Climbing out of the Trash Pile

Shirley Randon of White Oaks Farm, Folsam, Louisiana and Terri Doyle of Specialty Cut Flowers, Picayune, Mississippi

Six months after Hurricane Katrina’s initial devastation, ASCFG members Shirley Randon and Terri Doyle are still dealing with the mess she left behind. Despite mangled greenhouses, missing roofs and lack of a labor force, these two growers are preparing for the 2006 season with hope and optimism as they work toward a return to normalcy.
White Oaks Farm
Located an hour outside New Orleans, White Oaks Farm suffered damage including the loss of three greenhouses, roofs torn off two barns, and several large pecan trees blown down. Those were the immediate losses, but as a farm, indirect losses were to follow. Shirley recalls, “I had lots planted for the fall, but with no electricity for six weeks, we had no power for the well pumps, and with no water in the scorching days after the storm, we lost all those crops.”         

Even after power had been restored, it seemed Shirley had lost her employees. In business for five years, she had built up to five employees, but none have returned to the farm since the hurricane. Since she knows their homes were spared, she can only assume that they have found higher-paying construction jobs for the time being.         

So far she has not been able to find reliable workers to repair the structures, or even a farmhand to plow the fields. As soon as she gets someone to plow the fields—which are full of weeds—she and her daughter are eager to plant what they think they can manage for the coming season, having started some seedlings in a surviving greenhouse.        

At this point,  the market has been surprisingly robust. Talking with other growers, Shirley says they’ve found, “We sell everything we can grow, we can’t provide enough to meet the demand.” Shirley thinks part of this is due to the fact that home gardens were destroyed and people are just glad to get flowers again.                     

Four of the specialty grocery stores where Shirley sold flowers were completely destroyed. One has partially reopened, but the floral department has not been added yet. The farmers’ markets she attended are starting to reopen and should all be ready by spring.             

White Oaks Farm grows summer annuals, such as sunflowers, zinnias and celosias, which can withstand the extreme heat and humidity of the Gulf region. They also grow bulbs in crates and will be able to harvest the hydrangea and tuberoses that survived the storm in the ground. Assuming the greenhouses can be repaired within the year, Shirley will resume her production of season-extending calla lilies for December and sweet peas for January.                 

Shirley has adopted a “no stress” philosophy, saying, “I’ll do what I can do.” Her priorities are to get the fields tilled, and find someone to help water what they’ve managed to plant in the greenhouse, especially the seedlings. Whatever they manage to grow during this year of rebuilding will surely be well received and appreciated by those in the New Orleans area who are facing similar obstacles in rebuilding their lives.

Specialty Cut Flowers
Terri Doyle’s three acres of cut flowers became a full-time venture only two years ago after years of providing a supplemental income to her husband’s dairy farm. The Doyles rode out the storm in the town of Picayune, 35 miles inland from the Gulf Coast, to care for the dairy herd, still their main income. Though they had a generator, it was used to keep the dairy operating, not to keep the plants watered.             

She had hoped to finance a couple new hoophouses with the profits from the fall crops and had a goal of producing flowers ready for market by February. Not only are there no new hoophouses, the existing hoophouses were twisted in the hurricane winds “like coat hanger wire.” After months of “poking at a pile here and there,” Terri’s new goal is to have flowers by May.                             

She recalls, “We’ve been through hurricanes before, and the damage might disrupt your life for a couple weeks, but with this one, the extent of the devastation was just overwhelming, we didn’t know where to start.”                             

Terri’s primary market was wholesalers who sold to retail florists. The last time she talked with one of her wholesalers, he reported that nearly two-thirds of their florists were operating again. The remainder may be rebuilding from the ground up or may have decided not to rebuild at all.                         
Last year she had just began exploring a new market. Despite a three-and-a-half hour drive to Jackson, the new farmers’ market there seemed to be a promising outlet. After the hurricane she has realized the importance of broadening her market inland and plans to develop a presence at the farmers’ market to diversify her interests. Even after the hurricane, Terri considered trying to salvage some crops to sell further inland, but without electricity for the well pump or cooler, it was a lost cause. Generators to keep the flower farm going in the event of a power loss have certainly moved up the priority list.                            

Terri grows sunflowers, and novelty flowers that particularly interest florists.  She also takes advantage of a seasonal niche, growing gladiolus from late May through June. She explains, “From December to May, Florida provides most of the gladiolus, and starting in July, glads are shipped in from Michigan. Our weather is perfect for filling the gap between the major southern and northern production areas.” Specialty Cut Flowers uses only seasonal part-time help, but Terri has already seen the signs of a small labor pool. She says most of the service businesses and restaurants in town have “Help Wanted” signs posted. It’s not uncommon to see a fast food restaurant with only the drive-through open. “When workers can make $15 an hour holding a Slow/Stop sign, it’s hard for small businesses to compete,” she laments. Terri is considering high school students or stay-at-home moms as her alternative labor source.                                    

The biggest challenge since the storm has been to not get bogged down in the time required to do even simple tasks. She admits everyone was in some state of aimlessness for nearly two months. There was paperwork to be completed and since everyone had a mess, no one could figure out where to begin. In hindsight Terri can see, “The cleanup effort just ate up so much time that the necessary production tasks had to be put on the back burner. And now that we’re getting to some of those tasks, the delay has created more time-eating obstacles.”                                    

For example, the irrigation lines were left in the field because other cleanup tasks took precedence, but now that the fields must be cultivated, the irrigation lines—now tangled in weeds—must come out, no matter the time and effort it takes. It is some consolation that other industries are similarly “behind.” It’s not uncommon, even in late February, to get mail postmarked in September.                    

On the bright side, Terri has noticed a population boom in her area. Located an hour from New Orleans and a half hour from the coast, the Picayune area seems to be a popular relocation area. While small businesses may be experiencing a setback now, she predicts the long-term growth will ultimately benefit the local economy and strengthen the businesses that can survive through the reconstruction—and she plans to be one of them.