Heading out Texas RM 165 toward Blanco, there’s a moment when you crest a hill and the breathtaking expanse of the Hill Country spreads out before you. Only a few minutes farther along stands the cheerful Blue Barn of Arnosky Family Farm. A local landmark, the barn draws tourists, day-trippers and neighbors, who gather up buckets of sunflowers, mixed bouquets of seasonal color and hanging baskets to grace their homes, front porches and special events.
Frank and Pamela Arnosky started their flower farm in 1990, when a $1,000 down payment enabled them to purchase the original 12 acres. They lived in a tent while they cleared the land and built their first greenhouse. That greenhouse still stands, along with several others, plus workers’ quarters, the Arnoskys’ home and the packing shed where they assemble 1,500 bouquets of flowers each week.
Pamela runs the packing crew. A straightforward woman in braids who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada decades before it was popular, Pamela deftly recuts and strips the leaves from bachelor’s buttons while we talk. At another table, employees work through buckets of celosia in yellow and flame red. Two dogs nap in the shade.
We discuss the logistics of running a family farm in an age of industrial farming, supplying flowers for the First Ladies’ Luncheon and helping pioneer the American Grown Flowers movement, which certifies farms for consumers seeking homegrown flowers. But conversation often drifts to the larger philosophy driving the Arnoskys’ work. “We’re trying to do something that’s bigger than we are,” she says.
That “something bigger” comes through in the awareness that the farm supports 12 families—some of them workers hired through the federal H-2A agricultural guest-worker program. It’s also expressed in the desire to preserve the land—especially the acres that were part of Peyton Colony, a freedmen’s community established after the Civil War. The Arnoskys bought the land from an African-American family whose ancestors had owned it since 1874, and they want to keep that history alive.
Then there’s the Blue Barn itself—painted the color of the morning glories that climb the trellises of the packing shed. Designed by furniture maker Gary Weeks of Wimberley, the barn was constructed in 2008 through an old-fashioned barn-raising. “A barn-raising brings the community together, and we envision this as a community space,” Pamela says. “We’re expanding our mission beyond just a wholesale cut-flower farm to be more of a destination where people can come for flowers, vegetables, picnics and events. This will help us preserve the beauty and rural character of the valley.”
Pamela notes that growing flowers in Texas is a four-season operation. Each week, about 30,000 plants go into the ground—working on a four-to-six-month cycle ahead of harvest. In the summer, they put in poinsettia cuttings to prepare for December. In November, they are readying for January’s sweet peas and dianthus. Spring features lilies, larkspur, tulips and an array of Texas wildflowers.
Bouquets go out to Central Markets under the Texas Specialty Cut Flowers label, as well as to H-E-B Blooms and other vendors. And the farm receives regular flower requests for funerals, special events and weddings. (My own wedding in 2008 featured vases filled with sunflowers and salvias from the farm.)
In the fall, the farm is ablaze with marigolds. Spurred by the increasing interest in Día de los Muertos celebrations, the Arnoskys now produce more marigolds than any farm outside of California. The flowers are used to decorate elaborate altars, known as ofrendas, and are believed to help guide the dead back with their bright color and scent. And if the dead are drawn to the marigolds, so are the butterflies. In mid-October, the flowers are literally “dripping with monarchs” who stop over for nectar on their annual migration to Mexico.
The thousands of buckets of marigolds sold in late October are “confirmation of how incredibly valuable that tradition is,” says Pamela. “It’s another way of bringing people together and honoring those who have come before us. That’s truly the way we go into the next generation, by passing down our knowledge and remembering what people have taught us.”
After nearly 30 years and raising four children on the farm, you might think the Arnoskys would be slowing down. Instead, their curiosity and passion drives them to keep expanding. They’ve purchased land in Minnesota, where they’re growing fields of stunning peonies. And they’ve also got a new farm in Fort Davis, where the altitude means cooler weather, perfect for raspberries.
Reflecting on a life surrounded by flowers, the sounds of birds, migrating butterflies and families who come out on Saturday mornings to discover what’s blooming, Pamela hasn’t stopped feeling fortunate. “There’s a sense of wonder we get to tap into,” she says. “We are really privileged to get to be part of it.”
Arnosky Family Farm will celebrate Day of the Dead with two days of activities at the Blue Barn. On October 26, gather for a family potluck and screening of the movie “Coco,” and on October 27, dance to Brave Combo amid the marigolds. Visit texascolor.com for more information and tickets.
By Vivé Griffith • Photography by Casey Woods