Howard and Judy Lubbers, Ottawa Glad Growers, Holland, Michigan
In the summer of 1974, Howard Lubbers and his family moved into his childhood home on a 40-acre farm in west-central Michigan. Howard was a middle school teacher and had tried several small farm ventures, including raising beef cattle and angora goats, before trying cut flower production. He was looking for something that would fit into his summers off and lend itself to a second career in his retirement. He hadn’t really considered flowers, but the opportunity presented itself when he learned about a gladiolus business that was for sale after the owner’s death. In 1986, he bought the bulbs, equipment and an established florist route. Twenty-three years later, he’s still growing glads, along with the usual assortment of annuals and perennials and a wide variety of woody cuts.
The first year held quite a few lessons. For starters, the folks he bought the business from suggested demand was greater than what the previous owner could supply. So in addition to planting the bulbs that came with the business, Howard added more bulbs. Although the florists made regular purchases, the supply far exceeded demand and many glads met their fate in the compost pile. While field work provided a good summer job for his sons and their friends, it was hard to pay them to throw away perfectly good, excess flowers. He saw diversification as the answer and started adding annuals and other bulbs the florists commonly used.
Howard retired from teaching in 1996 and became a full-time flower farmer. In addition to himself, Howard has two full-time employees, including his son Jon, and four part-time employees (2 drivers and 2 field workers). His wife, Judy, is a part-time nurse, but he also gives her credit as a full-time flower farmer. He estimates that today there are 15 to 17 acres in cutting production.
Much of the winter is spent harvesting, bundling and freezing curly willow, which is one of the Lubbers’ biggest sellers. They grow five varieties. Howard prefers to wait for the leaves to naturally fall off, then the harvest begins to supply the year-round demand for this prized florist accent.
They cut the stems to four feet in length and use a glad buncher to tie bundles. They then hand bale the bundles with 25 to 30 bunches per bale, shrink wrap and freeze at 25 to 27F. From the winter stockpile, they can sell curly willow through the rest of the year. They also allow some stems to grow for two to three years so they can harvest extra-long branches, up to 18 feet.
The latest foray into a new curly willow niche is to harvest thick, gnarly stems that are up to 12 to 15 feet tall. Howie first cuts the fine tips off, then lets them sit outside in the spring until they start to get new sprouts. At that point, the bark is relatively easy to peel away, leaving a pure white, gnarled curly willow stem which sells for as much as $80.
The Lubbers used to dig their glad bulbs each year, clean, and store them. They now leave the glads in the field, willing to risk the loss, given that there is more money in harvesting and handling curly willow. As the field conditions deteriorate in late January and February (the area averages more than 100 inches of snowfall a year), they resort to snowmobile and sled to harvest the curly willow. However, with sufficient snow cover, the glad bulbs may survive. In either case, they’re prepared to buy new bulbs, ordering 130,000 this past year when none survived last winter.
Obviously curly willow is a major part of their operation, but this past year, it was second to glads based on sales receipts. And that’s despite the fact that the gladiolus prices in the local market are suppressed by a large commercial grower in southern Michigan who supplies the mass market, where 5-stem bunches can regularly be found for $1.50. Howard sells 10-stem bunches, straight colors, to florists at $4 per bunch or $3 for 6 stems at the farmers’ market.
While twice weekly routes to 30 florists make up the bulk of their sales, they also attend three farmers’ markets (selling mostly straight bunches) and sometimes sells to a wholesale floral distributor. Howard reported that, “In 23 years of business, sales have increased every year, but they look to be down in 2009.” Like much of the country, perhaps worse, Michigan has been hit hard with unemployment and florists have cut way back as their standing orders all but disappeared.
Another niche market that Howard’s found for holiday sales are landscapers who maintain commercial plantings. Red twig dogwood, curly willow and winterberry holly stems create a festive winter look with easy installation and minimal maintenance.
The woodies list includes curly willow, dogwood, holly, and pussy willow (which is cut at the end of January for forcing), forsythia, lilac, quince and others. The Lubbers have two hoophouses used for starting specialty annuals in the spring, but all the cuts are field grown.
The Lubbers have been members of the ASCFG since 1992. Howard recalls that he had joined a gladiolus society and noticed a note in their newsletter about a cut flower association. At that time, proceedings from the annual conferences were published and available to purchase. He bought that year’s proceedings, and immediately recognized, “Wow, this is great stuff.” The first conference they attended was in Baltimore where they heard the late David Jenkins speak, and later joined him for lunch, launching their endeavor into woodies.
Howard and Judy are mainstays at ASCFG National Conferences, attending almost every one since they joined, as well as several Regional Meetings. They hosted the Midwest Regional Meeting in 2006.
Howard is well known for his unique contributions to the ASCFG Research Foundation Auctions. Each year he buys authentic wooden shoes from Holland (Michigan), and customizes them by woodburning the ASCFG logo, and that year’s conference date and location into them. These shoes have become hot items, creative some competitive bidding by attendees, and have brought in several hundreds of dollars for the Foundation over the years.
In all these years, Howard’s narrowed down his biggest challenge to a rather specific problem: how to control perennial weeds in multi-stemmed woody shrubs. If you know how to effectively take care of goldenrod, for example, amongst a yellow twig dogwood, give Howard a call. It’s that sort of information exchange that he says makes the Association so beneficial to growers. While he’s not looking to expand the business much at this point, he’s eager to keep trying new things. You never know what new market he’ll discover next for curly willow. It’s no surprise he’s often announced in the florist shops with, “Here comes the stick man.”