The More Things Change

"I am convinced that the florist business resta entirely in our hands. In no other part of the world is there a better chance to develop this industry than here, or a better market."
Fritz Bahr, Commercial Floriculture, 1922

Fort Davis, Texas sits at the top the Davis Mountains in the Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas. Nearby Presidio, Texas is often the hottest place in the nation, but because Fort Davis is located nearly a mile above sea level, it rarely gets above 90 degrees in the summer. They also get a bit more rain than the surrounding Big Bend area. There are a few ponderosa pines that grow there, and the small mountain springs shelter rare campanulas, columbines and other unexpected gems. Because of the climate, Fort Davis has a bit of tourist trade, limited mostly by the fact that you have to drive for hours through formidable desert to get there. As our kids were growing up, we would often take a camping trip there in the summer.

On one trip to Fort Davis long ago, we were killing time at a dusty old bookstore on the square. I like to collect old agricultural books and always give a quick look at the gardening and farming sections. I noticed a thick book with a worn brown binding that said Commercial Floriculture. The author was Fritz Bahr. Huh? I had never heard of the book nor the author.

I pulled it out, blew the dust off, and opened up what appeared to be the Dead Sea Scrolls of local flower farming! It was published in 1922, with subsequent revisions. There were chapters on starting your business, setting up a greenhouse, growing for retail, managing a florist business and more. Even more impressive were the crop-by-crop cultural sections for all the obscure specialty cut flowers that we were trying to grow: calliopsis, marigold, Chinese forget-me-not, lychnis, symphoricarpus, and more. Over 600 pages more! I breathlessly paid the five dollars and left the store before someone noticed that I had a priceless artifact.

Moving Ahead by Looking Back

Fritz Bahr wrote the book for what he called the retail grower. Mr. Bahr said: “As retail growers I class all those florists who are located around the larger cities or in their suburbs, in the smaller cities and throughout the country towns, and who grow a part of their requirements for retail sale to a local trade.” What Mr. Bahr was talking about, nearly 100 years ago, was exactly what we are now calling the “farmer-florist”. In Mr. Bahr’s day, this type of operation made up the bulk of our industry. That changed as long-distance shipping became more available, and as we all know, most production eventually moved out of the country.

As evidenced by the wonderful success of the ASCFG’s 2014 National Conference in Delaware, there is a huge groundswell of interest in the farmer-florist concept again. A google search of “farmer florist” brings up countless examples of people and farms growing and using locally produced flowers. The ASCFG membership has swelled with the ranks of local producers who also do floral design work, and the public demand for this seems to be at an all-time high. We sell wedding flowers directly from our farm, and we are sometimes doing several weddings or events a week.

Some of our ASCFG members are strictly local producers, while others are exclusively wholesale growers and shippers. Some of us do a little of both. At our farm we have a foot firmly planted in both worlds. We think of ourselves as mostly wholesale growers with a side business in retail. But sometimes it is necessary to rethink things. Every fall, after the last shipment to our grocery stores, we like to go over the year’s numbers and break down the details by crop and customer. We dive into our QuickBooks program and try to look at every crop and every sale from all possible angles. Who sold the most sunflowers or bouquets? What crops should we increase or decrease. Who were our best customers?

We had an unexpected surprise this year. Among all the stores that retail our flowers, we had one store that stood out from the rest by almost 40%. This store beat the next best store by nearly $20,000 in sales. The surprise was that it was our own self-serve farm market. We were our own best customer!

This fact is even more surprising when one considers that the market sits 50 miles from any major city, it runs without any staff, it’s usually hotter than Hades out here and half the time we don’t even get around to keeping it stocked! The market has been an afterthought while we focused on the wholesale business. We were succeeding in spite of ourselves.

Wholesale is still the majority of our overall sales, but we are constantly pulled in both directions. Are we wholesale growers or a retail grower? A shipper or a destination farm? Mass bouquet producer or wedding florist? What should we focus on?

The Best of Both Worlds

The ASCFG is a little like that, and sometimes it a tough balance. I have heard large producers say they didn’t have a lot in common with our organization because the grower members were small and local. I have also heard smaller growers say they didn’t want to tour large farms because they felt there would be nothing there for them to learn. They are both wrong, of course. The strength of this group is that we are all-inclusive; a big tent, so to speak.

We are following up the great Delaware conference with a San Jose, California meeting that will give us all some eye-opening chances to tour some of the big guys. Along with a great line-up of speakers for the meeting, we’ll be able to tour some of the best growers in the Watsonville area, including Kitayama Bros., California Floral Greens, and Golden State Bulb. Golden State is famous for their calla production, and I, for one, am excited about this stop. I say that if you come away from these meetings with just one good idea, you’ll pay for your trip, and I always get a lot more ideas than just one.

I think Fritz Bahr would be pleased to see the ASCFG membership today. He writes: “I am convinced that the future of the florist business rests entirely in our hands. In no other part of the world is there a better chance to develop this industry than here, or a better market.”

He continues: “The money is there. People are spending it and paying more for service than ever, but as yet only a small part of the population “Say It With Flowers.” The more they hear and see of them, the more they will use them. Even should all these predictions fail, most of us in business today know that good florists’ stock is never sold at a higher price than at present, and that this is no time to retrench, but a time to go on, to build, to expand, to produce still better stock, to advertise, to give better and still more courteous service. Come what may, flowers will always be used, and there is absolutely nothing to fear for those who attend to their business and “watch their step”.”

Post World War I optimism, still true today. You gotta love it!


Some Favorite Books

Commercial Floriculture 
by Fritz Bahr
A.T. De La Mare Company, 1922 to 1948

Florist Crop Production and Marketing
by Kenneth Post,
Orange Judd Company, 1949

Commercial Flower Forcing
by Alex Laurie and D.C. Kiplinger.
The Blakiston Company, 1934 to 1948

Practical Floriculture
by Peter Henderson
Orange Judd Company, 1887 to 1906 or later

Specialty Cut Flowers
Second Edition
by Allan Armitage and Judy Laushman.
Timber Press, Timeless

Frank Arnosky

President of the ASCFG

Contact him at [email protected]