Twelve Quarterlys ago I was gently nudged to run for the Northeast Regional Director seat on the ASCFG Board. At that time StrayCat Flower Farm was operating as it had been for about 18 years, and I was feeling like something had to change if I was going to “stay in it”. From the outside we appeared to be living the lifestyle many of our customers actually said they envied. The business was chugging along: we were selling all that we grew, we weren’t looking for new markets, our neighbor farmers on Intervale Road are good friends and great company. But something felt “off”, like I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, meaning that juggling so many small tasks felt like I was ricocheting around the inside of a pinball machine, on the verge of some outcome preferably avoided.
You’ve likely heard the proverb “The first step is half the journey.” My first step was to sign up for a workshop called “Taking Stock”, for growers with more than 10 years in business, who feel the need to assess their farm as it relates to their quality of life. The take-away message: are you running your farm, or is it running you? Rather than feeling dismayed by the obvious (in my case) answer, I was encouraged to do more homework. I signed up for “Whole Farm Planning”, did a business valuation with the intention of selling the farm, attended a winter retreat called “Courage to Change”, and took a year sabbatical from the farmers’ market where I’ve been selling since the late 80s.
Fast forward three years to this, my final article for the Quarterly. Incremental changes are underway. Turns out selling the business wouldn’t lead to a desirable outcome, since it’s “asset rich but land poor”. Asset rich because it’s a turnkey operation; a new owner would wake up tomorrow with orders to fill, and everything needed to hit the ground running. Land poor because the farm is on rented land in the flood plain of the Winooski River. Wonderful flat land, hardly any rocks, sandy loam, a 14-minute bike ride to downtown Burlington, the biggest city in Vermont. But rented land nonetheless.
Taking the year off from the Saturday farmers’ market was a bittersweet decision. Although it’s the least lucrative of all our markets, we consider it to be “free” advertising since we make a lot of connections there. A strong community presence, including auction donations for fund-raisers (in the form of gift certificates) and flowers for events (such as wine and cheese festivals) also serve as “free” advertising. Bonus: hanging in there for all these years has kept us in the running for “favorite florist” in our local weekly newspaper, Seven Days. (Toot, toot!).
The biggest change is that we’ll be dropping our grocery store wholesale bouquet accounts. Sounds crazy, given that we really had to pound the pavement making cold calls back in the early 90s, before these stores even considered carrying fresh flowers. Nowadays there are several local growers supplying bouquets and grower bunches, and the produce departments have the task of balancing out how much to buy from each farm. A few seasons of running the numbers indicates that wholesale bouquets are no longer making enough profit for us to hang on to those accounts.
The third area we’ll be cutting back on is the number of weddings we do each weekend. Our web site will have a calendar that shows we’re booked any weekend we have just one wedding. I’m hoping this will greatly reduce inquiries from additional customers, to whom I forward a list of other area farmer florists. We’ll continue offering bulk buckets of loose stems for DIY wedding folks, and help them figure out how much to order so they don’t over-buy and feel overwhelmed by the work they’ve taken on.
But wait—we are still growers! That’s our favorite part of the business! How can we keep the farm without all the trimmings? Introducing (or should I say re-introducing, since there used to be several of these nearby) StrayCat’s Pick-Your-Own Flower Farm! We held a soft launch this summer via Localvore, a marketing group that gets the word out in exchange for a piece of the pie. Customers get a discount of 20% off the regular price. So far the results are encouraging: several Localvore PYO’s each week, plus their friends at the regular rate, and a few freelance floral designers whose customers are asking them to use local flowers. All of that without us uttering a peep. The nearest PYO is over an hour away from downtown Burlington (that’s far away in New England) so I don’t feel like I’m stepping on anyone’s toes. If any of you are (or were) PYO growers, I would love to chat with you.
And so dear readers, I leave you with this drawing that says all of the above with just a few brush strokes…