As you know from a previous report, I took a USDA/FSA micro-loan in spring 2013.  I did four things with that money: I put landscape fabric (actually I used road fabric, much cheaper) around all my peonies in a one-third acre field; I built a deer fence around my one-acre woodies field; we built a 10’x 12’ walk-in cooler, and installed a CoolBot; and with the leftover money we did the best we could to complete a processing room/design studio. I would like to share some of the thoughts that came out of the cooler project in hopes it will help you nail down some of the cost vs. efficiency vs. effectiveness ratios as you work your routines toward a more smoothly run business.

I worked for seven years without a walk-in cooler and let me just say this: it should have been a little bit higher on my priority list. I know lots of people don’t have one and probably feel they don’t need one, but for me, the stress level went way down, waste went way down, and quality of life went way up.  

It’s hard to see lilies (that you paid good money for) ready to cut on Saturday afternoon after you come home from a long day at the market, and you don’t have anywhere to sell them until Wednesday of the next week, and a cool basement in the heat of summer just isn’t going to be enough to slow them down. So you get out there, pick them, and stuff them into that rinky-dink soda pop commercial refrigerator you bought that is “better-than-nothing-at–all”, except that it isn’t “better-than-nothing-at-all” because you had so many lilies you overstuffed it and everything ended up freezing anyway because of poor air circulation. Losses like that just didn’t happen at all with the cooler.  

An interesting phenomenon that I really wasn’t counting on, was that for the first time ever, I had more flowers than I could sell, and I had even planted less. We were having a baby and we were just going to “hold the line” this year. In addition, I picked up another florist, picked up a small grocery store (so much for “holding the line”), had more DIY brides than before, increased sales across the board, and I still had more flowers. Why?

I figured it out. With the walk-in cooler, I wasn’t throwing a bunch of over-bloomed product on the ground as I harvested; because I had a place to store it. I could pick everything at its prime so the waste went down. How exciting is that? I don’t have to plant and cultivate as much (which is an expense) to maintain my same markets—bonus! On the flip side you could plant the same and increase your markets.  

A walk-in cooler also allowed us to pick flowers every day and stockpile them rather than try to do a “mad-dash-all-in-one-harvest-and-sell”. Talk about a stress reliever. As each flower came into its perfect stage of harvest, into the cooler it went. And at a cool 36-40 degrees, it would stay in perfect condition for next week sales. Furthermore, it helped eliminate or decrease some risk factors. What if that employee got sick on the all-important harvest day? No problem—you’ve been picking daily already. What if a huge storm is due and will likely take down every sunflower? No problem: pick them and hold them. Customer calls and needs a bouquet? Or worse yet, a customer is at the door and needs a bouquet? No big deal, just walk into the cooler, grab what I need, and wrap it up. These are just a few of the perks, there are many more.

We built this cooler/studio room under an existing pole-framed lean-to, off an existing shop. the lean-to had a dirt floor and was mostly open to the air. We poured cement for the entire project and made sure there was an insulating factor under the concrete where the cooler would be.   We planned ahead and had the cement sloped for a drain in the middle of the cooler and another one in the studio where we would be processing the flowers. It was such a thrill to see the water from a spilled bucket flow toward and into the drain!

We basically built double walls and ceiling for the cooler, and no matter what we found on the internet for how to build this thing, we built it thicker and better.  Based on other farmers’ sentiments from ASCFG farm tours, we went ahead and framed in a second door on an opposite wall for future planning and loading purposed, just in case. We wrapped plastic on the exterior framing and insulating for a vapor barrier, finished the outside with a gray corrugated tin, and line the inside with white corrugated tin for easy cleaning, a nice inexpensive finish that could be hosed down.

It was so exciting when the day came to hook up the air conditioner and CoolBot.  Our new walk-in cooler was down to 35 degrees in 15 minutes, I kid you not.  And then, horror of horrors- we filled the floor of that cooler in no time with buckets of flowers so that I could not even have a walkway.

Did we not build it big enough? So we went out and bought steel racks on rollers to maximize vertical space.  These racks can be rolled in and out of the cooler for processing and packing, a real back-saver, and you would not believe how many flowers I can pack in that 10′ x 12′ room.  I fill it and sell everything twice a week.

The cooler seriously helped fine-tune and streamline a lot of processes that were usually more erratic and required a lot of hard, long, working days.  For me, it was one large step closer to a smoother running operation and on huge leap towards a better quality of life (not so crazy).  How on earth did I ever operate without one?

Now the stage is set for my next endeavor, becoming a farmer-florist.  I can’t help but think that here’s a way to get more “buck$$” for my “bang” out there.  Working smarter, not harder. 

Paula Rice

BeeHaven Farm

Paula Rice BeeHaven Farm Contact at [email protected]