, organic herbs. Her mentors and other Asian Americans, who like Lee are working to reclaim ancient knowledge of plants, agree. Most of the herbs used in traditional Chinese medical offices in the Bay Area rely on imports of questionable origins.
Scott Chang-Fleeman, a mixed-race farmer in Bolinas, partners with Lee and lets her use a small part of his farm to grow goji berries, a common Chinese herb. Like Lee, he turned to farming as a way to reconnect with his Chinese heritage. After three seasons, he has seen a growing market for organic Asian agricultural products.
“There’s a massive Asian American population who support small farms and want to see their produce grown in an equitable and ecologically conscious way,” said Chang-Fleeman who grows mostly leafy greens. “For a long time, buying Asian groceries meant sacrificing on those values to get cheap produce.”
One afternoon in early December, Lee walked past a long row of chrysanthemum, or ju hua, known in Chinese medicine for calming the nerves and promoting eye health. It was her main seller this season. “There was more demand for it than I had grown,” she said. She sold them in bulk to acupuncturists in the area and packaged them into smaller individual tea packets that she sold at pop-up events, which she promotes primarily on her Instagram account.
“I spend way too much time on Instagram,” she said, laughing.
Social media is a key part of her business. Her Instagram page boasts aesthetic photos of her herbs as well as dried flower wreaths and bouquets that she makes herself.
Having worked in farms that sold mainly fresh cut flowers, Lee knew she was choosing a challenging crop. The standards for perfection are higher, she said. This means she follows an imperfect science of cutting them just at the right time so that after they’ve been transported and reach the customer they are still hardy with a full head of petals. She does sell flowers fresh, including dahlias and yarrow, but intentionally to only one wholesale distributor.
Lee has largely worked around the challenges of fresh flowers by designing her business model around dried products. This choice saves her time and helps her push against old notions of flowers.
Her peers dismiss flowers as merely decorative and a luxury item that doesn’t always make sense financially: “You buy them and they wilt,” Lee heard people say. She believes this thinking is what made so many overlook the medicinal qualities of flowers, which many cultures have known but forgotten over time. This oversight turned out to be an opportunity.
Lee began growing seriously at Pie Ranch, where she completed the farm’s apprenticeship program. It was there that she not only learned practical skills around growing and managing a farm but developed an appreciation for the small grower community.
Now, she’s in the first cohort of a new Pie Ranch incubator program called the Cascade Regenerator. Leonard Diggs, who runs the accelerator, said the program provides below-market-rate land for lease, equipment and housing to Lee and three other farmers. Diggs said Lee started the program with a fully formed idea of her main agricultural product.
At Pie Ranch, Lee learned that land access remains the biggest barrier to many small farmers. And because small growers already have it hard as it is, she didn’t want to start a business that would lead to competition. She decided that flowers for teas, bouquets and wreaths would be her niche.
In April she began preparing her field, which she leased from Brisa de Año Ranch. As expected, she spent the last few months working her half-acre lot herself, quickly learning the limits of what she could do. She sometimes had to abandon large swaths of growth because she simply didn’t have the time, she said. As hard as it was, she learned to move on and focus on what she could do.
Then the CZU Lightning Complex Fire hit in August, and she was caught in its path. Luckily the field was wet enough to ward off the fire, but the perimeter of the Brisa de Año property burned. Lee was stuck in the evacuation zone. She had tons of flowers that she harvested to save but she couldn’t get past the checkpoints to make any deliveries. Friends and family offered to do them for her and they supplied her with food and water as she helped other local growers fight the fire.
“It really took the fire for me to ask for help,” she said.
And there was an outpouring on Instagram. People offered tools and clothes. And in four days, she surpassed her $20,000 GoFundMe goal. “Power of community has touched me so deeply,” she wrote in an Instagram post on Aug. 28.
As she turned over the final beds before winter, Lee reflected on the hardships from her first year as a grower starting her business during the pandemic and a fire.
“This is the hardest I’ve worked,” she said. “I’m looking forward to rest.”