Flower Power Among Friends: Capital Flower Growers

ASCFG members can make a real impact on the number of cut flower imports. Combinig floral product through cooperative wholesale operations is one way to take back some of the 80% of flowers  currently shipped into the United States. Inspired by grower/wholesalers in Seattle and Wisconsin, three ASCFG members created our own hybrid wholesale operation in the Washington, D.C. metro area—Capital Flower Growers, LLC (CFG). Last November marked the completion of our first season of operation. We have unanimously declared it a “great start”. After just one season, from May to November, each of our overall sales increased, adding new customers each month and increasing revenue with virtually no marketing expenses.

It all began at the 2012 ASCFG National Conference in Tacoma. Barbara and Dave were there (where was Bob?), and visited the successful Seattle Wholesale Growers Market. Later we talked to members of Fairfield Flowers, a local flower growers’ co-op based in Madison, Wisconsin. These were the inspirations that sparked Capital Flower Growers.

Getting Started

At first, we definitely wanted a permanent warehouse space. Designers and florists needed to SEE what we had. We thought we found it in Georgetown, of all places. More than two thousand square feet —including a cooler—full access via a private alley, and a very reasonable rent. The owner, whose son is a farmer, understands farmer budgets, loves flowers and was willing to give it a try. Alas, Georgetown, being one of the more upscale areas of D.C., had zoning restrictions prohibiting wholesale operations of any type. This was a big setback after months of negotiations, but we were determined.

Being typical farmers, we did much of the work to get CFG started ourselves. We start-ed with a small investment and huddled often to work out the details. We hired an attorney to create our legal structure. We opted for a Limited Liability Company to create a business that would be separate from our individual farms. CFG is operated as a “pass-through” company with no income itself; all revenue goes through to our individual farms. We created and mailed a postcard using Vistaprint, an online supplier of marketing services, introducing CFG to a purchased list of all florists and designers within 50 miles of Washington, D.C..  Facebook was easy. We created our website using WebPlus-X5 software, an easy-to-use web design application. We used MailChimp, an email marketing service provider, for our weekly email availability list, which includes photos of each flower along with pricing. We devised a system for receiving and allocating orders and delivering the goods. And it all worked. Most of the time.

Here is a breakdown of our costs:

LLC Legal Fees $1045 
Domain name registration $16
First three months web hosting $9 
Market mailing list $53
Postcard and postage $166
Total $1,289

How We Pulled it Together – Together

We realized it would be cost effective if we made the deliveries ourselves, and figured all we needed was a parking lot with a farmer-friendly owner. That is when Hana Newcomb of Potomac Vegetable Farms offered the use of her vegetable stand, four miles from the Capital Beltway, and almost an equal distance for each of us. The Newcomb family has a legacy of supporting farmers. Every Wednesday morning we meet there for our drop off, switching buckets and stems. Each of us covers a delivery area and off we go. For delivery, we pay ourselves $.55 per mile from our meeting location, to our customers, and then back to our farm. To cover this expense and others, each farm pays 5% of its gross sales.

Every Thursday we have a conference call to talk about what product each of us has, and to update our MailChimp availability message. We then sit back and let the orders come in by email or phone. A big challenge is that we would prefer to sell our product at our farmers’ markets where we get higher prices, so we must judiciously save stems for our wholesale customers. We use Google Drive to compile the orders, entering each customer’s order as we receive them. Monday afternoon we have a second call to divvy up the orders. We keep tallies on the spreadsheet because our goal is to distribute the sales evenly among us. This has been challenging at times, as Bob gets the lion’s share of the orders because of the demand for dahlias. We harvest on Tuesdays, keeping in close contact with each other in case we discover that we don’t have quite enough of something, or if the quality is not up to our standards.

Educating our customers and gaining their confidence requires skillful and effective marketing. Converting customers who are accustomed to getting flowers in boxes into buyers of seasonal flowers delivered in water can be the biggest challenge. We strive to provide what they want for as long as they want, and hope they see the value of buying from us despite the seasonality. 

This year we often did not have enough flowers for the demand, especially for non-flowering products like dusty miller and eucalyptus. As each of us prepares to expand what we grow next season, we need to coordinate some of what we grow. Fortunately, we have other sales outlets for our flowers:  farmers’ markets, CSAs, grocery stores, and other wholesale customers.

We are still on the lookout for cheap warehouse space, something that may not exist in our area, but we can dream. If we find such a facility, we will likely need to have other growers join us. If we don’t,  we will continue next season with the system used this year. While our model has very low overhead, it might be challenging to expand with such a manual approach.

Has it Worked?

We three are friends and it was scary going into business together. Fortunately we found that we complement each other quite well. Dave is the brains of the operation; he’s tech-savvy and seems organized. Barbara serves as a catalyst, moving things forward and keeping Bob and Dave in line. Bob is the dreamer and schemer, but more importantly he grows an enormous amount of beautiful product. 

Having a customer like Ellen Frost of Local Color Flowers in Baltimore is a great asset and ensured that our first season was successful. Ellen has long been committed to using only locally-grown, seasonal flowers in all her work, years before there was much demand for it. 
Working together, we created a larger, more complete inventory for our customers. This in turn has helped each farm sell more flowers. We see this as a step forward to taking back some of the 80% of the floral market U.S. growers have lost, especially if it inspires other farmers to do the same.

Be sure to attend the Wilmington Conference in October to hear more about cooperative wholesale efforts. You may be inspired to start your own!  

Bob Wollam owns Wollam Gardens in Jeffersonton, Virginia, Barbara Lamborne owns Greenstone Fields in Wheatland, Virginia, and Dave Dowling owns Farmhouse Flowers and Plants in Brookeville, Maryland. Collectively they produce flowers on more than 13 acres, and have been growing from seven to twenty two years.  Barbara is currently the ASCFG Secretary; Bob and Dave are both former ASCFG Presidents. For more information visit capitalflowergrowers.com