The fireworks begin today. Each diploma is a lighted match. Each one of you is a fuse.
~Edward Koch

Graduation Flowers

Last year I had the pleasure of providing bouquets for the Rhode Island School of Design to use as a fundraiser at graduation. They had done this for a few years, but they had never used local flowers before. It worked out really well for me to sell scores of bouquets at the beginning of the season, and they seemed really happy with my flowers. However, when I called back in January or so to confirm a reorder for this year, I was told under the new president a lot had changed and they weren’t going to sell flowers at all. Disappointed? I’ll say. After a mull of a week or so, I called back and asked “What if I sell them, and donate part of the profits back to the School?” A written proposal and two committee meetings later, the answer was yes.
Once I got in the mood for this idea, I realized the other big private college was Brown University, and why not? Their graduation is a week earlier than RISD, and I figured at worst case I’d get some of the kinks worked out. I didn’t have an established connection as I did at RISD, and after 2 months of trying to get through, my alum friends suggested I sell on the street just like the rose-and-baby’s-breath crowd. I asked a few recent graduates for tips on location for best sales. I got my Peddler’s License (insert joke here). We made a wild stab at how many bouquets to make and drove off at 6:00 a.m. to secure a spot.
The police on detail are your best friends in these situations. I immediately asked them how I could stay out of trouble, and what the protocol was. They also advised me on where to find a parking spot. Sure enough, a van with hundreds of rose bunches rolled out shortly after I had unloaded and parked a few blocks away. Everyone was friendly enough, but one woman I spoke to who sells at dozens of events told me it is pretty cutthroat in general. I think I was just too weird for them to really worry about!
I had small, medium and large bouquets, and retailed at fifteen, twenty-five and forty dollars. The medium-sized sold best, but the large ones were what made people stop. I think the psychology was, “Ooh, that’s beautiful! Forty dollars! Well, I don’t want to seem too cheap, so I’ll take the medium size”. Or something like that….
The Brown event went pretty well. I was set up under a tree, and my helper walked into the quad a bit with a bucket of bouquets and sold some that way. My sandwich board signs said “LOCAL FLOWERS – GROWN IN RI” and that did draw quite a few people. I’ll do it next year, and bring a wagon like the rose vendors, so we can traipse through the crowds.
The RISD event was quite different. We set up early but the school provided two stands, like big steps, one on the street leading to graduation (no other vendors were allowed in that street) and the other right next to the concession stand inside the event. We started out on the street but since folks were rushing to get seats and then had little to do but mill around, the stand inside the event was the big seller. We did 80% more sales at the RISD event. Of course, a design school is probably much more likely to spring for flowers anyway, so that may be a factor.
Although many of the people are from “away”, I was able to promote my farmers’ markets to the few faculty or local parents that happened by. The fact that I had actually grown the flowers pretty much blew people’s minds. Of course, ranunculus and poppy anemones pretty much blow people’s minds anyway! I did buy in some filler and some peonies for the first graduation, but by May 30 I was all set with my own crops.
So, for members in the Northeast Region, where we are rich in local colleges and universities, I can really recommend this as an early-season income source. In my particular case if was wonderful because most of my farmers’ markets don’t start until June. Some of you in other regions may be able to jump on this flower wagon as well. I will be working this fall on how to package more effectively, how to have enough help that is strategically placed, and how to improve signage.
Come to the Conference
Look, I know it’s a squeaky-tight year, but this year’s conference in Long Island, New York is going to be great. We have excellent advice from serious growers and other professionals on important crops like peonies, sunflowers, and bulbs. We have a workshop on organics from half of a serious, go-getter team of farmers up in the competitive Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts. And we have an all-new track on events with phenomenal Carol Caggiano, AIFD, PFCI, who not only knows the business inside and out, but is just great! The grower-designer perspective will be filled out by a number of excellent fellow members who are doing it already.
I plan to learn a lot at this conference. I also plan to make more money based on what I learn here, as I have done every other year I have come. Would you like to make more money? See you in Long Island!