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Business in bloom

FRANKLIN LIVING— “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

That’s how Tanis Clifton feels when she thinks about the endeavor that dominates her week: Happy Trails Flower Farm, where she and her husband Rick cultivate cut flowers to dazzle and delight.

“We grow hundreds of different varieties of flowers,” said Tanis, who began Happy Trails in 2011 on their farm in Tishomingo County. The couple moved to the area 22 years ago and operates a chiropractic clinic in Red Bay, in addition to flower farming. “Every day I look at a flower that I have grown, and it just blows my mind that I’m fortunate enough to be there to see that. I think it makes me realize more of a closeness to the earth … There are a lot of people who are unhappy, working a job stuck inside and don’t have options to do things they enjoy, and that is so sad to me. Being out here and getting to see the beauty of nature and be amazed by things I wasn’t expecting, and try new flowers and get feedback from people who enjoy that too – it’s just super satisfying. It’s given me a way to have satisfaction in life, and I feel so fortunate that I’m not stuck in a job that I dread. I love this.”

The Cliftons make bouquets and arrangements they sell to Whole Foods as well as local florists and, their primary place of business, at The Market at Pepper Place in Birmingham – where they join other farmers, artisans and chefs for the massive outdoor farmers market. While the couple has developed a niche in growing and selling cut flowers, the venture blossomed out of more humble beginnings.

“We had gone to an agricultural seminar and had discussed getting a greenhouse because I’ve always been interested in gardening,” Tanis explained. “My family has always gardened. It just runs in the bloodstream I guess.” The couple soon found themselves with a massive 35- by 75-foot greenhouse – and decided they needed to grow their gardening plans to match. “That’s more than just a little backyard greenhouse, so we had to decide, what are we going to do with this? I’ve always loved flowers, so I thought, ‘Let’s do flowers.’”

It was a decision that would lead the Cliftons on a journey. They have spent the past eight years growing not only flowers but also their knowledge of their budding business. “There was a lot more to it than we had any idea. We’ve learned so much,” said Tanis. “I could have gone for a four-year degree to learn how to do all this. There is so much information you need to know” – from when to plant and when to harvest to how to keep plants at the proper temperatures. “I have to know all the things about a hundred different flowers … It is a lot of work. It’s not for the faint of heart or anyone without a good strong back.”

Just as the Cliftons, who have been married for 34 years, work together at their chiropractic practice in Red Bay – with Rick providing the medical care and Tanis handling logistics like scheduling, insurance and payment processing – they also work hand-in-hand at the flower farm. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are spent on chiropractic work, and the flower farm fills their Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, mornings and evenings – nearly every other spare hour, at least during the height of the season.   

“We really start production and harvesting the flowers at the end of April and go through Thanksgiving,” said Tanis, who also feeds her passion through membership in the Red Bay Garden Club as well as the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. “We stay real busy at it. We get along, and we do what’s necessary to make it happen.

“Rain and weather dictate everything we do,” Tanis added. “We probably check the weather 10 times a day so we can plan our day … but we enjoy being outside, even when it’s miserable weather. I’d rather be out there than anywhere else.” Although Tanis is the true flower fanatic between the two, she said Rick has been behind her every step of the way. “He is super supportive in this venture. He says if I’m happy, he’s happy,” Tanis said. “If he wasn’t here to help, I don’t think I could have done this. It’s a team effort for sure.” Tanis said his response is always “Anything you need, baby” when it comes to Happy Trails.

Operating a flower farm has been a continuing learning curve for the Cliftons, and Tanis said they have made their share of mistakes and discoveries. They had to build a walk-in cooler, to keep flowers protected from the elements, and learn when to till the fields and how not to damage the soil.

“For us, we already had some capital investment at our farm – we had a barn, we had tractors – so we had some things we would have had to purchase,” said Tanis. “We feel like we’re real fortunate.” Despite their initial resources, however, the start-up costs still posed a challenge – from buying a delivery van and building the walk-in cooler to covering the cost for other supplies, like fertilizer and equipment – all combined with the difficulty of developing a steady market in a rural area. “It took us about three years before we got out of the red.”

Tanis said they realized they were going to need a larger avenue for selling than rural northeast Mississippi and northwest Alabama could provide. “It doesn’t do you any good to have the most beautiful flowers in the world if there is nobody around to buy them.” That’s when they got started with Pepper Place.

“We actually get to see the people who are enjoying the flowers, and that is really rewarding,” said Tanis. “We felt we were not confident probably the first year. We realized at that point that our location was not conducive to enough options for sales, but we had to find a place, and if that meant having to travel, that’s what we were going to do. We needed it to be more than a hobby after all that we had invested.” Although the Cliftons have now pretty well solidified their market, Tanis said a flower farm is far from a burgeoning money-maker. “You have to set yourself apart and have things other people don’t,” said Tanis, adding that in addition to the challenge of living in a rural area, they have started to face the challenge of competition, with the growth of the flower farming business. “If we relied on just Pepper Place or just Whole Foods or just florists, we couldn’t have done it.” The Cliftons also sell starter plants to other farmers. “You develop every market you can because they are all important to your bottom line.”

But although the financial side requires her attention to make Happy Trails a successful business, it’s out in the garden where Tanis finds fulfillment. She grows a massive variety of flowers, including lilies, zinnias, sunflowers and celosias, plus “things I know a lot of people have never even heard of, but there are so many beautiful flowers these days, and our climate is perfect.” Harvesting at peak means her flowers retain ultimate color and scent. “As soon as they are ready to harvest, we’re cutting them and getting them out of the field so people can enjoy them.” Her greenhouse is jam-packed with all sorts of blooms, including ranunculus, lilies, Star of Bethlehem, Canterbury bells, Dusty Miller and chrysanthemums. Outside the greenhouse she also grows flower beds around the barn and on a plot she’s leasing just down the street. “You can grow a ton of flowers on a small amount of land,” Tanis said. They start their seeds in the basement under low lights on a heat mat and transplant everything they grow.

Tanis said people always ask what her favorite flower is – but she has no easy answer. “It is so hard for me to answer that because I love them all. They all have their unique qualities.” Topping the list, however, are lisianthus – “It kind of looks like a rose but has no thorns. They come in white, pink, purple, yellow, green, and they look very delicate, but they are really sturdy and long-lasting” – as well as cockscomb, which “looks like the comb on a rooster’s head, and there are tons of varieties. They are all really bright and colorful and cheerful.”

In addition to her Tishomingo farm, Tanis started a lavender farm in Red Bay that’s now in its second year of growth. “We’re really excited about that.” As to what the future holds, Tanis said she looks forward to many more years operating Happy Trails Flower Farm. “We’re going to stick with it. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Photos by April Warhurst