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Local Foods, Local Farms, Local People

Farmer-florist beautifies the lives of others one flower at a time

colorful flowers with barn in background

When “farming” is invoked in Illinois, thoughts typically gravitate toward corn and soybeans. When “small farmers” are mentioned, one imagines those who grow vegetables and fruits or raise livestock for regional markets. But when I came across the term “farmer-florist”, I was unsure what to think.  

Kira Santiago is one such “farmer-florist” whose social media account I stumbled upon this summer, and immediately, I had several questions.

  • Is “farmer-florist” different from “flower farmer"?
  • How much different is growing flowers commercially compared to vegetables or fruits?
  • And how does one become a professional flower farmer anyway?

By a stroke of luck, I saw that Kira and I had a mutual friend who was later able to connect us.

Kira's Flowers is a diverse flower farm and floral design studio near the bluffs overlooking the Illinois River in East Peoria. There, Kira grows over 100 varieties of flowers and creates designer bouquets for weddings and other special occasions. She also supplies flowers to a spring and fall season CSA with drop-off locations in Peoria, East Peoria, Eureka, and Bloomington. Her flower works can also be found at the Peoria Riverfront Market. Her story combines innate skill, family inspiration, adventure, self-discovery, and perseverance.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

Often, the livelihoods of loved ones who came before us influence our career choices; this is no less true with farming. However, the number of farming connections in Kira’s family is surprising, to say the least. On her monther's side, Kira is a fifth-generation Brockman to have lived or worked on a farm in Central Illinois. Her paternal grandmother grew up as a migrant worker in the fields of Texas. Her list of familial farming influences is even longer than that. The old saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” comes to mind here.

Kira’s uncle, Henry Brockman, started an organic vegetable farm (Henry’s Farm) in 1993 in Congerville, Illinois, growing a diverse array of vegetables for the Evanston, Illinois Farmers Market and for a Central Illinois CSA. Although Kira’s family lived “in town” in Bloomington then, the entire Brockman family – young and old – would come to Henry’s farm to help on harvest days before markets. In return for the family’s hard work, Henry would divvy up the farm produce left after the Evanston market, providing food for everyone.

Kira’s first jobs on Henry’s Farm included picking potato beetles off potatoes, performing small harvest tasks, and, in her words, “escaping into the woods every chance we could get to wade in streams and be feral children.” At an early age, she says, “I was exposed to what a community-supported farm felt like. We collectively learned reciprocity through doing.”

4-H inspires a future career

One’s first memories can be so powerful. And for Kira, those first memories included bunching weeds and wildflowers together and making little arrangements. Santiago says she was born with a creative eye and found ways to harness it.

“I was in 4-H as a young child, and I found out flower gardening and floral arranging were categories at our Woodford County Fair. We grew flowers at home in a small plot, I worked hard on my entries, and I won a blue ribbon in both!”

Kira went on to tell me that she even ended up going to the Illinois State Fair and winning “Superior” a couple of times in those categories, not only for her first-class zinnias but with the help of unique arrangement pieces, like kitchen utensils – or even a typewriter, one year. These 4-H experiences sowed a seed in Kira’s life, but it would take a while for that seed to germinate.

Sunny Lane Farm begins

In 2001, while helping Henry, Kira’s mother, Teresa, noticed that the Evanston Market had no growers offering fresh, organic, local, or regional fruit. With her niche identified, she started Sunny Lane Farm in Eureka, Illinois in 2001, which would eventually bring fresh, Central Illinois fruit to market. Kira and her sisters were the only employees, frequently helping their mother with farm and market tasks.

“Selling fruit with my mom in Evanston was special – going to market with her was always an adventure."

Striking out on her own

However, there was some tension at the idea of farming as an occupation for Kira. The family moved to her mother’s farm when she was ten, and the adjustment was difficult. “Working all summer when my friends had time off was challenging,” she remembers. After high school, she tried going to college but had trouble choosing a path. She switched her major to art but eventually realized the college experience was not for her.

“There are at least conversations being had now about college alternatives. That wasn’t the case back then, and it was a difficult time for me – I felt lost.”

In a spur-of-the-moment decision, she moved to Boston to live with her sister to experience big-city life. She tried a few jobs to find her way.

“Eventually – I know it sounds crazy – I was working simultaneously at a restaurant, a farmstand, and a gym. The restaurant was farm-to-table. I remember the farmers coming to deliver produce, and I found myself wanting to go back to their fields with them! Restaurant life was too overstimulating.”

While working at the farmstand, Kira impressed herself. She realized she was highly knowledgeable about how to grow things and work with edible plants. Her talents began to be recognized.

One day, while working at a local Boston gym, she stumbled upon a flower farmer’s website. The farm was called Floret and was located in the Pacific Northwest. The 3-acre, organic, small-scale flower farm captured Kira’s imagination. Small-scale flower farming in the U.S. was starting to take off.

The “ah-hah!” moment and building farm skills

“After discovering Floret, I woke up one day and realized that I could start a flower farm. Flowers are food for the soul – I could sustain myself this way!” She said she didn’t do any back-of-the-napkin calculations or business planning. “I just had a vision of what I wanted to do, and a blinding confidence that I could do it.” She moved back home to Central Illinois within a few months.

I asked Kira how she built up her skills. An internship or apprenticeship with a flower farmer? Floral design classes? It was none of the above. “My first year of farming in 2015, I rented land from my uncle to grow. My mother gave me a crash course in seed starting, weed management, nitty-gritty crop planning, and I got going.” Luckily, Santiago had a built-in family farming support group to lean on.

“As far as selling, I first sold mixed bouquets in 2015 at the Evanston market, where Mom and Uncle Henry had started selling their farm goods.” Slowly but surely, marketgoers started responding to Kira’s eye-catching bouquets. One couple loved her arrangements so much that they inquired about booking her for their wedding – and a new income stream for Kira’s business was born.

So, what does it mean to be a “farmer-florist” in Illinois? A farmer-florist must first grow, harvest, and store a wide floral array during unpredictable Midwest weather and time them such that there are many harvest options. Farmer-florists then arrange their hard-won harvests to make bouquets, corsages, boutonnieres, and wedding centerpieces, all while prioritizing freshness and matching color schemes.

The first year of business went better than Kira had expected, and she decided to expand in the fall of 2015. That expansion brought her to her current site – an East Peoria Civil War Era farm rental. “I needed a little more space to try out some new things.”

Trying new things, then adjusting course

“In years two and three of being a farmer-florist, I tried adding in a flower CSA to my business.”

In Community Supported Agriculture models, the customer pays an upfront cost to the farmer at the beginning of the season (usually several hundred dollars), which helps the farmer pay for seeds, potting soil mix, and any other supplies during an otherwise cash-poor part of the year. In return, the farmer provides the CSA customer with a “share” of the farm’s harvest regularly during the growing season.

Flower arrangement on table with farmhouse in background

“Henry was doing 26 weeks of vegetables; Mom was doing 20 weeks with fruit, so I tried that with flower arrangements.” One year, she did 25 weeks… another year, 20. “It was exciting, but I wasn’t a fan of a lengthy CSA.” Kira shortened and split up her CSA in the years following. “Six weeks in spring and six weeks in fall was more sustainable. It is SO important to prioritize personal sustainability – farming is a marathon, not a sprint!”

Santiago said that the middle stretch of the season with no CSA commitments allowed her to begin selling at the Peoria Riverfront Farmers Market instead of Evanston. She was also able to book summer weddings. “Weddings are a lucrative income stream for farmer-florists. However, they are so different than just growing flowers, making bouquets, and selling those – they require consultations, relationship-building, and other skills.” Truly, there is no such thing as a free lunch!


Pushing through and persevering

Farmer-florist Kira Santiago has had more than her fair share of setbacks. The pandemic hurt her business as it hurt many others, though she made it through. The real shock came in 2021 when she was diagnosed with cancer at a young age. Thanks to early detection, family support, and, in her words, “the healing magic of those flowers,” she is now cancer-free. But this year, there was a different animal to contend with: drought.

“This farm has always had water, except sometimes in July and August. But this year, it was dry in months it never has been before.” This year, Kira couldn’t water her flowers for much of the season, due to several nearly rain-free months, which financially impacted her. However, good farm business planning in past years helped her prepare for the lean years. She had more to add on the subject.

“If more drought and more center-pivot irrigation for commercial farms will be more common, then we need more aquifer mapping in this area to see how much groundwater we have left.” We both reflected that state-level incentives like payments or tax breaks for minimizing the climate footprint of small farms would be big news for small operations like hers.

I asked Kira how Illinois Extension might be able to help farmer-florists, and she had a great response. “There are all these grants and cost-shares for vegetable farmers – it’s harder to find that type of thing for flower farmers. We need clear and defined sources of funding and grants for flower farmers, and women farmers especially. A resource for Illinois flower farmers listing applicable grants and cost shares would be amazing.”

I asked Kira what words of wisdom she might share with young people searching for their path and unsure (as she was) that college is the correct one. And then, beyond that, I wondered if she had any final words of wisdom for those who have “found” their path (like farming or being an Extension Educator) but find it extremely difficult sometimes.

“When people feel lost, I tell them to think about what they remember being passionate about as children and start there!  Learn from my Uncle Henry Brockman, the "Zen Farmer". Instead of blowing up or getting depressed when things go wrong, he just goes on with his work. That might mean starting over, or abandoning the project or task, returning to it later. The important part is just to keep on going!”

We both reflected on past experiences and how they had affected us. “It’s ok for life to have chapters,” Santiago said. “Just because I'm in the farming phase of my life, doesn't mean it has to be forever. I’ve learned not to be too attached to any outcomes. Life is always changing, and we must change with it."

Finally, Kira shared the poem called "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop, which has inspired her when dealing with hardship. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master, so many things seemed filled with the intent to be lost, that their loss is no disaster.”