I am honored to be the new Director for the South-Central Region. It’s a little daunting to be following Vicki Stamback in this job, but I’ll do my best. Our first order of business is to make plans for our Regional Meeting. I’d like to have that meeting in Nacogdoches (“the oldest town in Texas”), perhaps in late May or early June. We can tour my farm (that won’t take long), the Stephen F. Austin State University Arboretum and tap some great speakers from their horticulture department. But you are allowed to come only if you can pronounce “Nacogdoches” (You can call me if you need help meeting this requirement.) I’ll soon be contacting South-Central members for feedback and suggestions about the meeting.

Buckle up—we may be in for a bumpy ride over the next year or two. I’m writing this just after the Thanksgiving holiday, when each day brings worse economic news. I’m hoping that by the time you receive this, things will be looking up—but frankly, I don’t think that’s likely. So how can a flower grower cope with tough economic times?

First, I think we have to do a great job promoting our products and ourselves. At the 2007 National Conference, Joe Caputi and Charlotte Morford gave a presentation entitled “Developing Your Farm’s Image.” Build a strong image, they advised: hire a professional designer to develop your logo, something that really communicates who you are and that makes a strong, memorable impression. Put it everywhere—buckets, signs, business cards—and get a website. I took this advice to heart. A local graphic artist helped with my logo and business card, and then I hired another professional, Joe Caputi, to design my website (www.josiesfreshflowers.com). These were some of the best business decisions I have made.

Soon after my website became operational, I got a call from the editor of a new local women’s magazine. She was searching for story ideas for their first issue and came across my website. That led to a story on me and my flower farm being published in that inaugural issue. The magazine was distributed free to beauty shops, restaurants, bookstores, banks, etc. all over East Texas, and people did read it. The publicity yielded new customers and new contacts, plus I came to be known as “The Flower Lady of Nacogdoches”. At first, that just made me laugh. But then I realized that moniker is a pretty good marketing tool in itself.

This experience was a revelation to me. I’m a pretty reserved person, so self-promotion didn’t come naturally. But I found out it can pay off, and now I am obsessed with thinking up new, creative ways to promote my business. Of course, some of this takes money, which is hard to part with in tough economic times. For 2009, I’m planning to advertise in the magazine that carried my story. Now that I see what a wide distribution it has, and how well it’s read, this seems like a good use of advertising dollars. Also, as a member of the local Chamber of Commerce, I can put a flyer in a monthly Chamber mailing to 2000 or more businesses for a moderate price. Maybe these efforts won’t yield the results I want, but they are marketing opportunities that seem worth a try. I also welcome opportunities to give presentations and tours to local garden clubs and Master Gardener groups. I’ve found that these efforts have yielded many new customers.

A second way to deal with a trying economy is to find new outlets for your flowers. If you can’t sell your entire product at the farmers’ market or to florists, try some other avenues. One that worked for Karen Hanley of Stork Road Farm in New York State (and that I copied) is the bucket subscription. Karen has successfully sold bucket subscriptions for the past 8 years, and 70 percent of her customers return. Customers get a bucket of flowers weekly for a set number of weeks during the season. They can choose the subscription length that they want—4, 6, or 8 weeks, for example—and you can make adjustments for weeks they will be on vacation. The advantages are that you get cash up front, like a CSA, and you decide what goes in the bucket. After getting some wonderful advice from Karen, I tried bucket subscriptions this past year, and they were a great success. I delivered flowers to the customer’s home each Friday (workable in a small town) or they could pick up their flowers at the Saturday farmers’ market. I’m hoping to expand this service in 2009. Beyond its direct advantages, the subscriptions generate loyal customers who order flowers for birthdays, parties and other special events. I followed Karen’s lead in advertising this service on my website and creating a brochure that I hand out at the farmers’ market and elsewhere. But like Karen’s, most of my new customers come by word-of-mouth. To tap those potential customers who complain that they can’t arrange flowers, I’m planning to team up with a local event florist to give some flower-arranging workshops at my farm.

You can also get some good publicity (plus some cash) by providing flowers to local restaurants. The restaurants to which I sell allow me to keep my business cards at the front desk, and diners do ask about the flowers and take the cards. The new owner at the historic downtown hotel & convention center is a great supporter who loves the idea of buying local produce and flowers. During the growing season, she buys flowers weekly for all the dining tables.

But do be careful what you try. Two years ago I started making Mason jar arrangements for the farmers’ market, thinking this would be a great way to use shorter flowers. Just a simple arrangement in a pint jar, but people loved them—and they loved the $5 price. I also offered a $.50 discount on their next purchase if the customer returned their jar. The demand for these jars just exploded—that was the good news. The bad news was that it took all Friday afternoon to make these little arrangements. They are cute, just not very profitable.

These are just some ideas that I have tried or plan to try. Although they may not be appropriate for your particular business, I’m hoping this discussion will encourage you to think about new ways to promote your business and distribute your flowers. To remain successful in difficult economic times may require that we growers be especially creative.