During the week before Valentine's Day, something in the ballpark of 2,400 dozen roses - that's 28,800 roses - will pass through the doors of Pinchbeck's Rose Farm; hand carried to sweethearts, delivered to local vendors like Whole Foods, and shipped out all over the region.
The color of choice for this week before Valentine's Day? Red. Although the farm does grow sixteen different colors, all of which will be available, red is the color of love.
Asked about last year's Valentine's sales, "We sold out of red every day, but had a fresh cut each morning. ... benefits of growing your own," said Retail Operations Manager Lori Gregan.
Two things make these roses so special. They are the last commercially grown cut roses in New England and many of the employees who cut, sort, grade and care for these roses are on the autistic spectrum.
Pinchbeck's Rose Farm had been a Guilford institution since 1929, established by William Pinchbeck and run by the family for 80 years. With 150,000 square feet of greenhouse space, they were once the largest rose farm in the United States. But state-side businesses have found it increasingly difficult to compete with blooms imported from South America. By 2008, Tom Pinchbeck, third generation owner of the farm, was going to have to close their doors.
Then along came Jim Lyman, who, with a son on the autism spectrum whom he wanted to see live a rewarding life, and a background in agriculture, had an idea how to put the two together. From this was born Roses for Autism, an innovative program that provides skilled labor for agriculture and the opportunity for those on the spectrum to learn the necessary skills to function in the workforce.
In May of 2009 the organization Roses For Autism took over the daily operations of the farm. Today, of the twenty or so employees currently working there, approximately 65% are on the spectrum.
With Tom Pinchbeck still the head grower at Roses for Autism, once again one of the two 50,000 square foot greenhouses is fully operational for growing. The 32,000 rose bushes planted there will produce close to a million blooms.
Timing is everything when it comes to fresh cut roses, so the roses are not cut while in bloom. In order for that special Valentine to fully enjoy the blooming of their roses a few days later, the roses are cut while still surprisingly tight buds.
Cutting begins at eight a.m. By late morning the activity, and the color, has moved from the greenhouse to the packing room where the roses are sorted and graded for color, quality and length of the stems. Cut roses are stored in the cooler until they are ready for sorting. Workers hand match the roses for color and quality of the bud and a grading machine is used to sort the roses by stem length.
When it comes to maintaining the winter temperatures in the greenhouse at a balmy 63 - 65 degrees, this is a 24 hour a day operation. Someone is always on duty to stoke the fire in the enormous boilers that heat the water which circulates through the system of pipes used to warm the greenhouse. Wood chips are the fuel source. On very cold days, with cloud cover blocking the sun and the subsequent long bitter nights, up to five tractor trailers of wood chips may be delivered to keep the fires burning.
Gregan is the grease that keeps everything moving smoothly and the glue that holds together the tight knit group at the rose farm. Learning, work, and fun are neatly tied together in a very fragrant work environment.
"We toasted marshmallows the other day [in the boiler's embers]," she said.
When asked about her job description, her response was, "To sell roses, but you can see my job is much more than just selling roses…. I guess it would be running the day to day operation of a wholesale retail rose farm, while employing and training some very special people."
Now doesn't that sound like a fantastic place to work.