ROCKLAND, Maine — As cars whiz by on busy Old County Road, it’s hard to believe that the vibrant and whimsical bunches of tulips for sale at Swell Farm’s roadside stand were grown nearby.
Farms are a rarity in Rockland, a city more widely known for its industrial roots than its agricultural ones, and finding enough space to farm here can be a challenge, since available land is both expensive and sparse.
But the flower farmers behind Swell Farm, husband and wife duo Chris Lord and Tracey Pavan, have committed to making it work.
Thanks to a lease agreement with a local cemetery association, in the last two years their farm has grown from having a quarter acre in production to about two acres. The increased growing space has allowed Swell Farm to increase to a sustainable size while staying in a community that offers easy, direct access to customers. It’s a community that Pavan and Lord have come to love.
“This has been the absolute best case scenario that we never even thought was possible, of having a farm and stewarding the land in our backyard,” Pavan said. “Then we get to connect with our community and our customers in our front yard.”
Lord, who is originally from southern Maine, first purchased the half-acre property on Old County Road in 2008 while he was working for the federal government as a wildland firefighter in Alaska. The job kept him in Alaska for six months out of the year, but after breaking his leg and leaving that line of work, Lord said he wanted to pursue something that kept him in one place and offered a sense of community.
Around 2015, Lord began growing flowers behind his Rockland home, pursuing the crop after having some experience helping on his sister’s flower farm in Alaska. In 2016, he met Pavan while she was attending massage school in Waldoboro, and the two hit it off.
The early growing seasons on Swell Farm were a modest endeavor, with less than a quarter acre of growing space in the couple’s backyard. In 2018, they were able to lease another approximately quarter acre in Rockport for additional growing space.
But to be able to grow the farm to a scale where it could sustain their household, Pavan and Lord needed more space for production. Around 2019, they considered moving to a more rural area that would offer more affordable land.
“We were looking to move and get like a real farm because we didn’t see opportunities in Rockland, of being able to afford anything in the area where we could grow,” Pavan said.
But farmers and mentors that they met through Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association classes and programs encouraged them to stay in Rockland, which offered easier access to customers than a more rural area might provide.
So Lord reached out to the Rockland Cemetery Association — which owns land directly behind their property — asking if they would be interested in entering into a lease for the use of two empty fields. Historically the land had been used for farming, so the former president of the association was excited to return the land to that historic use, according to Pavan.
“We feel really honored to be on this land and doing that [agricultural] work again,” Lord said. “A lot of our [new] customers think that we buy the flowers and sell them here, because you can’t see what’s going on back there.”
But the scaling up came at a challenging time. The first growing season on the new land was in 2020, the first summer of the pandemic. Though they thought people wouldn’t have money for flowers at such a challenging time, the heartwarming response they received from customers showing up at their new and improved farmstand proved that hunch wrong.
“During the pandemic, when it first hit we were like, ‘Nobody is even going to want flowers. How is anybody going to have extra money to spare? We should just grow food.’ But it was March, we were already going and we don’t know how to grow food,” Pavan
Swell Farm specializes in more offbeat flowers and varieties — types you are not going to find at your local grocery store. Pavan estimates that they grow about 100 varieties of flowers altogether including the tulips.
While tulips might seem like a run-of-the-mill spring flower, the assortment you’ll find at Swell Farm is anything but. Some feature luscious, fringey or swirling petals.
Among Swell Farm’s other most popular flower varieties are lisianthus, anemones and poppies.
Pavan and Lord farm using organic practices, but are not a certified organic farm.
Swell Farm sells the bulk of their flowers directly to consumers at their Old County Road farmstand, but also offers a CSA program and bulk buckets for special events. They also provide a couple local stores with flowers and ornamental pumpkins.
“Our community, they really like weird stuff. They like unique things and unique colors. So we really like to just have a little bit of unique flair, of fun stuff that you don’t see at the grocery store and maybe that people have never seen if they haven’t been getting local flowers before,” Pavan said.
While growing Swell Farm in Rockland has taken a lot of hard work, Pavan and Lord said it’s the happiness that their flowers bring to their customers — and the support and kindness those customers show them in return — that has made it all worthwhile.
“I tell the flowers, we talk to them all the time, like last night when I was closing the tunnel I was just like ‘You guys are going to make a lot of people happy in the next few days,’” Lord said.
Clarification: A previous version of this story did not clarify that while Swell Farm uses organic practices in its farming methods, it is not a certified organic farm.