There was a point in Debra Kaye’s life when she didn’t know what a dahlia was.
It’s ironic when one considers the fact that Kaye is now the farmer-in-chief behind Bear Creek Farm, a dedicated flower farm in Stanfordville. Set quietly on 38 acres in northern Dutchess County, Bear Creek has developed quite the reputation for its bountiful dahlias, which grow long-stemmed and in technicolor shades.
In 2017, New York Magazine even awarded the farm with the title of Best Dahlias, citing its abundance of varieties (100-plus) and rich hues (oxblood, peach, and pink) as incentives for shoppers to visit the farm’s stand at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City.
Dahlia fields / Photo by Margaret Fox Photography
Yet when Kaye’s now-husband Steven proposed to her in 2013, dahlias were the last thing on her mind. She was living in New York City and working as an innovation and marketing consultant at the time and had just started to think about her wedding plans. She knew she wanted to host the ceremony at her farm property in Stanfordville, so she reached out to a florist in her apartment building to see if he’d be willing to provide flowers.
“It’s too far,” he said, noting that the trek upstate was far beyond the borders of his South Hampton business. “Why don’t you do your own flowers?”
A go-getter by nature, Kaye began to research his recommendation to grow dahlias. After figuring out the basics, she headed upstate to her self-described “dilapidated” barn and planted a whopping 100 dahlias.
“You need to keep cutting them,” she explains of the upkeep process. As the flowers bloomed full petals in vibrant colors, she clipped them…and clipped them….and clipped them some more. She wound up with so many flowers that she ended up bringing the extras to local stores in her area in hopes that they’d find some use for them. When she came back to give them new bouquets, however, the stores presented her with money.
“We sold your flowers,” they said.
“But I wasn’t selling them!”
Photos by Debra Kaye
Although Kaye didn’t think anything of selling her bounty at the time, she soon brought a few of her flowers to a florist at the Union Square Greenmarket to see if he’d be interested in carrying them.
“The florist told me they were the best flowers he had ever seen,” she admits. Realizing she had the makings of a profitable business at her fingertips, she got to work to establish the roots for what is now Bear Creek Farm. She began by tapping into her innovation and marketing background and identifying floppiness and short life spans as two common criticisms for dahlias.
The following year, she did a test with 500 dahlias to solve those problems – and solve them she did. New, improved flowers in hand, she brought them to a florist at the flower market on 28th Street and got offered an exclusive retail deal on the spot. The following year, in 2015, she began Bear Creek Farm in earnest.
Farm walk / Photo by Margaret Fox Photography
Today, Bear Creek Farm thrives as one of the leading flower farms in the tri-state region. Using only organic products, Kaye and her team grow eye-catching long-stem flowers for sale at the Union Square Greenmarket and cultivate tubers for retail online. She does not sell flowers in the Hudson Valley, although locals can stop the farm directly to purchase them if they order in advance. Since starting out with her collection of 100 dahlias, Kaye has grown the farm’s offerings exponentially.
In a year, she estimates the farm produces somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 stems. Of that, approximately 150,000 are dahlias, the farm’s signature flower. Also onsite are Iceland poppies, now in their first season, along with 1,400 peony plants, which cut 10 stems per peony. There are also more unique offerings, like Japanese anemones, fritillaria persica, Westcountry lupines, toad liies, and even black and white anemones for one particular customer.
It’s a lot for a production team of, at most, 12 people during high dahlia season, which runs from mid-August to the date of the first hard frost, usually in October. Even for Kaye, who cut her teeth in the fast-paced marketing industry in NYC, farming is a rise-and-grind deal that requires dedication and perseverance.
“Farming is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life,” she reveals. When she first started Bear Creek Farm, she thought she could split her time between Stanfordville and the Big Apple. Then high season kicked into gear and she realized that was not at all going to be the case. Nowadays, she lives full-time at the farm during flower season, then retreats back to the city when December rolls around.
Inside the barn / Photo by Debra Kaye
Of course, it helps that she has pretty sweet digs at the farm. Her once dilapidated 1850s farmhouse is now a glowing renovation, with a refinished turn-of-the-century barn alongside it. The house required two renovations, while the barn took four years to fully restore. That could be because Kaye and her husband took the time to remove old wood from the outside of the barn and move it inside to preserve the history of the edifice. Their efforts were worth it, and they took home second place in Westchester Home Magazine.
Photos by Debra Kaye
Kaye has a good thing going at Bear Creek Farm, which is why she’s excited by what the next chapter holds. Currently on her to-do list, she hopes to expand the farm’s online tuber business and host more onsite events at the property, which is a dream for concerts and parties. This summer, she’s also launching flower workshops to educate about growing and arranging the beautiful blooms.
“We want the farm to continue to grow,” Kaye enthuses. “We’ve identified another seven or so acres for the dahlias. We’d like to do more floral arrangements for weddings, too.”
Bear Creek Farm
Diva flowers at Bear Creek Farm / Photo by Margaret Fox Photography