Maureen Charde, High Meadow Flower Farm,
and Mark & Sandy Kurtz, Grammy’s Garden
Warwick, New York
Twelve years ago, longtime friends and neighbors, Maureen Charde and Mark and Sandy Kurtz, decided to grow and sell cut flowers as a second career. Together they purchased a piece of land, partially wooded with some open fields. As they waited for approval from the planning board to develop their land, they began cultivating a seven-acre field next to Sandy’s mother’s home, and “Grammy’s Garden” was born. Mark recalls, “That first year, we did a lot of hoeing and not a lot of selling flowers.” After three years of primarily annuals production, Maureen was anxious to begin planting woody ornamentals on the new property. Family commitments kept Mark and Sandy from immediately joining her and after a couple years of diverging interests, the friends decided to divide the property and embark on independent businesses.
Though they are competitors at their hometown Warwick Valley Farmer’s Market, they buy and sell from one another (and preferably other members of ASCFG) when the need arises, and share large equipment, actually making joint purchases.
The Kurtzes cultivate 12 acres and utilize two double-walled poly greenhouses. Mark attempted to heat the greenhouses through the winter one year, but he recalls, “it was very difficult keeping up with the wood stove.” They generally start spring transplants in the greenhouse in January. Their bread and butter crops are sunflowers, zinnia, ornamental peppers and celosias. Beyond that they strive to grow a variety of flowers with unique characteristics. They seek out native plants that offer an unusual look for their custom bouquets and arrangements.
High Meadow consists of 3.5 acres in production with potential to add two more acres if needed. The bulk of her woody ornamentals are PeeGee Hydrangea, winterberry holly and peonies. She also grows lilies in crates, planting every two weeks for a constant supply of fresh stems. Her two small greenhouses are used for starting plugs and growing potted herbs and heirloom tomato transplants to sell in the early market season when few cuts are ready. Annuals include lisianthus, zinnia, snapdragons, dianthus, celosia, ageratum, basils, gomphrena, safflower, grasses and one or two new varieties each year that offer customers “something different.” Maureen is especially excited about her latest farm investment: a barn with a cooler and workspace. The family garage had been the previous holding and assembly area each season.
Both praise the ASCFG for the education and advice they have gleaned since joining in 1992. They’ve learned the importance of bringing information from the Conference back to the farm to assess its application to their fields and practices. Considering much of their land is on a mountainside with “lots of rocks,” many suggestions from other parts of the nation may not be feasible. Mark reflects, “Every year we learn something different about growing and sometimes we fail, but we’ve seen time and again that persistence is often rewarded with success.”
Both businesses are vendors in area farmers’ markets. Maureen sells at three farmers’ markets, staying focused on what she can do to best serve her market customers, whether it’s flower quality or friendly advice. She employs four people who work four days a week—three days preparing for the Thursday, Saturday and Sunday Markets, and one day cleaning up and picking flowers for drying. Dried bouquets extend the season into fall and offer a floral product at the markets.
Though Maureen loves growing a variety of flowers and attending the markets, she recognizes the importance of exploring alternative markets as well. Just last year, they sold woody stems wholesale in New York City. “It was an eye-opening experience,” says Maureen, who could recognize the appeal of one large harvest and a single business transaction. Wholesale of woodies may be in High Meadow’s future, but for now, the farmers’ markets will continue to command the most attention.
Farmers’ markets account for only 40 to 50% of sales for Grammy’s Garden. Weddings and special events account for another 40% and direct wholesale rounds out their market diversity. They provide the floral decorations for 15 to 20 weddings per year, traveling to destination as far as 100 miles away. They’ve found that weddings are more profitable per hour of preparation, but they can also induce a greater level of stress. Sandy works with the bride, or bridal couple, to determine what they envision and describe how her designs can enhance their occasion. The wedding day is particularly rewarding as generous compliments find their way to the farm as a culmination of their creative efforts.
Both have found that price and product may actually take a back seat to personality at the markets. Sandy explains, “It’s important to greet people, be enthusiastic and remember their name. The market is more of a social event than an economic event.” Grammy’s Garden sells mostly bouquets with some single stem items. Their primary marketing strategy is to encourage customers to “move up” to a larger bunch by offering an add-on of a small bouquet at half price. They have also explored a marketing opportunity in conjunction with local bookstores and restaurants by supplying a discount coupon for flowers with the purchase of a book or meal. Mark recalls, “We dropped the ball on that one, but maybe we’ll look into it again. The potential was there.”
Maureen has found that her presence at the market is best for her. She builds relationships with customers who are sometimes waiting for her arrival before the market opens. She usually takes 50 small and 30 large pre-made mixed bouquets and has plant material on hand for made-to-order requests. Seasonally, she sells peonies, lilies, sunflowers and hydrangea by the stem. Part of her marketing strategy has been to provide information leaflets for commonly asked questions, such as how to dry hydrangeas or simply how to care for cut flowers. Printed with her logo, the leaflets not only promote the cut flower industry but also give customers a link to her business. Obviously display is important at the market and Maureen’s philosophy is to provide an open, accessible booth with clear signage that invites potential customers to “come in and look around.”
Both also have well-designed websites worth checking out. Grammy’s Garden (www.grammysgardenflowers.com) features three event markets they’ve tapped: wedding, holiday and corporate. The content is 90% photos with a gallery that shows off their flower quality and their design ability. High Meadow (www.hmff.com) provides information about market locations and hours and flower availability. It also gives visitors a look at the farm through the seasons, which might be an important link for customers who only see the cut stems in buckets at the market.
Grammy’s Garden is a family business with involvement not only from their children, but also part-time help from nieces and nephews. Mark and Sandy’s daughter and son-in-law work at the farmers’ markets and their son is their irrigation specialist.
Luke, Maureen’s husband, works outside the farm, but assists in the early morning and on weekends by loading the market goods and doing most of the fieldwork that requires using the tractor. Her two children have moved out of the area and though they aren’t currently pursuing careers that would bring them back to the farm, they look forward to assisting in the preparations for her daughter’s wedding at the farm this coming June—that’s right, June.
Though competitors can certainly be friends, the unusual dynamic between the Kurtzes and the Chardes is due to the fact that they are not direct competitors despite growing similar crops on neighboring acreage and serving the same market. The strong farmers’ market presence in the area allows them to attend different markets and build independent customer bases. The Kurtzes’ interest in special events and the Chardes’ interest in woody cuts further differentiates their businesses so that these neighbors and former business partners can focus on being friends with a common business interest rather than competitors.