This Couple Didn't Let a Pandemic Topple Their Sun-Dappled Dream

Alyssa and Allen Ward turned the flower industry blues into bright oranges and yellows.

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Alyssa and Allen Ward, along with Junior, at the farm in Salem. New Jersey
Alyssa and Allen Ward, along with Junior, at the farm in Salem. New Jersey.

 Ward's Farm, New Jersey

Around this time of year, an 11-acre stretch of land in Salem, New Jersey is in full bloom.

Sunflowers and dinner-plate dahlias, as far as the eye can see, sway in the sun. Some parts may sway a little harder from time to time. That would be where a 75-pound boxer named Junior is roaming — either playing with his best friend, a cat named Oci, or chasing off animal intruders that could cause trouble for the precious blooms.

Fresh-cut sunflowers at Ward's Farm in New Jersey
Ward's Farm hosts regular "pick-your-own" events.  Ward's Farm, New Jersey

And there’s a healthy buzz here too, thanks to the thousands of bees who make their appointed rounds.

This is the cut-flower farm that Alyssa and Allen Ward built — a field of dreams not just for the couple who own it, but for every living thing that thrives there.
This is also the farm that a pandemic could have broken. Since it was established in 2012, Ward’s Farm drew much of its business from weddings and parties, directly sending fresh-cut flowers to the florists. But as social distancing rules became the norm in the face of Covid-19, those gatherings withered.
Indeed, it’s a pain shared by much of America’s flower industry. Events that traditionally call for flowers — birthdays, weddings, even Mother’s Day brunches — just aren’t happening anymore.

It all adds up to a crisis for the $1.4-billion flower industry.

“America's flower farmers, the floral industry and all of their employees are teetering on economic devastation,” Dave Pruitt, CEO for the California Cut Flower Commission said in a conference call earlier this year. “These people literally cannot hold on without support from consumers. 

A bucket of fresh-cut flowers.
Amid dark times, the Wards offer buckets of pure sunshine.  Ward's Farm, New Jersey

But the Wards came up with a fresh plan for uprooting their old business model. With some healthy social distancing rules, why shouldn’t people enjoy those sun-dappled fields as much as they do?

So, instead of only supplying their wares to florists, they opened their farm to the public. Inviting locals to come and pick their own sunflowers. And Junior and Oci found more friends at the farm, as more people than ever appeared among the sunflowers.

“We believe this is due to the fact that everyone has been in quarantine and just wants to get outside,” Alyssa explains. “We are so happy that we can bring joy in this tough time. We are blessed to have plenty of acreage so we are able to follow social distancing guidelines all while sharing the fields with others.”

It all adds up to a bumper crop of much-needed hope. And a testament to what you can grow with a little inspiration — and plenty of perspiration.

Neither Alyssa nor Allen have a long history of cultivation. Allen works full-time at a bank, while Alyssa works a 9-5 in the pharmaceutical industry. While her husband credits childhood visits to his grandparents’ 200-acre farm for planting the seed, Alyssa came by her love for farming by way of the belly.

“I learned how great farming could be when I had my first fresh-from-the-farm asparagus for dinner and I was hooked into farming,” she says.
Today, like most farmers, Allen and Alyssa Ward rise with the sun.

Weeds don’t sleep. And the dahlias and sunflowers they pick need to be arranged just right so the bouquets can be dispatched to local florists, or the roadside stand they operate.

The Wards operate a stand featuring fresh flowers.
The Wards also run a bright and shiny roadside stand.  Ward's Farm, New Jersey

“When I come home, I spend more time on the farm whether it’s mowing, tilling, planting, cutting more flowers and hosting our ‘Pick Your Own’ evening events,” Allen explains. “Oh, and taking pictures for our social media.”

Indeed, the social media pages for Ward’s Farm is a kaleidoscope of color — sunflowers all dressed up in orange and red and yellow. There’s the deep purple of the early-blooming hellebore. And nimble pollinators like bees and butterflies making their appointed rounds. And plenty of cameo appearances from Junior.

The Wards see the entire farm and all who live there — including bees in several hives on the property — as part of the same happy family.
“Our hundreds of thousands of bees are our pets as much as Junior and Oci are,” Alyssa explains. “Not only do they help us create our own breeds of sunflowers, they also pollinate our other flowers and veggies. Because bees will travel to get pollen, they help to pollinate the surrounding farms too.”

And bees, naturally, make farm life all the more sweet.

“It also doesn’t hurt that these wonderful pollinators produce something we both love and enjoy — honey,” Alyssa says. “Between the two of us, we can go through a five-pound jar of honey in a couple months and we are very thankful that in time, our little hard-working bees will produce that for us.”

And these days, thanks to severe habitat loss and increasing pesticide use, bees need all the help they can get. In fact, a recent report suggests more than 700 species of native bees in America are teetering on extinction.

“Our passion for bees comes from the fact that we wouldn’t have these beautiful flowers or tasty vegetables without the bees pollinating,” Alyssa explains. “We got our bees so we can help sustain the bee population. Our plan is to add more hives each year.”

Which is why hope, too, springs eternal here. Along with a boundless love for nature — to go along with the boundless enthusiasm of a very large dog named Junior.

Junior the boxer stands on guard.
No one enjoys the flowering fields more than Junior.  Ward's Farm, New Jersey

“He enjoys all the farm visitors, especially the ones that come and know him by name.”

Check our Q&A with the Wards — including Junior -- here.