Josie Crowson, Josie's Fresh Flowers, Nacogdoches, Texas

It’s not uncommon to talk with a cut flower grower who’s enjoying a second career. Their stories often begin with a green thumb and a love of gardening that, given the time and space, blooms into a business. It’s pretty unusual to find someone who considered herself a “brown thumb” in a previous life, but who has found new pleasure and business success in the flower field. Josie Crowson is one of those rarities.

Josie’s original career path followed her PhD in economics. She lived in Northern Virginia, and worked in an office for Freddie Mac dealing with interest rate risk management. She wasn’t a gardener, discouraged by her “talent” for killing the most foolproof potted plants. In 1997, Josie and her significant other, George, moved to Texas to get away from the snow and be closer to family. They first thought they would settle in Austin, but wisely, George thought the landscape was too dry. They headed east of Austin and bought a farm in the town of Nacogdoches, where the land seemed more lush, even resembling the landscapes of Northern Virginia.

Despite the brown thumb, Josie now had land for farming and time to devote to it. Rather than dive in head first and risk more traumatic experiences with plant death, she sought to educate herself. Nacogdoches is home to Stephen F. Austin State University, which happens to include a horticulture program. Josie didn’t need a degree, but she needed an avenue to learn, so she audited a class about landscape plants. She then began volunteering in the horticulture department to learn more and eventually got involved with a technician who was working on research for a cut flower grant.

She tagged along to the ASCFG’s 2002 Regional Meeting in Louisiana and talked to several growers. There seemed to be a recurring theme among the growers she talked with about the prospects of starting a cut flower business. The mantra was, “I’m not making a lot of money, but I love what I’m doing.” And with the knowledge she had gained and realistic expectations, she grew a small plot of “test flowers” and gave them away to local nursing homes while she proved to herself it must have just been some dirt covering up her green thumb.

In 2003 she grew a quarter-acre of flowers and sold them to florists. It was 2007 before a real farmers’ market was established in the town. The market is open on Saturdays year-round and has garnered enthusiastic support from the town of 30,000 folks who have pledged their support of local businesses. There are two cut flower vendors at the market including Josie.

From florists to farmers’ market and beyond, her business has evolved from a single market to a diversified market. She continues midweek deliveries to florists, primarily in the larger town of Tyler. Josie doesn’t fancy herself much of an arranger. She doesn’t do weddings, but will design simple bouquets by request, usually for a shower, birthday, or special occasion.

As Josie described in her first South-Central Regional Report in the Winter issue of the Quarterly, bucket subscriptions are one of her favorite marketing outlets. Customers pay up-front for a certain number of weeks to receive a bucket of fresh flowers. Josie offers a price incentive with a lower per-week-cost for up to 10 weeks (Four weeks cost $26 per week, while ten weeks cost $21 per week). The bucket subscription program has been the focus of her advertising this year as well. She included a flyer in the Chamber of Commerce mailing for a cost of $100 and got $300 in orders for vase subscriptions the next day. She also placed a rather pricey advertisement in the local, glossy publication, Charm. She’s hopeful it will hit her target audience, since it seems that “every woman in this town and the next town read that magazine.” In retrospect, though, it was a gentleman who placed the subscription orders resulting from the Chamber flyer, as gifts for his Valentines.

Florist deliveries are made on Wednesdays, subscriptions are delivered on Fridays and Josie attends the farmers’ market on Saturday, but there are two more, rather unique weekly sales avenue Josie’s found. She provides the flowers for the dining room at the local hotel/convention center on a weekly basis and on Mondays, she drops off several bunches to a local beauty shop, priced and ready to sale. It beautifies the salon and provides Josie with some additional retail space.

As a post-retirement job, Josie doesn’t want the business to grow to the point that she becomes more of a manager than a “do-er.” While George helps with tilling and construction (he built her greenhouse, cooler, and has become an expert at moving the deer fence to expand Josie’s field plot), he’s more interested in fixing and flying his airplane than planting or harvesting flowers. For field help, Josie has an ample supply of college students eager to learn and work outdoors. She expects to hire two or three part-time workers for the summer.

She has a small greenhouse (12 ft. x 24 ft.) that is used for starting plugs and growing lilies. Josie is up to one acre of field production. She has no plans for growth beyond that space, but is tweaking production within the acre. For example, last year they erected a shade structure to create a space more appropriate for growing hydrangeas and other shade perennials. She also has perennials such as echinacea, baptisia, rudbeckia, asclepias, grasses, phlox and achillea in the field. She’s purchased many of the perennials from the plant sales at the University arboretum. Her primary annuals include lilies, delphinium, snapdragons, sweet williams, lisianthus, sunflowers and zinnias.

Josie finds that aside from not having a horticultural background, the greatest challenge in growing is to plan so that she can match supply and demand through the season. She’s advertised that the bucket subscriptions will be available the first of April, but is worried that, depending on the number of subscribers, the flowers may be stretched too thin. On the seasonal flip-side, demand continues after production peaks and fizzles in August, so she’s started experimenting with which flowers dry well. Since the market continues into the holidays, she’s toying with the idea of buying a wreath maker and developing another market avenue.

Learning the basics about soils, seed germination, pest control, irrigation, harvest techniques, and postharvest care is quite a task, much less pulling it all together to build a successful business utilizing unique marketing approaches for a specialty product. From office-bound economist to fresh flower farmer, Josie’s green thumb know-how has been put on prominent display for the folks of Nacogdoches to enjoy.

Megan Bame

Megan Bame is a freelance writer in Salisbury, North Carolina. Contact her at [email protected]