Deke and Molly Tietze
Deke and Molly Tietze weren’t exactly planning on starting a cut flower farm, but when the opportunity presented itself they didn’t want to turn it down. Though seven years later, they still have their “day jobs”, they continue to build their selection of woody cuts and look forward to “retiring” to a new career as flower farmers.
Deke and Molly are Iowa State University graduates, both with degrees in animal science. Their horticultural experience was gleaned largely from landscaping their own yard and Molly’s acquired knowledge from working at a garden center. Since they started growing cut flowers seven years ago, they’ve attended four or five ASCFG Conferences, absorbing information from other growers and locating resources. Having grown up on the West Coast, they returned to settle in Hillsboro, Oregon, after college. In 1979, they bought their 60-acre farm, leasing much of it out over the years for various agricultural uses.
From 1988 to 2006, Molly worked for a local garden center in various departments including the wholesale nursery. In 2000, the garden center was planning to dump approximately 1,000 3-gallon hydrangeas. Instead of trash, Molly saw potential. The Tietzes were already leasing 20 acres of irrigated land for nursery stock. They located the next-flattest area, tapped into the well, and established a new field for hydrangea production. The first year the hydrangeas were in the ground, they had no shade and in Molly’s words, “they fried.” They now have a shade system in place and while the weather can be a concern, they don’t consider it a tremendous threat. They expect wet winters with frost as a possibility, but unlikely.
The 2002 season brought in the first income from the hydrangeas. Of the initial planting, most of the hydrangeas were various macros, a few were Pee Gees, and some were lace caps that were eventually rogued out. They’ve added ‘Limelight’, ‘Annabelle’ and others that have desirable cut characteristics.
In addition to hydrangeas, the Tietzes have established production of Buddleia, Ilex verticillata, red twig, pussy willow, lilac, caryopteris, lavender, vitex, callicarpa, bittersweet and symphoricarpus. They often add plant material based on what they can find in surplus at the nursery that would make a suitable cut flower and can be bought at a reasonable price. It’s important to note that it requires a substantial investment to buy established plants, even rooted liners, compared to buying seeds. Granted, the smaller plant they buy, the less expensive it is, but also the longer it takes for it to mature to a harvest stage. While they generally rely on the hardiness zone assigned to a plant to assess its climate suitability, they test “borderline” plants in their yard before investing in enough for production. Even with seven acres currently in production and 15 acres to be transitioned from nursery stock to cut flowers in the next 5 to 10 years, having enough product for wholesale has been a challenge.
The Tietzes transport their product to the wholesale markets in Portland and Salem. Molly recalls that just getting a foot in the door at the wholesale market was a major challenge. Though it took two years, they’ve now developed a relationship with the buyer and hope the experience will help them break into new markets. They recognize the need to find another market to minimize the risk of having unsold product on hand.
Retail markets, such as farmers’ markets, don’t seem to hold much promise. In Molly’s experience, it is difficult for single stems or even woody bunches to compete with the mixed bouquets most often found at the market. Molly reflects, “Woodies are just now coming into their own. We’ve got to keep pushing them and familiarizing the wholesalers with these unique products.”
Another market-related challenge is determining the value of their products. With woodies making up only a small part of the market, there are few comparisons of similar product. Bunches often consist of 5 stems, but there is some variability. This past year was the first harvest of lavender. The slender stems were bunched by the “handful,” and sold fresh.
Even with the relatively limited availability of woody stems in the marketplace, the Tietzes realize that they are competing with larger businesses who can supply larger numbers, and growers from surrounding states who can supply product year-round. Their goal as they continue to build the business is to harvest and sell fresh product year round.
They currently have a 12’ x 12’ cooler, but are already considering the need for another. Their goal is to harvest everything at the optimum time, but they are sometimes limited by cooler space. Harvest from 7 acres may seem like a daunting task, but the Tietzes manage it by using two Mule-type all-terrain vehicles hauling buckets in the beds. If they must harvest during the hottest part of the day, they immediately take the plants to the cooler, returning to sort and bunch them later in the day.
With full-time jobs and growing acreage, it may come as a surprise that Deke and Molly have only one seasonal employee. “Seasonal,” may be a bit of a stretch, though, he works elsewhere making wreaths in November and December then works at a blueberry farm in May and June. He works at Glenwood Farms on an “as needed” basis the rest of the year. Their grown children are occasionally recruited to help with field work having pitched in as teens when they needed money for one thing or another.
Just last year Molly left her job at the garden center for a three-quarter-time job at a credit union. The new schedule gives her mornings off and eliminates the time crunch of the 10-week shipping window at the nursery that often called for 60-hour weeks. With the more regular schedule, she can better manage the cut flower farm and spend some time propagating young plants in her hobby greenhouse. It may be a few more years to retirement, but the Tietzes are ahead of the game with established plants, a secure market and room to grow. These flower farmers are well on their way to a successful and fulfilling second career.