SWGMC Progress  Report

At this time last year, the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market was still just an embryo, a developing idea. Now our market is eight months old and in many ways mirrors the growth and development of a young farm. Many experienced farmers will agree that you can get only so far on paper and then you just have to jump in, figure it out and adjust as you go. Basically, pull on your boots as you run out the door. Never mind the socks but do watch where you put your feet!

At this point, SWGMC is a twenty-member growers’ cooperative, a mixed bag of marbles. Although of diverse backgrounds, climates, crops and growing practices, we started with a basic common need: survival and growth of our farms. We recognized the shared benefit of working together to direct market our products. This summer, our board of directors developed the following umbrella vision statement to describe our goals: Cultivating a Northwest floral industry that values and supports local growers.

We learned last summer that yes, Seattle’s wholesale floral buyers would quickly and wholeheartedly embrace us—recognizing our commitment to quality and finding common ground in our passion for all things that photosynthesize, many enjoying the direct connection to growers and to other florists through the marketplace hub. There’s nothing like being in there pulling together to get a deeper understanding of shared common ground, farmer to farmer, farmer to florist, florist to florist and beyond. I can clearly see that our young market provides opportunities for quality and caring business connections, preservation of resources, and collaboration.

Many times this past year, we growers pooled our resources to satisfy larger orders. Members who were present at market became comfortable working together to supply customers, be that the need for an extra twenty bunches of red dahlias or the necessity of getting a joint order of product delivered across town. We are now taking advantage of the winter months to coordinate our crops, ensuring less overlap and better supply for our customers, naturally finding and growing our niches.

Not all of our members were able to be there in person at the market, particularly our members from farther away, and that has presented some nuts and bolts challenges. For example, the benefits of direct marketing tend to be diminished when a grower needs to pay for transportation and for another party to sell for them; it generally takes longer to get product to market, and the grower loses the benefit of developing direct personal relationships with customers. However, the main challenge as I see it has been a loss of opportunity to forge bonds with those distant members and to benefit from everyone’s personal contributions and vision in the market’s development. Potential solutions include telling the stories of all our farmers through web site development and market display, and inviting long-distance members to supply signage and materials to better promote themselves. Additionally we need to develop ways for members to be involved in our growth and development without being physically present at the market.

As a non-profit entity, our cooperative is governed by a nine-member board of directors—seven grower members and two industry floral representatives. Until early October when we hired a part-time front desk manager, no one has been paid for his or her work in starting and running this business. We are lucky that we have an incredibly hard-working, “get ‘er done”, and supportive core. All of us are running farms, keeping our businesses healthy and taking care of personal lives. We’ve been challenged just to hammer out the basics, like making sure we have viable bylaws, keeping the bank balance in the black and getting our fresh sheet out every week. As president and leader of our efforts I am at once awed by the generosity of our core members and aware of our shortcomings in communicating with members who have been less involved in our daily process.

If given a chance to start over, I would definitely require more constant involvement from all members, not just the board of directors. Our search for new members has focused on growing practices and what supply of products our market might gain. We require members to pay in a technically refundable one-time fee of $500. Beyond that, members pay based on selling product either through stall rental or front desk sales. But our market is still an infant with a few core members making great sacrifices of time and resources to keep things running and plan future growth steps. This winter our board will consider requiring a minimum number of volunteer hours or an equivalent monetary contribution per year from all member growers. I believe this will help communicate the cooperative concept and help all of us to more equitably share the hard work of getting started and to jointly appreciate this miraculous venture we are growing. Additionally, starting in 2012, we plan to initiate a nominal buyer’s card fee, inviting our customers to share in the investment of developing our market and helping to generate revenue for day-to-day operations.

In assessing our successes, the community hub aspect of our cooperative has been very nourishing and beneficial. Florists, other organizations, press, foodies and all number of community partners share our commitment to local agriculture, botanical diversity and heritage, sustainability and keeping dollars near to home. In just a few short months, some fruits of these community partnerships include:

The California Cut Flower Commission recognized us as a non-profit organization with shared interests for national lobbying to benefit domestic cut flower farmers. Through letter-writing campaigns and other efforts we worked together this past summer for trade adjustments to the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. While our efforts did not bear immediate results, we made contact with influential Washington State legislators and got some great press including a front page article in the Puget Sound Business Journal. We also paved the way for future collaboration with the CCFC and other advocates for U.S. flower growers.

Author and photographer team Debra Prinzing and David Perry continue to promote us at every turn. They connected us to the national PBS show Growing a Greener World. In October an episode entitled “Flower Power” aired nationally and featured local flower farmers and the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market. Great press! If you haven’t already seen it, you can check it out at the following link: http://www.growingagreenerworld.com/episode217/.

Debra and David’s book, The 50 Mile Bouquet, now has a publishing date of April, 2012. It romances the reader with the irresistible allure of buying seasonal, local flowers and supporting local flower farmers. These folks tell our story in a way we never could. As well as featuring a number of our members, their book contains an entire chapter on the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market.

Through the ASCFG, a number of grower groups around the country are examining our cooperative model and considering similar ventures. Some of these folks, such as Fair Field Flowers in Wisconsin, are already organized and have shared valuable developmental information with us. Others are in formation mode, eager for information on how our model is working. This is exciting stuff. It confirms for me that collaborative marketing is the way of the future for many small and medium sized growers and that we can problem solve together on a larger scale.

Many of the bigger challenges our young market faces involve start-up resources. Most of our core, founding members are seasonal field growers, but our lease is year-round and we are committed to staying open through all of the seasons. Now, in winter as I write this, our customer base has thinned and the market offerings reflect the spareness of the season.  A few of our growers are supplying woody materials including every color, shape and texture of twig imaginable, greenhouse roses, wreaths, winter berries, greens, fabricated structures for the holidays and some potted plants. We growers are scheming and planting for season extension so the market can be better supplied next winter. I have no doubt we will make it through this winter and start back gangbusters next spring, but this is when grant funding to help patch us through the start-up process would be helpful.

We applied for 2011 Washington and Oregon Specialty Crop Block Grant Funding particularly for the purpose of bridging some of our start-up expenses, made it well through the competitive process but ultimately were not funded. This year we will be applying again with better focus and a track record of start-up success. I am in many ways glad we were not funded this first year because it has allowed us time to forge bonds and overcome obstacles on a smaller scale. Still, trial by fire does get a little old, speaking from experience.

Looking ahead to this spring, we are excited about our potential opportunities for growth. We intend to take advantage of the growing “buy local” movement which is particularly active in the Seattle area. Already we have been approached by and are building relationships with several local-oriented grocery chains. Our florist customer base continues to grow and we are working to help promote businesses which support us. In our first year we have seen phenomenal growth in a short amount of time and we expect this trend to continue.

Diane Szukovathy

Jello Mold Farm

Diane Szukovathy Jello Mold Farm Contact at [email protected]