Jen Syme, Jen's Bouquets, Syme Family Farm Broad Brook, Connecticut
Jen Syme met her husband, Bill, at the University of Connecticut where they were both horticulture students. It was Bill who actually started the family business in 1984. As an FFA student in high school, he grew and sold fall chrysanthemums. Once his project commitment had been fulfilled, he continued to grow the chrysanthemum business, ultimately paying his way through college. The couple has been diversifying the business in the past ten years growing potted herbs, vegetables, cut flowers and most recently Christmas trees.
The cut flower aspect of the business, Jen’s Bouquets, began in 2006 when Jen decided to stay home with their children, Emily, 10, and Becca, 7. Prior to that, Jen worked for a wholesale florist, and later, a retail florist gaining valuable experience she’s put to use on the farm. Before becoming a cut flower farmer, Jen did a lot of research and considered what she “didn’t want to do.” For example, she knew she didn’t want to be “a driver.” She has around 40 members in her eight-week subscription program, the Cut Flower Club. Rather than Jen delivering bouquets all day, members must pick up from the farm each Wednesday. While Jen has the bouquets prepared, the girls can handle the distribution if Jen needs to be back in the field.
In addition to the sub-scription program (an outlet for flowers mid-week), the family attends two weekend farmers’ markets. Jen says, “Our family all plays a part in the business. Our daughters enjoy coming to farmers’ markets with me. They are able to wrap bouquets for the customers and make change. I pretty much handle the planning of crops, planting, harvesting, etc., while Bill is a great help for the big projects like building greenhouses, laying down landscape fabric, making wholesale deliveries of mums and attending the Sunday market every week.”
The Symes are in the midst of a construction project this winter. With financial assistance from a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) grant, they are erecting a 26’ x 72’ high tunnel. Jen anticipates being ready to utilize it this spring. One crop she hopes will benefit from the high tunnel is lisianthus. She expects the diffuse light to result in longer stems, improving the quality of the flowers.
They grow mostly traditional field flowers including zinnias, sunflowers, snapdragons, rudbeckias, lisianthus and dianthus. The mix changes each year, numbering around two dozen varieties. Jen enjoys reading about the ASCFG Trials and learning from other growers what to avoid and what might be worth trying. She especially enjoys learning from others experiences by reading and participating in the Bulletin Board.
Jen is sure to offer multiple price points to satisfy every budget. Custom bouquets are available in small, medium and large ($15 to $40), and the subscription choices are traditional or premium (a $30 difference over the course of the progrm). At the market all her arrangements are displayed in mason jars and she typically offers two price points. For a low-price, impulse purchase, she also offers a three-stem bunch of sunflowers every week.
One of their winter projects two years ago was to develop a web site. Not only does it provide beautiful photos and information about each aspect of the diverse farm, it offers customers the opportunity to pay online (using PayPal) or order flowers for pickup at one of the farmers’ markets. Jen has been pleased with the response to the site, but says, “Getting your name out there and being recognized is a real challenge to growing a small business—especially on a limited budget.”
Word of mouth is one of the best advertising tools and it has led to the development of another niche market for cut flower sales. This past year, folks began ordering table centerpieces for bridal showers and parties. Jen’s not particularly interested in doing weddings, but these smaller events help expose more people to her flowers and are relatively easy to prepare since they typically call for multiples of the same arrangement.
Another potential benefit of developing an events aspect of the business is that social functions typically occur rain or shine. Growers can agree that weather is a wild card in even the best-laid production plans, but with a narrow market season (June to October), weather can drastically affect sales as well. Jen recalls that Sunday is usually their biggest sales day, but this past August it rained (or there was a hurricane) three out of four Sundays in August. Despite that, sales have increased each year since they started growing cuts five years ago.
After growing on leased property for many years, they purchased an eight-acre farm in 2010. Currently cut flowers occupy less than a half-acre of intensive cultivation so they have room to grow more flowers and continue growing the family business.
Jen shares this story: “This past fall, the governor of Connecticut, Dannel Malloy, was visiting the Hillstead Farmers Market in Farmington and saw our mums. His wife took one of our business cards and the next day his office called the farm. They came out and chose a truck full of mums to decorate the governor’s mansion in Hartford. This was quite an honor for us.”
The take-away is this: you never who your next customer may be. Always have business cards and marketing materials available and keep your display neat and fresh.