Story by Lori Mai
While the brush of winter paints the canvas of the Palouse in drab grays and whites, Colleen Taugher, owner of Melliflora LLC, is awash in the vibrant, colorful palette of spring and summer flowers, as she plans for the upcoming busy growing season.
Twenty months ago, Colleen, a professional artist, retired from a successful career as an International Development Specialist at Washington State University and founded Melliflora, a sustainable commercial floral production company near Troy, on the farm where she lives with her partner, Steve Sheppard.
Steve purchased the century-old farm in 2008 and named it “Mellifera,” which is the Latin word for “honeybee.” As a population geneticist who manages the honeybee program at WSU, Steve breeds honeybees and studies their colonies at the farm. He and Colleen also breed Icelandic sheep.
As demands of Mellifera Farm grew more difficult to manage for the busy couple, Colleen decided to step back from her job at WSU to focus on caring for the needs of the farm and simultaneously reignite her love of art and creative entrepreneurship by launching its sister enterprise, Melliflora.
“I call this my encore career,” she says. Colleen grows nearly a hundred varieties of flowers for florists, individual customer subscriptions, vendors, weddings, events, and workshops.
“For me, art is creating experiences for people, and that’s what I do with flowers now,” Colleen says. “If you think about it, all the major inflection points of your life come with flowers. Weddings, funerals, birthdays - all those things have flowers. It’s how we mark what’s important and how we elevate what’s important and make it magical and special, and I can do that now for people, and it’s pretty great.”
Colleen says her background “weirdly prepared” her perfectly to run a floral operation.
She grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, then trained as an artist at the University of Wisconsin and the Art Institute of Chicago. She made her living painting murals for hotels and restaurants in the Midwest, and also owned a painted furniture company.
She then moved to Idaho, where she worked in the art department at Lewis-Clark State College and the College of Art and Architecture at the University of Idaho, which led her to the field of information design and international development at WSU.
At WSU, she worked with government and agricultural entities on large projects in low-income countries all over the world to bring computers, information technology, and internet connectivity into remote areas and use it as leverage for business development.
Colleen’s experience in agriculture, art, and business development allowed her to tap into a niche with Melliflora where she is able to utilize those skills growing, designing, and selling local flowers.
“It was a way for me to step back into that space of creative entrepreneurship where I started my working life” she says. “And I love beauty, and color, and texture, and art, and flowers are a type of architecture where I get to have all of that. It’s another medium for me.”
Before she designed the flower farm, Colleen visited florists to ask what types of flowers they would like her to grow for them as a wholesaler. Based on their input, she determined what she wanted to plant and sell for commercial purposes.
“It took a lot of planning, because it’s not like planting a garden,” Colleen says. “I have to have foliage, focal flowers, and accent flowers. I need this range of colors, and they need to be continuously blooming from x to y.”
In addition, considerations such as climate, soil, fertilizer, weed occlusion, and water all factored into the plan as well as how much of each variety to plant. “It’s like a Tetris puzzle out there,” she says.
Fortunately, the flower portion of Mellifera Farm is located on a south-facing slope on top of a ridge. As such, it is blessed with its own little “microclimate,” where warm air sits on top of the ridge and colder air sinks to the lower levels. Even though the growing season is short, these temperate conditions allow for maximum frost-free days. A new 72 foot greenhouse- type tunnel helps extend the growing season.
Colleen plants three 70 foot by 70 foot blocks - one for perennials and two for annuals – including daffodils, tulips, narcissus, peonies, foxgloves, snapdragons, zinnias, cosmos, dahlias, sunflowers, and others.
“In terms of agriculture, it’s a complicated thing, because it’s not just one crop,” she says. “I’ve got a hundred different varieties out there, and they’ve all got their own little quirks and needs and things they do.”
Once the flowers start to bloom, Colleen’s creativity kicks in.
One of the popular services that she offers is subscription bouquets. Customers in the Troy, Moscow, Pullman and Lewiston areas can subscribe for a month or a season to receive a fresh-picked, artfully designed Melliflora bouquet delivered weekly to a designated location, May through September. Colleen e-mails each customer describing her inspiration for that week’s bouquet.
“On Mondays, I like to walk the field with my coffee and just see what’s out there each week,” she says. “Like what’s really humming, what’s exciting, what are the palettes I’m really drawn to this week and then plan the bouquets for the week.”
Flowers are picked twice weekly and kept in an old icehouse on the property that was converted into a cooler to keep them fresh until they are assembled and delivered.
Claire Shearer, a graduate student from the University of Idaho, makes the weekly bouquet deliveries. Another UI student, Lily Taylor, works part-time as a field hand-picking and weeding, as well as making bouquets and assisting with workshops where people come to the farm and learn such things as floral design.
“It’s a little crazy when I think back on it now,” she says. “I tend to think big and be a little overly ambitious, and in some ways the pandemic put a little check on me and forced me to slow down, but I’m growing at the right pace.”
If Colleen chooses, there is room to expand, but as of now does not plan to do so, considering the sheer magnitude of flowers produced already. For example, this season she will harvest over 8,000 tulips.
Plus, as she anticipates the promise of spring and Melliflora’s third season, Colleen says she doesn’t want the work to get so overwhelming that she loses sight of why she started it in the first place.
“I want to bring joy to people’s important moments in their lives with flowers and continue to make art with flowers.”