Quinton and Carolyn Tschetter
Quinton and Carolyn Tschetter started their business in 1993 in the basement of their home in Oskaloosa, Iowa. They started off as a dried flower business making arrangements, wreaths and swags from dried herbs and dried flowers. After having success in the first year, they decided to remodel the barn on the property and open a retail store, Tschetter’s Red Barn. In 1996, Quinton added antiques and furniture repair to the store’s floral offerings.
It wasn’t until 2001 that the Tschetters started selling fresh cut flowers. They found that the dried flower market was very much a niche market and the local demand became saturated rather quickly since the arrangements lasted so long. The move to fresh cuts seemed logical.
A “Fresh” Start
Today their markets include florists, farmers’ markets, walk-ins, and a business subscription service. It was 2003 when they started selling at the Des Moines Farmers’ Market. A newspaper reporter stopped by for a brief interview. That eventually led to a full page story about Tschetter’s Flowers on the front page of the agriculture section of the Des Moines Reegistr. Quinton and Carolyn agree, “That coverage put us on the map.” The Red Barn is located on Highway 92, a main east-west thoroughfare 60 miles south of Des Moines. Considering that an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 potential customers stroll through the Des Moines Farmers’ Market on a given Saturday, their spot there may well be considered a second retail location.
At the Des Moines Market and their local farmers’ market, the Tschetters primarily sell ready-made bouquets, though stems and custom bouquets are available. They market their flowers as a high-end product, charging $16 to $25 per bouquet. They include lilies, a premium flower, in almost every bouquet.
They are advocates of presentation and education. Their bouquets are displayed in vases, and stems are held in black florist buckets for a uniform appearance. When a customer selects a purchase, the bouquet is wrapped in green tissue, then placed in a floral sleeve. The green tissue has become a source of brand identification as customers recognize and search for the flowers wrapped in green tissue.
Every bouquet is sold in water, with a packet of floral food. They offer a “tips” sheet for postharvest care and communicate with their customers to ensure they understand the importance of the tips and how long their bouquet should last. Lately they have been working to educate their customers about buying lilies with more buds to enjoy the bouquet longer.
When the Tschetters started selling cut flowers, they decided not to offer arrangements for weddings and funerals so as not to compete with the local florists. Instead, they hoped to supply the local florists, just as they supply 20 other florists in the region. After a short time they found that the local florists weren’t buying their flowers. Since the florists offered very traditional design options and Quinton and Carolyn prided themselves on their less traditional design, they were encouraged to offer the community their arrangements for all occasions. A friend of theirs recently shared a comment overheard at a funeral when one lady whispered to another, “There’s Tschetter flowers and then there’s other flowers.”
The Tschetters provide flowers for 5 to 10 weddings a year. Some folks buy only the stems, others buy all the arrangements and bouquets, while some buy for the reception only. The Tschetters employ a wedding designer to best meet the often-specific vision of a bride. They’ve found that many of their wedding customers come from contacts made at the farmers’ market and referrals from previous customers.
The business subscription service might be considered part sells, part marketing. The Tschetters offer the deep discount price of $12 per bouquet for an arrangement that would be worth $25 in the Red Barn and worth $45 from a florist. The bouquets, including a “Tschetter’s Flowers” card, are delivered on each Monday, from May to October, to banks, doctors’ offices and restaurants. One dentist gets seven bouquets and displays one in each cubicle—a pleasantry for his patients, no doubt.
The key to the discounted price is their smart use of “leftover” flowers. The flowers that are brought back from the farmers’ markets are not good enough to sell as florist quality, but they certainly have a week’s worth of vase life, if not better, so they are used to create the subscription bouquets. It’s not unusual for customers to call or come in requesting a bouquet just like the one they saw at a local business. Sunflowers and lilies are constants in their bouquets, but they try to catch the customers’ eye with design flair and variety from week to week.
Extending the Season
On their 20-acre property, the Tschetters have five acres in cultivation including six hoophouses and two lily shade houses. They grow most lilies in the ground using a few crates. They also plant the hoophouses directly in the ground and use portable heaters as necessary. Not only are the hoophouses used to extend the season, they are used during the peak time to grow a variety of plants as a buffer crop in the event of crop failure in the field (probably the result of a bad weather). The quality of plants grown in the hoop houses is generally superior to the field-grown flowers.
They employ two full-time field workers during the growing season and 2 to 4 part-time workers. They typically use high school students who eventually move on to college. They’ve been fortunate to find quick learners despite the constant retraining. The Red Barn is closed from November to January, creating a true “off-season.”
They start most seeds under a grow light in the basement and move them to the “growing-on” hoophouse when ready. However, they do buy in “fickle” plugs that have proven difficult to grow, including delphinium, lisianthus and dianthus. Carolyn estimates that they grow more than 50 varieties, not counting the numerous lily varieties. She asserts, “We’re not afraid to experiment with something different. We buy tissue cultured delphinium and are expecting to get some tissue cultured statice this year.”
They grow several woodies including peony, curly willow, lilacs, viburnum, hydrangea (customers love ‘Limelight’), and eucalyptus, a common filler. In the field, they grow in raised beds and use drip irrigation 90% of the time. They apply a weak fertilizer solution constantly through the irrigation system. By volume, their biggest crops are sunflowers, lilies and peonies, while the most profitable crops are sunflowers, peonies and a variety of sorghum, grains and grasses.
At this point, the Tschetters are not looking to expand, rather they are looking for ways to restructure and become more efficient. Quinton cites bugs as his number one challenge. He’s still finding the balance between anticipating a problem without overreacting. He’s found pest management isn’t an easy task, considering the environmental pressures that create different bug problems from year to year.
The ASCFG is Essential
Quinton and Carolyn both grew up on a farm, but neither have any formal education in horticulture. They say they owe it all to the ASCFG. In their early years of ASCFG membership, they weren’t able to make it to the Growers’ School offered through the conference due to scheduling conflicts with Carolyn’s job. By the time she retired in 2004, they didn’t feel like they would benefit as much from the Growers’ School as they would have early on.
Quinton says, “Postharvest handling was the biggest thing we’ve learned from the ASCFG. That, and talking to or being connected with other growers.” In their five years of ASCFG membership, they’ve attended almost all of the Regional Meetings and National Con-ferences and traveled to Holland in 2005 with the Association. Carolyn reports that she refers to the book Specialty Cut Flowers “all the time” and she’s looking forward to Lane Greer’s upcoming book on woody cuts.
While the flower business is almost a full-time venture, Quinton reflects that it’s also a hobby; an enjoyable pastime that even generates a pretty good return.
Quinton and Carolyn Tschetter