It’s a good thing Dennis is not a jealous man because I’ve got the fast eye for just about every flower on this planet. From observation, that makes me a fairly normal flower farmer. Dennis is almost as bad as me, anyway. On our website we say we grow 150 varieties, but that’s because neither one of us has the guts to do an actual count. It goes something like this: “Look at this beauty, can we grow it in our area? Little scissors symbol in the catalog? What’s the vase life? Let’s grow it and find out!” And in to the seed order it goes.

About one in ten of these floral puppies turns out to be a real winner. That’s great except the recession keeps reminding us that we’re running a business, not a research station, and in order to survive we need to meld some common sense into our passion. We need to at least know which ones are profitable.

This past winter I devoured Richard Wiswall’s fabulous book, The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook, A Complete Guide to Managing Finances, Crops and Staff—and Making a Profit. He focuses on organic vegetable production, but the overall ideas are universal to farming and easily translate to any flower growing operation. Basically, it’s about nickels and dimes. By minutely analyzing material and labor inputs for growing, harvesting and selling each crop and by using that information to make smart changes, a grower can choose to run a profitable operation, mother nature willing, of course.

Wiswall’s book inspired me and even though it took a couple of weeks, I analyzed cost per stem for our farm to grow and harvest 70 different flower crops including annuals, perennials and woodies. We learned some surprising things about our own business: ultimately that each farm, no matter the size or diversity of operation needs to do its own fact checking. Climates vary, conditions vary, growing methods vary, markets vary, and everything is always changing.

Case in point for us: zinnias. The sacred Z. We read and believed them to be a no-brainer profit maker, especially the Benary’s Giants. Last year we grew waist-high, gorgeous floriferous plants and the bunches looked stunning on our truck. But we grow fairly small quantities, do all of our seeding and transplanting by hand, and hydrating and then transfering to holding solution to preserve optimum vase life added precious labor time to harvesting cost. As well, our plants don’t produce nearly the number of stems they would in another area of the country and public interest in zinnias here in the Seattle area seems to be waning.

Beauty was blinding us to the facts: it cost $2.23 to produce a bunch we were selling for $3.50 wholesale to florists and stores. And that’s not counting overhead, sales and delivery costs. Selling 90-100 bunches a week, no way are zinnias profitable for our farm. Gulp. Nix the zinnias for 2010.

We learned what a lot of our experienced members already know, that labor costs are the most expensive part of running our farm. And no matter that we’re owner-operators, our labor needs to be counted, too. Seed costs are relatively insignificant, even expensive seed, if it helps reduce labor inputs. Last year we trialed eight kinds of cockscomb celosia as a summer crop in our hoophouse. One was ‘Bombay Purple’, terribly expensive seed it seemed, except that we got almost 100% germination, amazing uniformity of stems with almost no fasciation and the crop matured three weeks sooner than the others. At 6-8 cents per seed, this year we’ll be growing only the Bombays and shhh, don’t tell the breeders but I can show you how the plants would be profitable even paying 20 cents per seed. The money is justified in harvest time alone—how much faster it goes if you don’t have to hunt and pick the patch for uniform stems. Of course this example works for us because we’re in a climate where celosia can’t be successfully field grown and there’s high demand for local product so we can ask a decent price.

We’ve built our reputation on having high quality and interesting offerings, always changing through the growing season. That’s our passion. We want to keep it that way and we think it’s good business for us, a small-scale, diversified operation. Not every crop has to be optimally profitable to stay on the roster. But we sure are asking a few more questions of a new plant we’re considering growing. First off, who’s going to buy it? Does it have universal appeal among our customer base? What’s the season and how long is the harvest window? Can we sell it wholesale and retail? Does it have the bulk and 8-10 day vase life needed to go into our bouquets?

My winter work has shown that perennials and woody crops offer higher potential for profitability than most annuals on our farm, if we carefully choose the varieties. Again it mostly comes down to labor and it really can be something as simple as how many stems will it shoot in a season or how long does it take to strip the stems? We’ve learned to steer away from delicate stems with tiny flowers because our customers want to buy a substantial bunch of something, quite possibly an American syndrome.

Last year our most profitable perennial crops included Phlox paniculata varieties because they’re bulky, have fragrant, old-fashioned cottage garden appeal, grow well in our climate, shoot out many stems and have a second bloom cycle; Lysimachia clethroides because of sheer number of stems produced, ease of harvest and minimal amount of annual maintenance; and taller varieties of Sedum because of generous production of stems with minimal maintenance needs, universal appeal as bouquet structure, three-month harvest window and excellent keeping qualities.

Most grasses that agree with our climate have also proven themselves profitable, mainly because they don’t need heavy inputs, grow like weeds, and are quick to harvest and bunch. Annual varieties do great for us, but perennials such as Chasmanthium latifolium and Miscanthus bring more profit because clumps increase each year, and time to maintain a row of perennial grasses costs us significantly less than starting over from seed each year.

As for my greatest weakness, the woodies, we’re growing everything from roses to raspberry and chestnuts. Among them are both our most profitable and biggest sinkhole crops. The jury’s still out on many of them because woody crops can take many years to establish. Ask me about the witch hazel in about ten more years, the lilacs in five. But we have figured out a few things. We don’t know one farm that has filled its piggy bank from ‘Cameo’ quince. It looks great in catalogs, but in reality it flowers way down on the stems, goes into leaf as it flowers and has a five-day vase life. Those are not quality selling points.

Here are the tough questions we now put to woody crops: Will it grow well in our field? How many years until we can start harvesting? Who’s going to buy it and will they still want it in ten years? What’s the vase life?

And perhaps most important for profitability, how many stems per year per mature plant can we expect to harvest and how much time does it take to prep a stem? For example, rose hips have thorns and need leaves stripped so labor time harvesting is comparatively greater. Rose hips still make plenty of sense for us to grow though, because they meet a high demand in the market and we can charge a price that justifies the labor cost. Another plant group proving to be a winner is just about any named variety of Physocarpus opulifolius. Grown mainly as a foliage crop, the ninebarks have easily a six-month harvest window, excellent vase life, abundant production and universal appeal with customers, so far.

Long and short is we’re still just as distracted by beauty as we ever were, fall in love with every plant in the world, but we’ve learned to do the numbers. Ahh, the sweet fragrance of nickels and dimes!

Diane Szukovathy

Jello Mold Farm

Diane Szukovathy Jello Mold Farm Contact at [email protected]