By the time you read this, we will all be neck deep in flowers and hopefully sales! Our spring (as I am sure yours was too) was very cool, resulting in our larkspur coming in a week later and missing Mother’s Day, and our summer crops being weeks behind schedule. On the bright side…some of our hoophouse crops lasted longer too. As always we are at the mercy of the weather!
We are excited that our son Bryan has come to work with me on the farm, and will help to develop other sales routes. So far, it’s been great to have him here, where my grandfather farmed the same land, and we can continue the family tradition. He has a lot to learn about growing, but he’s eager and willing. He is getting married to a beautiful girl on June 22nd, and we are excited that our flowers will be used for his wedding, along with some gorgeous peonies we’re keeping in the cooler from our friend Bernie Van Essendelft at Dual Venture Farm in Pantego, North Carolina. Bernie’s peonies sell like hotcakes here! They are so fresh and beautiful!
For this Regional Report, I’m happy to introduce another Southeastern grower, who hails from Owensboro, Kentucky: Ella King of King’s Country Gardens. Read Ella’s informative responses to our questions and then visit her Facebook page and say hello.
How long have you been a flower farmer?
Ten years full time and enjoying every minute of it! I started digging in the dirt at age 3, when I was caught using one of my grandmother’s silver spoons as my tool of choice. I’ve been digging ever since! My tools have changed, though.
What did you do before and how did you get into “the field”?
I was a social worker and public health program manager in my previous life. During this time, I was “out in the field” making home visits. Social service work was challenging and emotional so I found myself growing zinnias and other flowers in raised beds after work as a way to relieve stress.
What has been your biggest challenge?
I would say that my biggest challenge has been dealing with an ever-changing weather pattern here in western Kentucky. It seems the weather is never consistent from year to year. We have had 22 days of triple digit temperatures already this summer. To keep cool, I have started using a cooling towel called a “frogg togg”. I use it in the field and take it to the market as well. Physically, the heat has taken its toll on me and the flowers this summer. I have learned to be flexible and work outside early in the morning or late in the day. I always have a plan B ready just in case something doesn’t go as planned (which is usually what happens).
What has been your biggest accomplishment?
Being recognized in the community as someone who has a passion for growing the very best cut flowers has been extremely fulfilling for me. As ASCFG members have shared with me, I share my knowledge with my customers. To turn this passion into a growing business has been a lot of hard work but is an accomplishment I’m proud of!
What are your favorite flowers to grow?
My favorites are peonies, lilies, lisianthus, ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas, sunflowers, and ‘Cardinal’ basil. They all are easy to grow, easy to cut and care for, and make me money. That makes me happy!
How did you find the ASCFG?
I was visiting in Winnsboro, Texas and saw a gentleman selling flowers in front of a bakery. It was as if a light bulb went off in my head: I can do that! So after a 45-minute conversation he told me how to get started and what books would be best to read. Best of all, he told me about the ASCFG.
What is the best advice you have been given?
Most of my “good advice” has come from ASCFG members, either from the Bulletin Board or from personal conversations at the national conferences. Early on, Dave Dowling’s posts on the Bulletin Board were so helpful! An example of the “best advice” would be Becky Devlin telling me I must have a web site and a Facebook page. Now my marketing takes off on its own when pictures are posted with my customers telling their friends about my flowers. Another example is when I spoke with Vicki Stamback at a conference a few years back. I asked her how to sell to florists since my florists were not eager to do business with a local grower at that time. She told me to put my flowers in the back of the van and drive from florist to florist and say, “Come look at my flowers!” And, of course, when I did that the week of Mother’s Day, I sold every peony I had! Who could resist those beauties? I now have a wonderful partnership with our local florists.
What is the best advice for someone starting out?
First of all, I would say have many conversations with someone who has done it. You will find these people who are willing to share their expertise in the ASCFG. Secondly, I would recommend reading The Flower Farmer, Growing for Market, and as many back issues of The Cut Flower Quarterly as possible. Also, I would suggest that someone starting out work closely with their local extension office and their Department of Agriculture. Here in Kentucky, we have a KY Proud program that provides lots of support to those of us growing flowers, vegetables, and many other value added products. It is because of a horticulture marketing grant that I am able to attend many of the ASCFG national conferences. Early on I considered dropping my membership because of the expense. One of the best decisions I made was to continue my membership because this is where my knowledge springs from!
What is the one thing you’ve learned the hard way?
I started out growing anything and everything. In the past several years, I have slowly “weeded out” the flowers that are too much work for the money they make me or, in some cases, the money I lose growing them! I do experiment with a few new things every year to add to the excitement of “what’s new” in the field. I feel I am now on track, planting in succession and not overplanting. Basically, I plant what I think I can sell. I am the only full time grower here. My husband still has a day job but does the part-time tractor work and the inevitable “honey-do” list. Another thing I’ve learned is not to throw unsold flowers on the “grave pile” like I did in early years. I now donate unsold flowers with a short vase life to our local domestic violence shelter. I had no idea the impact these flowers were having until, one Saturday, I saw several women lined up on an inside hallway at the shelter. They were watching me when the door swung open. I asked the worker, “What’s going on?” and she said, “They have been waiting for you. You have no idea what this means to them.” So we donate flowers to our local shelter every Saturday after our market. We are about “giving joy!”
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I hope to be right here, still “Growing Flowers and Giving Joy,” increasing my profit, and running a fine-tuned flower business. I predict that I will hire part-time help because of the physical demands. We are still a work in progress. Thanks, ASCFG members, for mentoring me!