Harvest Moon Flower Farm
For all the naysayers out there, Linda Chapman has a message: “You can make a living farming small acreage—you won’t get rich, but you can make a living.” Over the past 20 years Linda has built quite a diverse operation on just three acres. She started small (with $400 in startup costs and a half-acre plowed field) and is always looking to grow the business, not necessarily in size, but in product offerings. Linda currently grows more than 100 varieties of flowers, culinary herbs, and specialty greens and vegetables. Oh yeah, and she grows less common bedding plants and gallon perennials for spring sales.
Harvest Moon Flower Farm is located in Spencer, Indiana, about an hour south of Indianapolis. Linda ventures into the city for two farmers’ markets during the usual 26-week season, but has found the Bloomington area offers more demand for locally grown greens and herbs than she can supply. She attends three farmers’ markets each week with mostly mixed bouquets, she delivers flower arrangements, herbs and greens to nine area restaurants and businesses, and she provides complete floral services (minus delivery) for 20-30 weddings each year. And she makes holiday wreaths—dried and fresh—for craft shows and special orders.
But it’s the farmers’ market presence that started it all and continues to be the key ingredient to Linda’s minimal marketing strategy. She does hardly any advertising, though she did purchase an ad in a local wedding guide this year. Additionally five years ago she hired someone to design a website for the farm. It was designed in a way that allows Linda to update and maintain the site as she sees fit (or has time to). Ideally she tries to update the site once every season. The return on the investment of the website was a significant boost in wedding business. Wedding business is otherwise generated by word of mouth, and customers familiar with her flower quality and design ability through the farmers’ markets.
The Bloomington Farmers’ Market averages 4,000 to 6,000 visitors on Saturdays making visibility alone an effective means of marketing the business. They bring five replicates of each bouquet they have available for that week. While most folks buy one bouquet, there have been occasions where individuals bought all five to create one large arrangement. At $7-$15 per bouquet, Linda’s prices are a couple dollars higher than other local growers. She attributes her premium price to a quality product and fully credits the ASCFG for helping her achieve that quality. She reports, in her experience with other area growers, “Being an ASCFG member really puts you ahead, and it’s the best kept secret in the industry.”
Since Linda’s formal education earned her a degree in speech and hearing with a minor in elementary education, she’s learned to farm largely by trial and error, with knowledge acquired through publications and conferences filling in the gaps. Though she never used her speech and hearing degree, she did homeschool her children about the same time she was getting into the flower business. She integrated the homeschool curriculum and farming lifestyle; not just Monday through Friday, but every day was for learning.
Though not certified organic, Linda knows no other way to farm and is confident that her customers and her community recognize that she operates a sustainable farm. When her children were younger they were the designated mulchers, applying 200 straw bales 6-10 inches thick depending on the crop. She knows that the straw has been an excellent source of organic matter that has built the soil composition over the years. Though there are plans to install drip irrigation next year, the use of mulch helped curb her irrigation needs for many years. The past two dry summers have required the use of sprinklers, and the inefficient use of water and the time required to move the sprinklers were enough to justify the move to drip irrigation.
Situated in USDA Zone 6, Linda is able to grow year-round with the help of four hoophouses (14’ x 40’) and a solar greenhouse. Two hoophouses are minimally heated, not to fall below 38F. The other two are not heated, requiring Linda to cover the crops with remay when temperatures fall below freezing. Her winter crops include specialty greens, multi-colored root vegetables, and lots of herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano. In February the tulips and lilies are started in crates along with anemone, ranunculus and calendula, among others, in the soil.
In the summer, lisianthus, cockscomb, specialty peppers and statice are provided the shelter of the hoophouses. Linda was especially pleased with the quality improvement of the statice compared to growing it in the field.
Her design approach is to use an attention-grabbing center flower surrounded by “side flowers.” Center flowers include lilies, lisianthus, sunflowers, and dahlias. The side flowers and fillers then make up the remainder of the flower production. She has also planted “little patches” of woody ornamentals for cuts around the property. Winterberry, American cranberry, weigela, callicarpa and hydrangea are just a few. She planted pussy willow along one of the property borders and has been please to see that the pussy willow attracts the Japanese beetles, leaving her dahlias beetle-free, and despite decimated willow leaves, the catkins produced are just fine. In fact, Linda has made pussy willow branches a two-season crop. She harvests them in mid-March, selling bunches at the winter farmers’ market until sales drop off as folks start looking for color. She stashes her leftover bunches in the loft of the barn until fall when folks are again looking for that nature-inspired look.
Fall is also the time for wreath making. Linda takes pre-orders at the farmers’ market to be picked up the first week of December. All wreaths are custom made, though she ‘corrals’ peoples’ choices into five named design concepts that match various decors: “Rustic and Wild”, “Traditional”, “Holy Night”, “Sunny” and “Festive”.
While Linda maintains her role as the farmer, she has some assistance with the farm chores. Two women, who’ve worked with her for 10 years, help harvest on Tuesday and Friday and help arrange bouquets weekly. She estimates they average 12-15 hours a week. A 14-year-old neighbor, who’s been helping out for 5 years now, does an excellent job cleaning and filling buckets and has recently become Linda’s assistant in filling restaurant orders. Her son lives locally and helps primarily in the spring and her daughter, who is out of state in college, lends a helping hand when she’s home for a visit. Linda’s partner Deryl is a builder by trade, but spends his Saturdays manning a flower booth at the market. Linda asserts, “I couldn’t have done it all without him.” Obviously his building expertise has come in handy on more than one occasion. She explains “Not only does he have the skills for general construction, he has a great talent for blending aesthetics with functionality.”
The solar greenhouse, their latest project, is one example of Deryl’s handiwork and aesthetic eye. The greenhouse is the nucleus of the farm considering everything starts there. Linda’s old solar greenhouse is currently being replaced with a new, highly efficient 16’ x 24’ structure. The greenhouse was built on a slab on the southern side of the barn with sidewalls made of “Styrofoam” and filled with a cement core. With a double wall polycarbonate glazing, Linda anticipates needing no more than a small room space heater, even on the coldest, cloudiest day. Though the construction costs have been quite an investment, she figures the operating costs will be minimal and the profit margin will be high.
When Linda started growing microgreens for restaurants, the profit margin of the business really increased. That said, flowers are still the bread and butter of the business with profit from the greens paying for ongoing farm development, such as the new greenhouse.
At the front of the new greenhouse, they built a cement planting bed that might one day serve as the start of an aquaculture venture. While Linda’s diverse interests shape the identity of her farm, she admits it can be a real challenge. She jokes, “It’s like one giant science experiment.” While her interests seem never ending, she concedes that there is a limited amount of time in each day to manage it all.
Yet there’s so much more to squeeze in. Linda has a dream of opening the farm to others as a model farm, offering weekend workshops to share her knowledge and experience, and becoming a destination for school groups to teach them about vermicomposting and crop production. Already they open the farm to the public every Sunday in May before things are in high production. They sell lots of bedding plants on those days to earn some payback for their time and effort to open the farm. But the real payback may be offering the community a broader insight into the success of this small, yet diverse flower farm.
Megan Bame is a freelance writer in Salisbury, North Carolina. Contact her at [email protected]