For Katie Denman and Katharine Hoke, starting a farm didn’t mean stepping into a family profession, growing a traditional food crop or even buying land.
Instead, the two 26-year-olds developed a creative strategy to get a new farming operation off the ground in northern Orange County — they researched growing cut flowers, leased a quarter acre of land from Ever Laughter Farm in Hillsborough and worked to produce a sizable harvest on their small plot.
“We’ve been very intentional about our business and the scale of our business and we’re thinking about every detail,” Denman said.
Physically, their farm — Orlaya Flora — is small. But the pair of friends and farmers think big. Since they started the farm in 2018, the two have begun designing flowers for weddings and other events, selling to florists in the area, selling weekly in Durham with the Piedmont Wholesale Flowers cooperative and developing a weekly flower subscription program.
At the core of Orlaya Flora is the pair’s passion for flowers and for growing things. Both have part time jobs elsewhere, and devote the other hours of their weeks to what is actually a two part business at the farm composed of growing and harvesting the blooms and then arranging them in design work for events.
“We named the business Orlaya Flora because Orlaya is a flower that’s wild yet elegant and sophisticated, and that’s what we want our design work to be,” Hoke said. “The harvesting and the design work run on two different schedules though for sure.”
The beginning of summer is a prime time for their product, with new flowers cropping up each day.
For Denman and Hoke, who both got their start in agriculture working on different North Carolina farms during and just after college, this harvest is also a time of research and observation, looking at what worked and what didn’t for the next planting season.
“We tend to get excited about the same varieties and colors and we’ve been able to try all of these varieties that we wanted to try while we working for other people,” Denman said. “We take notes on what florists are buying and what’s growing well to decide what to plant next year, but we’re also pushing the boundaries a little bit. We might grow flowers that we love but that other florists might not love.”
The two were friends before they started Orlaya early last year, and their familiarity with their differences and similarities has helped them develop a strong working partnership in addition to a friendship. Denman said that she likes to plan ahead and assess the big picture of the farm, while Hoke is good at focusing on the day-to-day tasks that must be completed.
They are constantly looking at creative ways to bring in enough revenue — splitting bulk orders with their host farm as well as sharing tools and infrastructure with them, drying unused flowers and making them into wreaths to sell for winter income and using the up-front payments from their flower subscribers as capital for ordering the next season’s bulbs, seeds and compost.
The two both live in Hillsborough, about ten minutes from the farm, with Denman taking time to grow food, be outdoors and listen to and collect music and Hoke reading and taking breaks to work in ceramics, but the pair’s youthful energy works to their advantage, helping them make the most of a growing market for cut flowers in Orange County.
“People are looking for ways to enhance the local economy and this is extending to not just local food but other products like local cut flowers,” Mike Lanier, an agribusiness agent at the NC Cooperative Extension Orange County Center, said. “The local market has been greatly enhanced by farms growing cut flowers and by the Piedmont Wholesale Flowers Operation in Durham.”
While neither Orlaya farmer comes from a farming family or planned to be a farmer as a child, both said they “fell in love” with North Carolina’s tight-knit agricultural community, small specialty farms, space for female farmers and long growing season — and both of them plan on continuing with the local momentum that has helped Orlaya flourish throughout Orange County.
“I didn’t grow up thinking that farming was an option for me, probably not thinking that farming was an option for women,” Hoke said. “We have a lot of female farmer friends here. We’re definitely on the younger side but we’ve got a lot of incredible women here to look up to.”