Traverse Magazine and Leelanau Conservancy alum Carolyn Faught is finding a colorful—and meaningful—mission in life’s next chapter with Omena Cut Flowers.
Carolyn Faught is kneeling by the edge of a raised garden bed, methodically placing tulip bulbs in a grid pattern that resembles a carton of eggs—well, if you were laying out an impressive 208 cartons worth. It’s one of 26 flower beds she meticulously maintains at her U-Pick garden, Omena Cut Flowers, a business that’s continued to bloom during her retirement.
Underneath the massive bed, she’s laid netting to keep burrowing critters away, one of many lessons learned in her quarter-century of flower farming. As Carolyn quickly but precisely plants some 2,500 bulbs, her accountant husband, Dave, sprinkles dirt to set them in place (the work is his “antidote” to taxes). Omena Bay glistens in the background, and the family’s golden retriever pup, Marigold, lounges nearby.
A few minutes later, Dave will dump a truckload of dirt on top to tuck in the bulbs for winter as Carolyn moves on to cutting back peony bushes; these 150 bushes are stunning additions to the garden, she explains, and also great revenue producers. She’ll check plantings of winter rye that enrich the soil and then move on to the next task, barely pausing and nearly impossible to keep up with.
Carolyn’s is a retirement job by only the loosest definition of the term. Her recent retirement from a weekday career as the communication director for the Leelanau Conservancy has just given her more time to devote to her longtime avocation and passion.
Photo by Allison Jarrell
Here on M-22, just a two-minute drive from the quaint bay town of Omena and on the main route between Suttons Bay and Northport, the 64-year-old self-taught flower farmer and entrepreneur has built a business including U-Pick flowers, premade bouquets for purchase, flower subscriptions, the sale of perennial plants and bulbs and beautiful wedding arrangements. Customers find scissors, jars and handled baskets to hold their chosen flowers, and pencils and pads to tally what they’ve spent, all inside a storybook-perfect wooden potting shed. From there, U-pickers have total freedom to create custom bouquets as they wander the flower beds covering a wide, sloping lawn with a bay view. Payment is on the honor system.
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“People say ‘You work so hard,’” Carolyn says. “For me, this is my play. This is my joy. I don’t consider it work. I would be here 24/7 if my body could take it. I would. I just love every piece of it.”
Finding a sense of mission in retirement is what everybody dreams of for this chapter of their lives, and more and more retirees are finding that mission in a new livelihood or the chance to turn a hobby into a new source of income. Carolyn got a head start, beginning her passion job when her son (now a medical school graduate and resident) was 8 years old, and a second was on the way, seizing the chance to make some residual income with flexible work after leaving a job she similarly loved as managing editor of
Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
The original idea for this now full-time project came as many of the best do—by serendipity. She walked from her magazine office to the local farmer’s market one lunch break to buy flowers for the magazine’s office manager. When she walked in with an armload of sunflowers, the staff swarmed around her asking, “Where’d you get those?!”
“I thought, I could plant my whole front yard in sunflowers!” she recalls. “I started researching flower farms and learned of one on the West Coast.
I thought, ‘I’m on a busy road, in a tourist area. I could do that.’ And the plan turned into a U-Pick garden.”
Carolyn initially planted six beds and teamed up with a close friend, now a local judge, who had then taken a short break from her law career. Even more special was the way her mother walked the journey with her, watching the young boys while she worked the garden and providing both gardening inspiration and perennials. Many of the U-Pick’s most successful beds are from sprigs off her mother’s gardens.
As the business started to grow, so did demand for her considerable writing and marketing talents.
Just a couple of years after her first plantings went into the ground, the then-director of the Leelanau Conservancy called to see if she could help by doing some writing five hours a week to help raise the caliber of the organization’s communications efforts.
Photo by Allison Jarrell
“I thought, ‘How can I say yes, but how can I say no?’” she says. “I moved here because I loved it so much and loved what the conservancy was doing. That five hours turned into 32 hours a week, and I was there 20 years.”
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When she retired last year from the second full-time job she loved, the transition was as smooth as a transition could be. Not only had she been growing the U-Pick business over the past 25 years, but she was also integrating the writing and marketing skills honed through her other positions. Her 3,000 Instagram and 7,000 Facebook followers learn about flowers and farm challenges through her explanatory journalism, peeks into daily life and announcements of what’s fresh and waiting in the cooler. All this translates into customer connections—and sales.
The biggest change, as she looks toward the chapter ahead, is the addition of more ways to work “smarter, not harder,” she says, as she points to a flower bed on which perennials have been planted on fabric liners to reduce weed pressure, and then to other spots where she’s found ways to plant flowers closer together for better yield.
“I love to weed, and I love the physical work, but if I can be lean and efficient, it’s better for me,” she says.
As much as Carolyn clearly loves the technical aspects of gardening, she lights up when talking about what she’s been able to share with customers and the mission that runs through it—the thread of connection to place that has been woven through her entire career.
“I tell people when they come, ‘Sit on the bench, take in the view,’” she says. “We have great flowers at a great price, but people are coming for the experience I think as much as they are for the flowers.
“It’s so rewarding, in so many ways, not just financially,” she adds. “I have a guest book, and people leave me messages like, ‘I can feel my blood pressure lowering when I’m here,’ or ‘I’m picking to put flowers on my best friend’s grave’ or ‘for my 95-year-old grandma’s birthday.’ It’s an emotional thing for people. They love this place, and they thank me for doing it. I think it’s my calling really.”
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Photo by Allison Jarrell
Kim Schneider is a long-time travel writer specializing in Michigan adventures, food and wine. The Midwest Travel Journalist Association has named her Mark Twain Travel Writer of the Year, and she’s the author of “100 Things to Do in Traverse City Before You Die.”