It’s been a challenging growing year here in Mount Vernon, and not for the reasons one would expect. I generally keep mum on weather complaints in mixed ASCFG company because Pacific Northwest weather is blessedly free of hurricanes, tornadoes, extreme heat and softball-sized hail. There’s not much drama in slow atrophy from lack of heat and sun, watching the peonies rot in June, the basil stunt (in the hoophouse!) in July, or reading the words “persistent saggy trough” in the NOAA weather forecast discussion for late August. There’s not much “Eureka!” in it, more like watching a slug cross the road.
There, I did it: a full-on complaint.
Okay, the weather has presented its challenges, mostly that everyone wants orange dahlias to make up for the lack of sun and we can’t possibly supply the demand. That has truly been our challenge for 2010.
Over the past three years our reputation for having fresh and beautiful flowers, foliage, pods, etc. has spread through the Seattle area. Over and over we hear from our florist customers that it is very difficult to obtain quality and interesting local product. To prove their point, they will drive across town to meet our delivery truck or shop from our farmers’ market booth, maybe just to buy $50 worth of items to set their work apart; usually to buy a whole lot more. Some speak wistfully about the materials that Portland, San Francisco and L.A. designers have to work with. A few other small local farms besides ours supply Seattle with quality local product, but there is not a large volume, no organized distribution system and only scattered awareness among potential customers.
I have puzzled about this vacuum of supply for a while. Seattle is known for being progressive, environmentally aware and artsy. Across the board “sustainability” and “buy local” are big movements here. The city is full of florists, event planners and grocery stores. Certainly the demand exists. Among the two major wholesale flower outlets and a few smaller ones as well, none have seen fit to partner with and support local growers. Instead, Seattle’s wholesalers continue with a forty-year habit of buying almost exclusively from the world’s second largest flower auction in Vancouver, B.C. In a way it makes sense for them. Two hours’ drive, a one-stop shop, and duty free to boot.
Nothing wrong with that, except that variety and local supply are not made available to their customers who are hungry for it. And in 2010, it seems a little ridiculous for a major U.S. city to be served almost exclusively by imported product, especially cut flowers, whose freshness is the ultimate currency.
During this June’s Northwest Regional Meeting at Charles Little & Company in Eugene, a number of Washington and Oregon growers gathered for an informal roundtable discussion. Among growers who’ve been at it a while, the term “cracking Seattle” came up, as in the sales potential exists, but not a distribution system. Many of the Oregon growers sell at Portland’s wholesale flower market, which is a growers’ cooperative. Seattle just doesn’t have anything like that. Yet.
It became apparent at the meeting discussion that if some of Oregon’s medium-sized growers – who produce enough product to supply a market – could team up with Washington’s growers and invite Idaho and Alaska to join us, we could “crack Seattle” in a big way. After the meeting, we all diverged to our farms, many of us to the busiest part of our growing year. And I just couldn’t stop thinking about the potential of these ideas.
In followup conversations with some of the growers who were present at the meeting, it was discussed that it would be wonderful to have a low overhead setup so we can start selling next spring, some type of wholesale farmers’ market. Ideally we can segue from this platform to a more permanent warehouse type setting for 2012. Perhaps we can take advantage of the internet to collectively market our products. We want to be a quality professional wholesale outlet, selling top-notch local product, from a variety of ASCFG producers. Ideally we can do this and still maintain individual farm identities so customers can put a face to the flowers they are buying.
When Dennis and I run these ideas by our Seattle florist customers, they literally jump up and down with excitement. I see unplowed ground and a lot of potential. We would personally benefit by helping to grow a vibrant local industry and helping our customers get more of what they want, when they want it. Saving time is so important in this business, especially for small and medium growers.
Speaking personally, I would love to spend more time on the farm growing, less time at the computer or on the road selling product. The potential is huge and the winter months loom ripe for the planning.
We have some help available from the Washington State University Agriculture program through a WSDA grant, but we still need to do the majority of the work ourselves and that will take commitment. By starting small and testing the waters without the heavy burden of a building lease, I believe we have a good chance of creating a solid and lasting enterprise. If you are interested in being part of this exciting project, please contact me.
Finally, a resounding thank you to Bethany and Charles Little, who so generously opened their hearts, farm and home to our 2010 Northwest Regional Meeting. And we were so lucky to have Debra Prinzing and David Perry present. We very much appreciate their incredible gift of documenting our event. And a thank you to those of you who took time out of your busy lives to attend our meeting and make it the vibrant event that it was.