First I would like to thank the membership for this opportunity to serve as the Midwest Regional Director.
My introduction to flowers began in high school. We had a horticulture class which was mostly made up of kids who grew up on a farm, i.e. beans and corn. We had a small greenhouse measuring approximately 15×25 feet. In class, I learned how to take cuttings, and pot up hanging baskets and 4”geranium plants. These simple tasks began my love for plants.
Following college, in 1980 I became employed as a designer in a retail florist shop. While working in retail, some of the positions were as a designer, manager of branch store, and then later as a shop owner. Over the years, I have worked in small towns to large cities, including Chicago and New Orleans.
After purchasing my first house, I planted drumstick allium and liatris in my garden. While working for a retailer, I developed a working relationship with the wholesalers from whom we bought flowers. I sent them some of my samples of the allium and liatris. They loved it! So, while selling to the shop I worked at, I also started selling to one of the wholesalers. The following year I increased production of the amount of the same flowers in order to meet the demand. My thoughts were to grow flowers that I, as a designer, wanted to work with. After doing this for a few years, my backyard was running out room. So I decided to look for a parcel of land to do the growing on a larger scale.
I found a piece of ground outside of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. I basically bought a cornfield located a short distance from three interstates, and the University of Illinois. Urbana has a farmers’ market called Market at the Square, which made an additional outlet to sell my flowers.
Starting to work the parcel of land filled with cornstalks at first seemed an overwhelming task. My neighbor, a traditional grain farmer, brought in a stalk-chopper and cleared the whole property. The home was soon up, and by the spring of 1998, I was plotting out the first flower beds for the annuals.
At the time, I had an off-the-farm job as a fresh flower salesman at a local wholesale florist. Reading a trade publication, I saw an advertisement for an ASCFG Regional Meeting held in Wisconsin at Star Valley. I attended the meeting and that was my first introduction to the wonderful organization we belong to.
I met an old friend at Star Valley that day; Michael Morrison was one of the speakers. We caught up on what we were up to, and I let him know that I was growing flowers. He wanted to know what varieties I was growing. At this time, Michael was a fresh flower buyer for a wholesale house on the north side of Chicago. I told him we were growing the basics: sunflowers, celosia, ageratum, and white liatris. As a buyer he was interested in purchasing local product, especially the white liatris. He said that he would buy it from the west coast, but with the shipping it generally came in with brown on it. So my local product would be great.
In our area, we are flat and surrounded by corn and beans. We service wholesalers in Chicago and central Illinois. My relationships with the wholesalers started when I was in retail. Having continued a good working relationship with wholesalers is very important to our business. Just as at farmers’ markets, building a relationship with our customers is an ongoing process. Education on caring and handling of our flowers is given to every new customer. Our bouquets come with a flower food packet, and are then wrapped in purple tissue. The wrapping of the tissue paper makes our bouquets stand out when the customer is still shopping for their fruits and vegetables. We offer a flower card to our market customers; basically it’s a form of a punch card. It has 12 punches and your 13th bouquet is free. Over the years the number of customers using the punch card continues to increase. I myself use punch cards at other merchant that I patronize. I feel the punch card helps build customer loyalty, while earning my customers free product.
Market at the Square, in peak season, has between and 130-150 vendors per Saturday. Out of all the participating vendors, only myself and another grower sell strictly cut flowers. There are produce vendors who sell a handful of flowers also, but produce is their main commodity. They tend to be experts in regards to produce, but lack the knowledge required to properly grow and maintain quality flowers.
Illinois Willows sells mixed bouquets and solid bunches. Until a few years ago, our competition sold only solid bunches. They are now doing mixed bouquets too. The market manager has had inquiries from consumers regarding flower vendors participating in the Saturday market. She has told them that we have a couple of flower vendors…..one specializes in the ‘basics’, and the other (Illinois Willows) offers the unique and unusual product. Our unique product varies from artichoke foliage and chocolate cosmos to 20-foot stems of curly willow.
In addition to providing the consumer education regarding flower care and flower food packet, we also offer a 7-day unconditional guarantee. There have been many occasions when a customer who had frequently purchased from the other fresh flower vendor decided to try Illinois Willow product. We have been told that the other vendor’s product didn’t last very long—that is where customer education comes into play. We educate the consumer on how achieve a long-lasting bouquet, getting full value and enjoyment from their purchase.
Currently, Illinois Willows has 1-1½ acres in cut flowers, and 3½ acres in woodies. This year we will be dropping some non-profitable ‘dogs’, and adding some new varieties that have been in our cut flower trials. We have the consumer and wholesalers requesting particular product. We are changing some of our cut flower growing choices to meet the demand of our customers.
In the last two years, social networking via www.facebook.com\illinoiswillows, and [email protected] have increased our presence both locally and internationally. Locally, we have had inquiries from consumers on social networking sights that later led to them purchasing our product.
Internationally, we have gotten inquiries about our farm and how we grow our product in the Midwest that differs from growing techniques in England, Russia, and Serbia, to name a few. Facebook allows us to post photographs of product availability, product for the farmers’ market, and design techniques using our product. The reason we use Twitter is to put out short bursts of information. We use Twitter on Saturday morning at the farmers’ market informing our followers what the hot products are that day, and what we are running specials on. Twitter also allows us to post pictures of flowers featured at the market that day. We also maintain a website (illinoiswillows.com) to further promote our product. Social networking has proven to be very beneficial to the growth of Illinois Willows because it is instant information given to the consumer.
After being in the flower industry in various capacities, I have found my passion lies in marketing and growing. Hearing the consumer say how much enjoyment they have gotten out of our flowers is one of the main reasons that I do what I do.
In closing, I am looking forward to serving in my position with the ASCFG. I am excited to meet and connect with fellow growers both in person, and via emails and social networking sites.
Spring is soon upon us. What areas are you going to concentrate most on?