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Joan Ewer Thorndike, a cut-flower grower, is the owner of Le Mera Gardens outside Medford. - Julia Moore

Home Grown: Le Mera Gardens

Editor's note: This is one in a weekly series of profiles on locally owned and operated businesses in Southern Oregon.

What do you do and how long have you been doing it? I'm a commercial, speciality cut-flower grower. I grow flowers destined for the local market, wholesaling to 10 Rogue Valley flower shops between Ashland and Eagle Point. I sell to bridal shops and some restaurants, businesses and homes. I started in 1992.

How long have you lived in the Rogue Valley? I've lived here since 1984. I'm originally from Santiago, Chile.

What inspired you to go into this line of work? I had two little girls and wanted to work but not put them in childcare. I was invited by a friend — Margaret Keiser — to help her grow flowers on a little portion of an acre on her land east of Phoenix. I cut my teeth in the business that year I spent with Margaret. We were not only learning how to be flower growers, but how to grow a business. At that time, there was no guidance for small farmers. Now Oregon State University Extension has myriad programs for new growers. When challenges came to me, I took them. At the time, I was serving on a board at Ashland Community Hospital. Chuck Butler was on that board and gave me some advice: For the first 12 months, don't sign anything in partnership. Of course, you have to have a bank account and register with the state. Then, at the end of the 12 months, he said, review where you and your partner are at. At the end of the year, Margaret and I realized we were better friends than partners, and we were able to walk away.

What decision or action would you change if you could do it again? For the first 10 years, I was embarrassed that I was so passionate about growing flowers. I was shy about what I did, which gets in the way as a grower. If you're a farmer and growing something, the first thing you have to think about is, "How am I going to sell it?" I marketed myself, but when it came to talking about it in front of friends and extended family, I was fairly shy about it and not precise. That really didn't change until my oldest daughter was in middle school and her science teacher approached her about asking her mom for a job during the summer. I hold teachers on a pedestal, and that brought a profound change in my mind — maybe what I was doing wasn't something to be ashamed of.

What's the toughest business decision you've made? The first five years, everything was tough. I think of business in five-year increments, and I think that's how you should look at your business, five years forward and five years back. The first five years were pure survival mode. For any farmer, the first five years will be pretty hard physically and mentally, and they are scary because you still have to sell. The best thing that happened to me was aligning with Fry Family Farms 10 years ago. We used to compete when we wholesaled mixed bouquets to grocery stores. I used to purchase a lot of my plants from Fry Family Farms. As my business increased, I was needing more and more plants. Suzi Fry suggested I work in her greenhouses in the winter and trade my labor for her plants, instead of paying money. I learned to work in a greenhouse and how to raise those baby plants.

Who are your competitors? We are in competition with any flower that comes from outside our area — Europe, Africa, South America, Miami or San Francisco. There are dozens more than when I first started. Everyone is finding their niche, but I believe I'm the only wholesaler who runs a refrigerated truck with a wide array of flowers in the Rogue Valley.

What are your goals? Right now, I'm dealing with 10 acres. I started with 11/3. I want to make sure I never let my guard down and always pay attention to how to better serve my customer base and keep it growing. It's not a small feat for anyone.

What training or education did you need? I have a degree in international studies, which included economics from Southern Oregon University. My education comes from reading trade materials and taking OSU Extension courses. I get a lot of help from the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, headquartered in Overland, Ohio. I learn from Suzi and Steve Fry, as well.

What's your advice for budding entrepreneurs? It's important to think you are going to be in it for the long run. It's important to be passionate — for me it's about flowers and people having flowers in their lives. I think it's important to know it's going to be hard. You have to calculate the cost of production. It's not about running your competition into the ground and making your competition fail, it's about learning from your competition. It's about understanding your market and humility. Every time you think you've got it, you realize you should've tweaked it. It's about your partners and their feedback.

To suggest ideas for this column, about businesses that are at least five years old, contact reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

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