The Lam family: from left, Grace, Lyh-Rhen, Joyce, Lyh-Ping, parents Helen and Daniel, Lyh-Hsin.Photo Credit : Michael Piazza
Dahlias can be fickle beauties, a bit tricky to grow, but at Fivefork Farms in Upton, Massachusetts, a team of five media-savvy siblings has nurtured a business using sustainable practices to grow head-turning, long-lasting blooms, while bringing a new agricultural model to their customers.
The story of how the Lam siblings came to flower farming begins with one sister’s radical change of course, which led to a familial domino effect. In 2012, Grace Lam jumped ship from her budding career as a stock trader in New York and returned to her childhood home in Randolph, Massachusetts. Heeding an urge to begin growing things, she interned for a season raising vegetables at Dragonfly Farms in Pepperell, and then “ripped up” her parents’ lawn to experiment with selling flowers as a business. Soon, brother Lyh-Hsin, who had just wrapped up work with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans, took note of her project, as did brother Lyh-Rhen, sister Lyh-Ping, and twin sister Joyce.
The desire to work together and live closer to the land became a gravitational pull for all five, and soon Grace was writing up a business plan. With a few calculated risks, the Lams bought a farm in the rolling hills of the Blackstone Valley—land that the family of cotton-gin inventor Eli Whitney had farmed for four generations—and began growing flowers.
“We knew we wanted to farm, and we considered all sorts of vegetables,” Grace remembers. “We also knew we wanted to grow sustainably and do something healthy for the land and for ourselves. After a lot of research and trial and error, we saw that there was a hole in the market for fresh, locally grown flowers.”
“Almost everything we knew about the wholesale flower business,” Lyh-Rhen adds, “was that [the flowers] were coming from very far away—Holland or South America—and weren’t grown organically, let alone with an eye to sustainability.”
Inspired by the thriving CSA (community-supported agriculture) model, in which consumers buy upfront shares in exchange for produce throughout the growing season, the Lams saw an opportunity to apply the same model to flowers. Now they’re part of a nationwide “farm-to-vase” movement that encourages people to trade hothouse roses for local blooms.
Fivefork Farms officially launched in 2012 with production on five of the Lams’ 38 acres. Today, they grow 100 dahlia varieties—the Lams’ star flower—but also provide all manner of blooms throughout the growing season, beginning with tulips and ranunculus in May to summer’s brown-eyed susans, zinnias, foxglove, and sweet william.
Grace, the youngest sibling, is the lead farmer, managing planting and harvesting. She and her father, Daniel (“Papa Lam”), manage their booth at Worcester’s Canal District Farmers’ Market on Saturdays; he handles deliveries, as well, and serves as Fivefork’s de facto brand ambassador.
Grace’s mother, Helen, tends the greenhouse and helps with the seeding and starting of plants. Lyh-Hsin spends most of his days in the field with Grace but also wears the infrastructure-and-operations hat, developing irrigation and fertilization plans. Creative projects and branding go to Lyh-Rhen, who does graphic design and creates arrangements for the CSA and farmers’ markets. Joyce and Lyh-Ping aren’t currently involved in day-to-day operations—they have jobs off the farm—but most weekends they’re in the fields.
“There was definitely a Green Acres vibe when we first started,” says Lyh-Rhen. “This,” he adds, pointing to the many rows of flowers and the hoop house, “is much different from the experiments we did at Mom’s.”
“We’re really happy that our flowers are in demand,” Grace says. CSA shares sell out quickly weeks in advance of each season’s first delivery date. “We work really hard, and it’s stressful,” she notes. “There are so many variables in farming, and you need to be on your toes, responding daily to a host of challenges—some that you can control and others that you just can’t. But we owe a large part of our early success to so many of the other CSAs and small businesses at the farmers’ market that we started with.” Not to mention the power of family and the simple pleasure of a beautiful bouquet. fiveforkfarms.comSEE MORE: How to Grow Dahlias | Grace Lam’s Tips for Growing Dahlias How to Arrange Dahlias