The Lily Farm: A Legendary Business Changes Hands
by Mark Carpenter
Fifteen years ago I had my first trip to Jack Carpenter?s Lily Farm. Jack is my uncle, but I grew up living all over the United States, moving about every 5 years as my dad gained promotions through Rockwell International. My life growing up was spent on the move, being born in Houston, Texas; living in Jackson, Tennessee; then back to Sulphur Springs, Texas; then Cary, North Carolina until I was a sophomore in high school; and then I lived in Kearney, Nebraska until I graduated college from the University of Nebraska in Kearney, Nebraska. So as you can see, I was never very close to Center, Texas as I grew up. But once I graduated from college, I moved to San Antonio, Texas with my wonderful wife Jill. I went to work for Procter and Gamble, and it is here that I stayed for 21 years. After a multitude of travel, hotels, and rental cars as I traveled the United States with my job, I grew weary of being away from my family and left P&G two years ago. After a month of recharging my batteries, I found a job with a local grocery chain. I have been with this company through the writing of this article, and have been very fortunate to have worked with such great people.
But never did I feel for one day at work the way I felt on that fateful day when I first went to see Jack?s place. I?ll never forget going up that dirt drive off Highway 7 and seeing over 50,000 flowers in bloom. Beauty was around me everywhere, and people were shopping all around the 3 acres, and happiness was abundantly flowing all around me. Wow, I thought, this is a ?happy? business! After that visit, I spent many vacations from P&G working with Jack during the Memorial Day weekends, his busiest time. I loved helping with the customers, bantering with Jack, working with Josie, and realizing at the end of each night that I had just worked a 16 hour day, on vacation, and loved every minute of it. I always felt that way every single day I helped out at the Lily Farm. The daylily bug had hit me, and it had hit me hard.
I feel to this day that Jack knew he had found a family member, possibly the ONLY family member that truly loved this business enough to one day perhaps take it over. As Jack so generously helped my habit by sending me countless treasured registrations while also expanding my knowledge of this business, I began to want to give back to my uncle. I felt Jack was often overlooked for some of the great things he was doing in daylilies, almost as if it was a well kept secret. Jack did not have a website, and his catalog had a daylily on the front each time that Jack hand sketched himself in black and white. In the catalog were only descriptions with no pictures. So my brother Chuck and myself actually built Jack?s first website for the Lily Farm. The next year I believe Jack had Bob Axmear take it over, and Bob has done a wonderful job since. Jack also went to color catalogs (before the website was ever built), and then I volunteered to start doing Jack?s program across the United States. My first invitation was by Melanie Mason up in Saratoga Springs, New York. I?ll never forget how much fun I had during that visit, showing off my uncle?s slide show program and bragging endlessly about his daylilies. Melanie was gracious enough to go on the robin and write a really nice note about my presentation, and from that point on the invitations to speak to others starting coming in, or rather pouring in!! Jack?s program was clearly in demand, but due to my job and the travel I was already doing, I had to significantly limit the number of engagements I could say ?yes? to. I did anywhere from 5 to 10 programs a year for Jack, but eventually I had to stop doing them completely, as I had two little girls at home who were growing up fast, and being away any ?extra? days for any reason was simply not worth it.
Jack?s lifetime of work had its crowning moment a little over a year ago in Houston, Texas. I drove up with my mom after work that day, and we drove back the very next morning so I could return to work. It was a great night for me, seeing my wonderful uncle receive not only the Bertrand Farr Silver Medal for his lifetime of work in daylilies, but also receiving the Stout Medal the same night for H. ?Lavender Blue Baby?. What a night that was!!
Over the past few years, Jack had begun hinting that he was getting ready to sell the Lily Farm. At first I did not take him seriously, as daylilies are one of the true loves of Jack?s life. But two years ago, we had our first truly serious discussion about his selling the farm. Jack and Josie were not getting any younger, and the Lily Farm was a tremendous amount of work. Was I interested? More than anyone, including Jack, could ever know! But there are so many things that were happening in my ?regular? life that I could not change. First and foremost was my oldest daughter Kelsey, an incredible young lady who is now at Baylor University. If I bought the farm, we would have to move my family the 5 hours North and East of San Antonio, and this would be during her junior year of high school. At that time, she was a straight ?A? student and was well on her way to achieving her goal she set in 7th grade, and that was to finish in the Top 10 in her class at O?Connor High School (a class that proved to be 782 kids). Jack and I had some very serious discussions at that time about my purchasing the Lily Farm, but he knew, and I knew, that I was not seriously ready to do it at that time, as I felt uprooting my daughter would not be fair to her. So I put away my dreams of buying the Lily Farm, and over the last 2 years I found out from Jack that numerous people were truly interested in buying it. I doubt Jack ever knew how much I hurt inside when he would tell me these stories, as I felt the calling for happiness that I could have had in my hands was being taken away, never to be recovered.
Some of you may wonder why I never started my own daylily business in San Antonio. You can talk to Jack about that one (:>}) ! He spent much of this past summer in New Braunfels, and experienced San Antonio weather for the first time over an extended calendar. This summer we had over 60 days where the temperature exceeded 100 degrees, and water rationing was everywhere. In San Antonio, we are allowed to water our yards one day per week, and only from 8pm to 10pm on that day. Any other watering results in a huge fine from the city. No, I?m not kidding! San Antonio sits over the Edwards Aquifer, and many say this is the largest fresh water aquifer in the United States. But San Antonio treats the water here the way Houston would treat oil. You pay for it, and you pay a lot. What about drilling a well? Good luck with that one, as the caleche ground in this area requires dynamite to get below it, and sometimes you are going down 100?s of feet to reach water. The cost is prohibitive, and the weather is more conducive to grow cactus than daylilies, so I felt it would be a mistake to try it. I still believe I was right on that one. In my backyard, I could hybridize, learn about plant habits, and grow my own seedlings, but on a very small, conservative scale. With no winter here, rust is also a huge nuisance to deal with. All told, you can grow daylilies in San Antonio, but to run a commercial business would be almost impossible in my view.
So that leads us back to Jack telling me about the people interested in buying his farm, and my heart breaking ever so slightly each time I heard about it. But a funny thing happened along the way?.each person that was interested, for whatever reason, never came all the way through with their offers. And while Jack has never said this, I still think there is a chance he held out for me until Kelsey graduated high school (oh yes, she finished 6th out of 782 kids).
Now move your calendar to this past May, when I decided to attend the Region 6 Regional in Ft Worth, Texas. When I got there, my buddy Malcolm Avaritt told me he had been to Jack?s, and that Jack wanted Malcolm to announce to the Region that he was looking for someone to ?manage? the Lily Farm, or better yet buy it. This was news to me, as Jack had said nothing recently to me about his wanting to sell, and sell it now. In fact, I had completely given up hope of buying it, as I did not think my youngest daughter or wife would truly want to move, nor did I think I could come up with the purchase price. Which leads to the miracle, in my view, that eventually became the writing of this article.
One evening while in my office, I was talking to my wife Jill about Jack wanting to sell the farm. I told her all the reasons I felt we could not do it, but then, out of the clear blue, my daughter Lindsey, who at the time was in the 6th grade, had overheard our conversation and came into my office and said ?Daddy, why don?t you just buy the Lily Farm? It?s what you want to do, and you always tell us to follow our dreams no matter what?. I can say truly my eyes teared up, as it was as if an angel from heaven had walked into my room and said ?practice what you preach?. I think Jill was stunned too, but not to the point I was. That conversation lead to many, many hours of careful debate, prayer, deliberations, prayer, consultations, prayer, and then more prayer. Do I take my life?s earnings and move my family to Nacogdoches, Texas to follow my dream? One thing was clear during this time?Jack was going to sell the Lily Farm. It was now, or literally, never.
So I called Jack on the phone and told him what I wanted to do. He told me he already had 2 other parties that were very, very interested in talking about buying the farm. But he told both parties that I had the first chance to, as I had expressed serious interest two years earlier in it. And so, after forming our own contract on line via email for probably a month, we came to an agreement. I would purchase and take over the farm around March/April of this year. Jack would take 25% of his diploids and move them to his house to continue his hybridizing, but on a much smaller scale. All the rest of the daylilies would remain on the farm. And yes, Jack left me multiple diploid introductions on the farm (:>}).
As you read this article, my life is moving at 5,000 miles per hour. Sometime in either early March or no later than April 1, I will take over the reins of one of the great daylily farms in our country, Jack Carpenter ?s Lily Farm. I will be living on the farm itself while my wife and youngest daughter stay in San Antonio so she can finish 7th grade. After the farm closes to the public around July 1, I?ll be going back and forth to help Jill sell the house and of course find and buy a home in Nacogdoches. Until then, I will be spending every waking second working on the farm, and getting it ready for our open house in May. I?ll also be pestering Jack to death as he teaches me how to farm. I have a great understanding of hybridizing thanks to my years working with Jack, and I know his daylily line inside/out, but farming is a whole different animal. But I love the outdoors, I love daylilies, and I know that Jack will help impart in me the knowledge I need to move The Lily Farm forward. I also believe that God will be working with me, hand in hand.
What do I see as the Lily Farm?s future? I believe that in order to grow AHS, and grow the Lily Farm as well, we MUST find ways to expose more people to our wonderful flower. When people come to the Lily Farm for the first time, they fall in love with this place. And it happens every single time to every first time visitor. My goal, after the first year, is to increase the advertising for the Lily Farm in major cities that are near Center, Texas, and also to greatly increase the amount of presentations for the Lily Farm to garden groups and of course, daylily clubs, via regional speaking events, etc. I am so blessed to be able to have my first 3 years of introductions already in the ground and eventually ready to go, and it is my job to continue to give the great service as well as great daylilies that the public expects when they order from The Lily Farm. And no, the name will not change; we will continue to be ?The Lily Farm?. As for my hybridizing goals, they are varied to say the least! I love huge daylilies, but I also love the spidery things out there, and even more than both of those I love doubles (thank you to David Kirchhoff for putting that love in me!).
I want to spend this last paragraph thanking my wife Jill, daughters Kelsey and Lindsey, and also my parents, who were so incredibly supportive of this huge decision we have made in our lives. Jill is one of those truly rare ladies who has spent her entire life just wanting me and her family to be happy, while never asking for anything, ever, for herself. I am so very lucky to be blessed having her as my wife. I also want to thank my Uncle, Jack Carpenter , who went through countless up?s and down?s with me trying to finalize this deal, all the while knowing he was stepping away just a bit from something he built from the ground up, but knowing it is going to someone who will try to care for it in the same manner he did. I also want to thank Josie Bomar, a true angel on our earth, for letting me know that she would be there for me to help in this transition in any way that she could. That?s just Josie, a true angel! But most of all, I want to thank God for moving in my soul and letting me know that HE has a plan for me greater than myself. He gave me courage to do something I was scared to death to do, and regardless of how it turns out, I am thankful to Him.
I cannot wait to see your smiling faces this spring/summer when you come to The Lily Farm!