Keith Cramer, Cramers' Posie Patch
Cramers’ Posie Patch, in Mt. Joy, Penn. (that’s in the well-known Lancaster County), is a third-generation cut flower farm. Keith Cramer serves as president and has been a partner in the business, with his father Ralph Cramer, for 10 years. Currently selling fresh cut flowers, dried flowers, and a small selection of seeds and divisions, they are beginning to diversify even more into fruit and vegetable production.
Though he grew up transplanting, weeding and harvesting, Keith took a job at a printing company after high school. After a few years of noise, fumes and shift work, he had the opportunity to get back out in the sunshine and took on the responsibility of field management for his dad’s growing business. In the 22 years he’s spent working with his dad, Keith says, “My business and flower education came to me in the best possible way – hands-on learning. There are times when I wish I had a formal education in horticulture, but working with my dad – who is a real pioneer and visionary in the industry – has provided me with an extensive list of opportunities that you just can’t get with a degree.”
Cramers’ Posie Patch may sound like a quaint little business, but the “posie patch” consists of more than 60 production acres on a 95-acre farm—a sizable operation. In 2009, the Cramers were able to purchase the 95-acre farm at auction. Keith says, “It is prime farmland with excellent soils, an incredibly strong well, and a constant flowing spring-fed stream for our irrigation needs.” In 2010, after considerable building renovation, they moved the offices to the new farm, seven miles from their old location where they had operated under a long-term lease agreement.
By 2011 nearly all production was transitioned to the new farm, meaning some perennials and woodies are still getting established. Four acres of willow production (one of their primary crops) remain at the old location. At the new farm, they have one 30 x 96 hoophouse and one 24 x 100 cold frame used for starting plugs. In addition, they have more than five acres of Haygrove high tunnels.
Ten years ago, Ralph saw the potential to utilize high tunnels after travelling in Europe where they are much more common. They first attempted to build a homemade structure, but discovered quickly that they were not happy with it. They contacted Haygrove and installed the first Haygrove tunnel in North America. The Cramers currently serve as sales agents for Haygrove for the eastern United States, acting as a liaison between the manufacturer (in England) and the farmer. In addition to a small sales commission, Keith says, “We’ve built lots of relationships and opened doors, particularly with vegetable and perennial producers, by representing Haygrove.”
As for production, Keith says, “We replicate plantings in the tunnels and field to achieve the best sequential production possible. This applies to both annuals and perennials.” They are also using the tunnels for fruit and vegetable production this year, experimenting with one half acre heirloom tomatoes, one third acre bell peppers, one half acre asparagus, a blackberry trial and some wine grapes.
Over the years they’ve learned to tweak common production practices. For example, they don’t try to accomplish continuous production with zinnia. Instead they do succession plantings and simply move to another field when one is spent. Some advantages include no problems with powdery mildew and no concerns about short stems. They direct seed as much as they can, starting in mid-March through July, using a Cole Planet Jr., sowing four rows per bed.
Cramers’ grows a wide variety of crops, but Keith reports, “Our best sellers by volume are annual sunflowers, celosias and zinnias. Some of the celosias were selections made by my grandparents. Perennials include Alchemilla mollis, hydrangeas (‘Limelight’, ‘Quickfire’), yarrows and our varieties of mountain mint and ‘Silver King’ artemisia.”
They grow several varieties of willows, a popular item they sell at the Philadelphia Flower Show, which they’ve attended for 16 years. Willow selections include fantail, rustic, black and standard pussy willow, red and green curly willow. Keith says, “We are looking into investing in more woodies over the next few years with many decisions yet to be made!”
They sell their flowers primarily to wholesale florists and distributors in the mid-Atlantic area and sell dried flowers to retail florists and event designers all over the United States. A refrigerated box truck runs a set route five days a week from Southern New York to the Washington, D.C.
Keith believes his company has a unique approach to fresh sales for a farm its size. Each morning, Keith emails an updated availability list to his customers. The customers getting product the next morning send in their orders by mid-day. The flowers are cut and processed in the field specifically for the orders. He says, “We try to avoid any speculative harvesting whenever possible. The flowers rehydrate overnight and ship the next morning. This puts tremendous pressure on our crew to provide product on such a short turn-around, but the customer benefits from receiving the freshest product possible.” Another benefit he mentions is being able to maintain strong pricing on items rather than having to drop prices or dump flowers that have already been cut.
While working with more than 20 wholesale florists via phone or email daily is certainly a personal approach that is no doubt valued, Keith feels that marketing is one of their weakest areas. In fact, they recently hired a new field manager to allow Keith more time to focus on revitalizing their marketing efforts.
While such a large farm takes a different approach to labor, Keith identifies labor as its biggest challenge. In addition to four full-time staff (including Ralph and Keith), they have 10 field workers, contracted through the government’s H2-A guest worker program, who handle all the day to day cultivation and harvest. Keith says, “Cramers’ is committed to using only legal workers, and while the H2-A system has many problems, in the end we are able to have excellent workers and remain compliant on the labor front.”
While most of their workers have been returning for several years, the program requires an audit three times in 18 months by two different U.S. Department of Labor divisions (Employment and Training, and Wage and Hour). Keith described one response to a request for documentation as over 380 pages long, on top of the “reams of documentation that we must file and maintain just to participate in the program.” He laments, “Our crew has been delayed an average of two weeks due to red tape over each of the past 10 years.” It’s certainly not a perfect system and that paperwork occupies much of the “off-season,” but they’ve found that it provides reliable, skilled, experienced labor.
For all the headache of managing labor, moving locations and working toward an improved marketing system, Keith conveys a genuine enthusiasm for the industry and the future growth of Cramers’ Posie Patch, even if it includes a few fruits and veggies alongside those posies.