Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon,Washington, Alberta, and British Columbia

Goings On in the West and Northwest

The farmers in my region were busy last winter! My calendar has been chock-full of meetings, events, workshops, dinners, and conferences as people peel their creaky bodies out of office chairs and crop planning to gather and talk nuts, bolts, flowers, and dollar dollar bills. These are just the meetings I’ve been a part of, and these are just my thoughts on these meetings; there are surely other perspectives and takeaways out there. Let me know what I’m missing.

Farm Financial Viability Meeting-December

In attendance: About 20 small farmers gathered in Oakland at Joanna Letz’ house to talk MONEY. Most there work on one-acre farms within two hours of San Francisco. Some run their own businesses and some are the flower managers at larger vegetable farms.

Breakdown: How were people feeling after the 2015 season? Who made money? Who didn’t? What did numbers look like compared to 2014?

The verdict: The meeting set out to answer the question of whether or not farms like ours seem to be making it and surviving past a few years. There was some good news in the room: sales that increased (and almost doubled) year to year, growing skill sets. But there was also a lot of disheartening news—signs to me that we need to step it up as business people and as advocates for local flowers. Many of these newer growers (I put myself in this category and am speaking broadly about those having farmed flowers for just around 5 years or less) seem happy, produce beautiful flowers,and seem to be keeping busy with sales. BUT, as we pried into one another’s finances, we learned that no one is actually making a “living wage”, and most were deep into the routine of heavily subsidizing their own labor as well as setting their price points according to a general sense of what the conventional market can bear, NOT based on the cost of production. Most were therefore running businesses that seem, to me, unsustainable (again, myself included). It’s only so long that you can work under the poverty line. This got me thinking even more about truly understanding our cost of production, valuing our labor appropriately, and making long-term plans with sound financial models. Many of us in the room were farmer-florists, and I can’t stop thinking about how florists in general are so much better at this aspect than farmers are. That general rule of thumb that says florists need to mark up their flowers three times in order to make a profit have many small, new farmers made similar equations for our work? If I told the world how many $5 bunches of flowers I need to sell each year in order to make a profit, we would all laugh-it would be an impossible number. That’s just not how new farmers start out. I guess you could say that I’m on a mission to change that. 

North Bay Flower Collective Varieties Talk-January

In attendance: 30 or so NBFC members, both farmers and designers.

Breakdown: Seed swap, discussion on what varieties our florist want and can’t find,farmers’ open Q & A on variety-specific questions, official unveiling of the new and improved Sonoma Flower Mart, work trades/who’s hiring/looking for work, internal NBFC infrastructure work, planning for two-day visit with Debra Prinzing.

The verdict: Our group has seen a lot of one another this winter, but there’s often so much work to be done surrounding the infrastructure of the group itself that it feels rare to have a meeting like this one dedicated mostly to the thing that unites us: flowers! Florists asked for more foliage and vines, farmers asked one another what varieties we were expanding upon, adding or dropping for the coming season. We found out who needs what kind of help this season, who might be available to do it, and I now have a solid list of farm-sitters on hand and am planning a summer weekend getaway (is it bad news that I’m already looking forward to it?). Nichole from the Sonoma Flower Mart broke down her new structure for us: more hours, more customers, and more farmers. With just a short season under her belt as a trial, she’s already made some huge improvements that will streamline ordering and availability lists. She’ll be bringing in more farmers but is finding creative ways to work with us small guys, featuring a “farmer of the month” for one. I love it. 

OSU Small Farms  Conference-February

Breakdown: Day-long conference with a cut flower track broken into 3 sessions: Cut Flower Production As Part Of A Whole Farm System with Shannon Algiere from Stone Barns Center; Business Planning and Marketing with Diane Szukovathy from Jello Mold Farm, Molly Sadowsky from the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market, and Joan Thorndike from La Mera Gardens; and Season Extension with Denise and Tony Gaetz of Bare Mountain Farm, Vivian Larsen of Everyday Flowers, and Kendra Neveln of Glenwood Farms.

In attendance: There were a whopping 100+ people signed up for each flower session, which was pretty remarkable and really gives you an idea of how many new growers there are out there.

The verdict: I was blown away by the flower farmer community in the PNW. In addition to all the new growers that came out of the woodwork, the area is rich in veteran farmers who joyfully pulled themselves away from successful farms for the weekend to speak, lead discussions, and take part in this really great weekend of professional development and farmer community building. Erin McMullen of Raindrop Farm invited me to represent the ASCFG and take part in the weekend, and she and Elizabeth Bryant of Rose Hill Flower Farm acted as my (gracious, amazing, talented!) hosts. The presentations were thorough and managed to reach both newbies and seasoned farmers both—no easy feat. Some big take-aways for me from the day included the newest tricks to Tony and Denise’s hoops (to be implemented on my farm imminently—I was stuck in version 1.0 without knowing it!), some great woodies to try out, and tips for success in building a wholesale market. And then there were the after-parties. And pre-parties. And in-between-parties. I’m talking bars full of flower farmers in small groups and duos picking each other’s brains on every aspect of their operation—it was incredible (and I’m still tired, actually).

PNW Flower Farmer’s Meet-up—February

Breakdown: But it didn’t stop there! The conference was followed by the 2nd Annual PNWFF Meet-up, which focused on a number of different topics broken into round table discussions facilitated by farmers versed in those areas. They included farm infrastructure, marketing, crop planning, record keeping, and season extension, among others.

In attendance: 65 local and semi-local farmers!

The verdict: The topics were decided by surveys taken after last year’s event, and the schedule was packed and tightly organized. It’s hard to imagine so much information packed into one day, but it happened. To sit with a group of growers (all with valuable information to share) and fully tear apart one topic at a time—it was a dream come true. There’s always so much to talk about and it’s hard to jump into the details, but the event was organized so that we didn’t waste time on the pleasantries and got down and dirty right away. My kind of meeting. Oh, and there were sponsors and prizes and swag!

I will say, getting a behind-the-scenes look at the farms of many people I got to know was enlightening and surprising in ways. Many of these farmers are highly successful, have streamlined so many processes over the years, and pump out tons of great quality flowers with detailed and evolved crop and marketing plans. But it seems that every winter is still a time to take a hard look at finances and see how to shake things up to make a little more money in subsequent years. A lot of farms are still struggling to get ahead, financially. This isn’t surprising, we all know it’s an uphill battle, but it did stand out to me. In the wake of many of these winter meetings I’ve been ruminating on how we can further affect change in our industry by educating the public and our markets on the value of local flowers (and therefore raising our prices, which is the content of most of my soapboxes lately), and really hammering financial literacy and planning into the minds of our new farmers.

B-Side Farm & ASCFG Designer Panel – March
Agenda: I hosted a talk at my farm by Sarah Ryhanen of Saipua, Nicolette Owen of Nicolette Camille Floral Design, and Debra Prinzing of Slow Flowers. The topic of the night was how farmers and florists can develop relationships and work closely together, and how farmers can start to think about tailoring their crop plans to work with high-end designers.
In attendance: Indoor space during the last night of a rainy stretch limited us to 40 people, and we packed in and got cozy. Half farmers, half designers, some I knew and some I didn’t, from up here in Sonoma County, a handful from San Francisco, and two farmers from Reno (thanks for making the trip!).

The verdict: It’s hard for small farms to diversify their growing plans to accommodate both specialty design trends and mass-market needs. It’s tricky (for me, at least) to plant out sunflower every week for supermarkets while also tending to my slow-growing columbine or finicky such-and-such; I feel like I need two distinct personalities to be doing both well. Know what I mean? I planned this talk with these issues in mind, based on a similar panel that Sarah was a part of at the ASCFG National Conference in Delaware in 2015. So for this talk we focused on some hard-to-find but (hopefully) not-too-hard-to-grow varieties that we farmers can start to incorporate into our plans. The speakers answered many great questions from the captive audience, and we left with some exciting ideas: pick a few buckets with one designer in mind, really focus on cultivating relationships with designers so that you can almost read their mind, and, well, find a way to get rich and grow bearded irises!

Until next time, when I’ll be focusing on the process of scaling up my dreams, processes, and neuroses by moving from a half acre to three for this season. Here’s to hoping I come out on the other side!

Lennie Larkin

B-Side Farm

Lennie Larkin B-Side Farm Contact her at [email protected]