Small Connecticut Farm's Plan to Evolve, Improve Business

May 11, 2011

Cricket Hill Garden in Thomaston, Connecticut is one of the only farms in the country cultivating a rare perennial variety ... the Chinese tree peony. As part of WNPR's Small Business Project, Andrew Huston spoke with members of the family who run the garden about their plans to improve the business.

In the coming weeks, the woody shrubs lining Cricket Hill Garden’s woodland terraced garden will burst with large, fragrant, colorful blossoms.

“We were collecting peonies and knew that they came from China. And, we wrote to China asking about buying a few, and we were thinking about 10 peonies. And we got a reply, and it turned out we needed to buy 200.”

Kasha and David Furman began selling Chinese tree peonies from their garden about 20 years ago.

“We thought well, ‘Should we do this?’ Because it wasn’t really a business plan, it was just a desire for more beautiful flowers.  We did get those 200 and they came in December, and we had to chip through the snow and plant. And, believe it or not, two thirds lived. And we thought, “Wow, these are really hardy plants.”

Over the years, the Cricket Hill Garden has steadily grown into a business and about two years ago, the Furmans’ son Dan, who grew up on the farm and shares his parent’s appreciation for peonies, returned home to help manage operations.

“These beds are new, raised up, because like I said the peonies are hydrophobic, they don’t like water. That's like the number one reason people of people losing their peonies. ”

Throughout college, Dan Furman traveled to China frequently and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. He says it's difficult to underestimate the importance of tree peonies in Chinese history. Originating in a climate drier but similar to Connecticut's, the plants were first gathered in the wild for medicinal purposes. But, hundreds of years later, they were recognized for their aesthetic and ornamental value, and cultivators began creating new and interesting hybrids.

“Like 1200 years ago, during the Tang dynasty in the capitol Xiang, there was like a peony mania. The price of some little grafts was 100 pieces of gold. You know about the tulip mania in the 15th century in Holland? Well, way before that, there was a peony mania in China…”

The Furmans say Cricket Hill Garden fared much better during the recession than you might expect… in part because they occupy a small niche in the horticultural world. About 70 percent of orders for plants come online from wealthier, middle aged peony enthusiasts around the country. The rest of business is local. In recent years, however, the garden has struggled with its role as an importer. The majority of peony stock comes directly from China, but tighter regulations from the Department of Homeland Security and the USDA have made it more difficult to import and ship goods.

“Inspections got much tougher. Basically from 2005 to 2010, we couldn’t get any stock from China, which is what we built our whole business model around. So, it was really scrambling for inventory, because even if we don’t do a whole lot of aggressive marketing, we still are pretty well known, and people come to us looking for peonies and we have to have something to sell.”

To make the garden more viable in the future, the farmers at Cricket Hill agree it has to move away from importing, and increase its production of tree peony varietals locally. Because many large, older farms in the surrounding area are fallow, some are renting small bits of land to smaller growers like Cricket Hill, and the Garden is currently renting a two acre parcel in nearby Watertown to increase cultivation of local tree peonies.

The Furmans say they’d like to diversify their offerings with exotic, edible fruit trees, like persimmon and fig, and they hope to continue educating American gardeners about tree peonies. Kasha Furman also says that, as with any agricultural business, you have to be patient.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am that Dan’s involved, because it doesn’t end in one generation. This is a long term project, it really is...I mean it would all be lost. You have to think of a farm business as a 40 year project. It just takes a long time to get something going, agriculture is like that."

The Chinese tree peony garden at Cricket Hill Garden will be in full bloom from early May and into late spring. For WNPR, Andrew Huston.