Flower Power

By Polly Ross Hughes
Photography by Sandy Wilson 

Twenty-one years ago, as Frank Arnosky and Pamela Hiebert twirled around a dance floor to the “nuclear-polka” beat of Brave Combo, neither suspected they were destined to one day move step-by-step into the lost art of Texas cut-flower farming. Both graduate students at Texas A&M University, Frank and Pamela had met, but it was that first dance that ignited a spring romance followed by a summer of letters—hers from Hong Kong, his from a camping trip in Michigan.

By fall, the couple united to plan a December wedding in Texas, but as the next summer approached, the newlyweds set off for the Appalachians.

 

“We went to North Carolina for a year, thinking we’d want to farm out there,” says Frank, but soon enough he became homesick for his adopted Texas. As stunningly beautiful as the North Carolina mountains are, the state lacked the cultural diversity Frank had grown to love in Texas.

“I remember pining away more and more,” he says. “A new subdivision had a street sign that said ‘Loma Linda.’ They were the first Spanish words I’d seen in six months.”

Pamela smiles, recalling the scene. “He came home that day and asked ‘can you get us some land in Texas?’ I stomped my foot, because I’d always wanted to live in the mountains.”

She relented, but insisted that any land purchased in Texas must include a natural body of water. Frank asked friends near Austin to keep an eye out for prospects, and one day he got a call with a lead. A friend out jogging had spotted a handmade sign: “12 acres for sale; owner financed.” Best of all it had its own creek, and Frank and Pamela could move onto the acreage for just $1,000 down.

One bottle of champagne with friends and family later, the Arnoskys cut a road into the densely wooded lot nestled between Blanco and Wimberley, then pitched a tent. A roof over their heads would have to wait, as they frantically built a greenhouse (the first of 14) to see them through the winter. They borrowed $8,000 from a San Marcos bank using two cars as collateral, and a friend’s father lent them another $12,000. With previous experience in the bedding plant business, Frank drew on his knowledge of the Austin market and went to work.

Then, in quick succession, babies three and four joined previously born one and two at the Arnosky farm, and Pamela found herself beckoned away from the greenhouse day after day. For convenience, she decided to plant a crop of flowers on a quarter acre directly in front of their home. 

“I definitely did not want to just sit in the house, which was unfinished,” she adds. “It was a tar-paper shack, basically.”

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That little front-yard experiment grew into the multiple acres of flower crops currently blanketing the Arnoskys’ property, and turned into an enterprise so lucrative that it makes up four-fifths of the farm’s business, pays for family vacations and helps fund college educations.

Today, 70 flower varieties are grown on the farm. Arranged by hand at a pace of 2,000 bouquets a week—more than 100,000 a year—the Arnoskys’ blooms have become familiar fixtures for customers of Central Market, Whole Foods Market and select HEB grocers around the state. And thanks largely in part to the Arnoskys’ efforts, Texans can once again enjoy zinnias, larkspur, sweet peas, snapdragons and other delicate blossoms—flowers long abandoned by the international floral market’s brutally long travel times.

“We literally had to reinvent the idea of cut flowers in Texas,” Frank says. “Most of our information came from books that were printed in the ’20s and ’30s when cut flowers really were grown locally.”

The new direction for the farm also coincided nicely with the 1994 arrival of the first Central Market in Austin, with its European-style sensibilities and gourmet selections.

“It was a match made in heaven,” Pamela says. “They opened up and we walked through the door. We grew our business as they grew their business.”

Part of that growth included a new structure for the farm. In 2006, friends, neighbors and local carpenters came together for an old-fashioned barn raising. The result is an enchanting, cornflower-blue barn—a replica of the historic, late-1800’s Fischer Hall building, featuring German architectural style and gracefully arched trusses.

Shared as a community meeting place, the barn is the site of such gatherings as potluck dinners, a basil pesto festival in June and an annual barn birthday celebration with traditional folk music, dancing and home-cooked food.

“We don’t want people coming out with bean dip and a bag of Doritos," says Frank. "We want everyone to put on the dog and cook their best dishes.”

Pamela also hosts a weekly retail produce, flower and cheese market each Saturday at the barn, and on weekdays, self-serve customers stop by to buy any remaining produce—often tucking extra “love notes” of thanks into the barn’s metal cash box.

Although the Arnoskys consider themselves to be wholesale flower growers, the retail/communal component of their business model continues to thrive.

“If we even thought about doing something else, there would be an outcry,” says Pamela, who notes plans for a new fundraising idea to bring the family’s projects full circle.

Four professionally catered, seasonal, communal dinners—held in the Arnoskys’ bounteous fields and featuring Texas wines and food from the farm—are on the horizon. As a loving tribute to one seed that was planted long ago, the beloved blue barn will get one final touch with the money raised: a dance floor.

Visit  them at: texascolor.com or call 830-833-5428.