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As environmentally minded consumers put their beliefs into practice, organic flower farmers reap the benefits

When Ann Wise of Cloquet was helping to plan her daughter's wedding last year, flowers from a florists' cooler wouldn't do. "I've received flowers from my kids that live in Chicago and Florida, where they order them through the greenhouses, and t...

When Ann Wise of Cloquet was helping to plan her daughter's wedding last year, flowers from a florists' cooler wouldn't do.

"I've received flowers from my kids that live in Chicago and Florida, where they order them through the greenhouses, and they never even smell nice," Wise said. "They're really fake. The florist's flowers don't even seem like they're really alive. They're so full of preservatives and chemicals."

"I wanted to find really natural flowers that had the really natural colors of northern Minnesota," she continued. "We're really interested in not using all the chemicals that are used in gardening."

That's why Wise turned to Paula Williams, who grows flowers on her 40-acre farm in Barnum, when it was time to find flowers for her daughter's nuptials.

Williams outfitted Wise with buckets of organically grown flowers, some of them native species, which got turned into bouquets for the bride and bridesmaids, boutonnieres and tabletop decorations.

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Supplemented with a few flowers from Wise's garden, the arrangements were exactly what Wise, her daughter Ariel and Ariel's husband, Nick Haesliger, were looking for.

"People just thought they were gorgeous," Wise said of the flowers.

Brides and grooms who choose organic or regionally grown flowers probably make up a small portion of the couples wedded each year. Organic flowers tend to be difficult to find at mainstream flower shops, and locally grown flowers more so.

Cindy Abrahamson, a floral designer with Engwall Florist and Greenhouses who has been in the business for 32 years, said none of the couples she's ever worked with have asked for organic or locally grown flowers.

"They're more concerned about what types of flowers they're going to use and what colors," she said. "Never are they concerned with how they're grown."

But like the demand for organic and regionally grown produce, interest in flowers grown locally or without chemicals appears to be on the rise.

"It's definitely going up, as it is with everything that's organic," said Rose Welch, general manager of the Organic ConsumersAssociation, based in Finland, Minn. "Certainly, we see people all the time calling and asking where they can get them."

Nearly 80 percent of the fresh flowers sold in the U.S. are imported from other countries, primarily Colombia and Ecuador, according to the Society of American Florists.

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Environmental groups frown on the pesticides, herbicides, preservatives and fossil fuels used to make sure those flowers arrive at U.S. floral shops fresh and blemish-free, and some growers have been criticized for their treatment of workers, who may be exposed to hazardous chemicals.

"There's more pesticide use with flowers than any other crop in the world," Welch said. "It's also a human rights issue for people working in those industries because they're exposed [to chemicals]."

All that gives some spouses-to-be cause to turn to organic or locally grown flowers.

When Pam Johnson and Bill Amberg married at Spirit Mountain two years ago, Johnson wanted environmentally friendly wildflowers.

"In all my hiking and outdoors activities, they appealed to me more than what you'd find at a florist shop," Johnson said. "I didn't want to go the commercial route. I had been looking at other options, and everything was so expensive and so traditional."

That's why Johnson turned to Williams for her sky-blue, cream-and-white bouquet and the orange and yellow arrangements for her bridesmaids.

"It was perfect," Johnson said.

Williams grows organic flowers, some of them native species, on Commonplace Farm, her spread in Barnum.

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She provides flowers for up to four weddings per growing seasons, picking the flowers the night before and assembling them early the next morning, sometimes on-site.

William doesn't use chemicals and grows about 40 species of native plants, though only 10 or so of them last long enough when cut to be included in bouquets.

She said her customers find her by asking around at farmers markets. They're looking for flowers that haven't been sprayed with pesticides or trucked long distances.

"They like that it's local and I think they like the native [flowers] because my bouquets look unique," Williams said of her customers. "They're not as worked-up as wedding flowers sometimes are."

Mike Olund, who, with his wife, Lynn, grows 60 species of flowers "from azure ageratums to zinnias" at Superior Forest Flowers in Brimson, supplies an average of two weddings a year.

"The major thing is they want a local flower," he said. "And there are many people who want to support organic agriculture in any way they can."

Superior Forest flowers are also fresher, says, having been picked the night before or the day of the wedding.

"The flowers you buy in a florist might've been cut in Peru a week ago," he said.

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