Jillian McFadyen didn’t expect to become farm manager at one of the most prominent cut flower farms in America. When she arrived at Wollam Gardens in the spring of 2015, she was looking for a short-term gig in farming and floral design. But once she arrived, she knew she was stuck.
“As soon as I arrived as an intern,” said Jillian, “I knew I was never going to leave. I can definitely say I’ve never been more certain about anything in my life.”
Wollam Gardens is 11 acres of rolling Virginia farmland about 60 miles outside Washington, D.C., a property purchased in 1988 by Bob Wollam. After a long career in the oil business, Bob spent decades making a name for himself in the cut flower industry. He planted woody perennials like viburnum, hydrangea, quince and lilac, and started a seasonal internship program for beginner farmers.
Halfway through Jillan’s internship, her managers, former interns themselves, fell in love and moved out of the property’s 18th century farmhouse to start their own flower operation in Maine. After their departure, Jillian and a new co-manager Emily took over daily operations. The women struggled through the fall and winter months until Bob announced he was selling the farm. Wollam Gardens was losing money, and Bob, now in his 70s, was tired.
In the midst of this managerial chaos in 2016, Jillian and Emily were also put in charge of a new group of interns, Hillary Gottemoeller, Arrin Sutliff and Claire Tolentino, who had all arrived with little farming experience.
“I worked as a florist before,” said Claire, “but I had never been on a farm and didn’t know anything about how to grow things. My first day, I harvested daffodils and weeded. I felt very silly the first few months.”
Emily and Jillian had high standards and they instilled a strong work ethic each intern, who learned how to drive the tractor, harvest and extend the vase life of flowers, propagate and plant seedlings, and design a hundred bouquets in a single afternoon. Just months into the season, co-manager Emily decided to leave as well, and suddenly Jillian and her interns were in charge of a 30-year-old business.
The four women quickly got into a groove. They spent hours bent over rows of flowers, talking, laughing and getting to know each other. Jillian continued to delegate daily tasks—weeding, watering, planting, harvesting—and the interns stepped up to the plate. Claire took over the farmer’s markets, Hillary settled into administrative duties, and Arrin organized events including an annual festival and a string of weddings that brought in new funds for the farm.
“I think we saw where there was a hole that needed to be filled on the farm,” said Claire. “And then we each stepped into that hole.”
Their initiative inspired Bob to take the farm off the market in the fall of 2016 and make his interns full-time employees and managers in their respective roles.
Currently in the middle of their third season together, the group is working on a new mission to transform the farm from a conventional model to a sustainable production. Their first step towards this goal last year was discontinuing use of the pesticide Roundup and transitioning to FDA-regulated herbicides for dahlias, their biggest crop. Wollam Gardens now sprays with FoxFarm’s Tiger Bloom, an organic fertilizer, to encourage plants to blossom more prolifically, are releasing beneficial insects like ladybugs into their hoop houses in spring, and have switched to biodegradable plastic in the fields.
New interns are also tackling projects that reflect their sustainable goals. Molly, an intern from upstate New York, is turning a large burn pile into usable compost, while Zoe, who joined the group from North Carolina, is removing invasive vines and weed trees. In addition to this sustainable land management, the women aim to provide a more sustainable lifestyle for their hard-working interns to encourage them to stay longer and take on more responsibility. So far, this strategy seems to be working, as the head intern Molly has returned for a second season while two others have committed to a full year.
“We’re trying to do a much better job of caring about people’s emotions and experiences here,” said Claire. “Creating a better living experience for our workers has become a priority. We want happy workers and I think it’s a uniquely feminine thing.”
This level of care is also present in the relationships between the four managers, who live together and have become good friends. They know each other’s partners and families, their hobbies and their ticks. They’re in tune with everyone’s emotions and know when someone is frustrated or upset. For each of them, the farm feels like a family.
“Like anything [working with three other women] has its challenges, but this business is so broad,” said Jillian. “We rely on one another for advice and help. We all want to see this place succeed and really take off.”
Claire believes the rituals they share of grilling outside and swimming in the river amid the humid summers of rural Virginia, coupled with the fact they haven’t killed each other yet, says a lot.
“When I went home [to Kansas] after only a few months of working at Wollam Gardens, I was already telling people this is the happiest I’ve ever been,” said Claire. “That’s never changed.”
Images by Austyn Gaffney.
xx Austyn Gaffney
This article was originally published in RANGE Magazine Issue Nine.