My column in the Spring issue of the Quarterly included messages I’d received earlier this year from several Southeast ASCFG members. Here are even more to share!
Loretta Ball, The Never Ending Flower Farm, Barnardsville, North Carolina
A few things that I am facing right now for our flower farm are:
• Trying to germinate bupleurum, delphinium, bells of Ireland, and nigella.
• Very sparse germination; I am trying several recommendations, but you can only buy so much seed!
• Succession planting plan: when and how much to plant. I think I will be able to do only two succession plantings this first year.
• How do I handle grocery store accounts while on vacation?
My biggest “aha moment” for last year was counting up the total sales from our little roadside you-pick flower: I made right at $3,000.00! I was hoping for $700, to cover the cost of seeds, compost, netting, and metal stakes. And this was on the honor system! I am looking forward to growing again and doubling our profit.
I am super excited about offering DIY buckets for brides this year. I feel more comfortable with my pricing and selling my flowers. I am a little concerned about the other flower farms in our area; I want to keep my prices fair with theirs and do not want to cause conflict with our businesses. It seems there are little flower farms popping up everywhere in Asheville.
Laura Bigbee Fott, Whites Creek Flower Farm, Nashville, Tennessee
I’m a permaculture farmer. It presents lots of challenges, but it also sets me apart. I try to look at permaculture as a way of life. I feel like it imbues my designs—whether garden beds or wedding florals—with resonance and meaning beyond the life of the flowers.
Since I am pretty much a one-woman show, I need to fall-seed and direct seed as much as possible, especially since I am also concentrating on growing all (or at least the vast majority of) my perennials from seed. There is so much that can be fall seeded. I’ve done a ton of research to try and spread the work around the entire year.
I’ve been really fortunate that what little marketing I’ve done has really paid off. My biggest oversight was not having a better web presence, but we got a website up and running and I think it’s really going to help. Now if I could just keep the blog posts coming! Actually, here is another thing—mass emails are REALLY hard to figure out! I’ve developed an email list from signups at my markets, but it’s not as easy as it sounds to send out an e-newsletter. If you send them out all at once, people’s email programs will reject them. So it’s been a steep learning curve to figure out the tech end of that kind of marketing.
I absolutely see my customers becoming increasingly interested in local flowers! But the education aspect of seasonal flowers is still a challenge. Somehow we’ve got to get people away from peonies in December and the like. I try to educate gently, but it’s definitely an uphill battle.
I’ve had a weird thing happen three times this year and am just curious if anyone else has had it happen to them: People with money want to buy my knowledge and experience and have me create flower farms for them. It’s so weird! One woman, a society maven, didn’t even want to repay me! She just thought I would hand over my entire business model to her to replicate! Another was a young hipster tech millionaire who wanted me to build a 7-acre flower farm for him and he would repay me in flowers! The third one was the wife of a prominent surgeon who basically wanted the same thing as the hipster investor. All three would be in direct competition with my farm. And even though I was gracious and polite (inwardly I was shocked and appalled, I have to say!) none of the three of them “got it.” Yesterday I got a call from a vegetable farmer at one of my markets who again, wanted a list of everything I grew and how I grew it and wanted a rundown of everything I’ve done in terms of marketing. I mean, I want to be helpful, but this is so weird!
I referred all of them to the ASCFG and told them they could learn everything they needed to know from our wonderful cut flower organization. The Bulletin Board alone is worth the price of admission! I am so proud and pleased to be a member of this terrific organization. Also, The Cut Flower Quarterly, especially the reports of the ASCFG National Seed Trials, is just a font of information. Frank’s articles are always so inspiring! His column in which he talks about how they started gives newbies like me so much hope!
Jonathan and Megan Leiss, Spring Forth Farm, Hurdle Mills, North Carolina
I LOVE the ASCFG! I think it is the coolest trade association ever and I love how the educational mission permeates all the discussions I have (mostly online) with other ASCFG members. Sometimes the cost of attending conferences is a challenge, but I know that no one is making money off of these and it represents the actual cost of putting on the event. And it is always worth it.
In spite of my comment about cost, it is actually scheduling, not finances, that is the main impediment to attending the conferences. I’m a firefighter and the fire department requires me to request vacation for the following calendar year in December, so sometimes if I don’t know when the conferences will be it can be difficult for me to get time off. Plus, this year we are finishing our house construction, so we aren’t doing much else. I really hope that in 2017 both Megan and I will be able to attend the National Conference.
I really appreciate the resources that ASCFG devotes to cut flower research and I feel blessed to be coming into the industry with the last two decades of information at my fingertips. I am sorry I did not apply for a Grower Grant this year. I had a project in mind but with us building our house there was too much going on for me to keep good records of the results. I hope to apply next year. I have a couple projects in mind; one related to spacing of single-cut stems in landscape fabric, and one related to solar greenhouse design.
One of the most exciting things we are trying on our farm is no-till farming and occultation. We first learned about this concept from Tony and Denise Gaetz at Bare Mountain Farm in Oregon. The topic was discussed further at the Athens meeting in 2015. Finally, Jean-Martin Fortier’s book The Market Gardener really gets into the most depth. Basically, we are using 5mil silage tarps as mulch to speed up the decomposition of organic residue and help eliminate annual and perennial weeds. We just started the practice so this will be our first spring seeing how it works for us. We have already learned a lot, however, and know we will get better at it as time goes on. We really want to use no-till practices on permanent raised beds and we think occulation is the key to that. We are giving it the trial by fire, as we are having a huge problem with fescue in some of our beds. Smartweed is our next biggest problem. We hope to see noticeable tilth improvement and weed reductions in the near future.
We want to start a CSA this year and one of the challenges we constantly face is having enough foliage for design work consistently throughout the season. Some of our go-to foliages are mountain mint, hibiscus ‘Mahogany Splendor’, solidago, and bupleurum, as well as wildcrafted tree leaves (in the spring) and lespedeza. Some flowers (sunflowers, gomphrena) come with the top foliage intact and this does add to bouquets too. This year we are experimenting with gooseneck loosestrife foliage, and we are planting eucalyptus, ninebark ‘Coppertina’ and ‘Dart’s Gold’. In terms of annuals we are adding ‘African Blue’, ‘Mrs. Burns Lemon’, and ‘Aromato’ basil. We are excited about the basils but also worried that they might not suitable for our mixed bouquets as we have read they do not tolerate floral preservatives well. We know we will need to experiment. In the long run we will add more perennial foliages, but for now figuring out which annuals to plant has been a challenge. We appreciate all of the excellent columns on this subject in the The Cut Flower Quarterly, including the ones from Tanis.
We had a huge surge in interest in our local wedding flowers this year. However, I can’t say if it is because of a trending interest in local flowers or because of increased awareness of our business in particular. We mostly get clients by word of mouth so as our business gets older we have more word-of-mouth exposure. What we, and I think other farmers are noticing is a huge interest in DIY weddings. Most of our weddings for this year are DIY or a DIY/bouquet combination. Once you factor in our time, DIY is more profitable than design work for us, so we really appreciate this trending interest.
While it isn’t sexy, the thing I am most excited about this year is QuickBooks. Finally we will have an easy and efficient way to keep sales records and analyze our income and expenses. This is a key for a profitable farm, and one that is often lost in the frenzy of farming. I hope to use this information, as well as other records I keep this year, to generate enterprise budgets for a few of our crops and products for next year. Sales to florists make up at least half of our business. This is both a great success and challenge as far as marketing goes and it depends entirely on the personality of the florist’s buyer and our relationship with them. We have two florists who love our flowers and buy as much as they can. They love the quality, freshness and that we will always have “something different” from what she can get elsewhere. Another florist focuses on the price: he might pay a little more for a local product, but it really has to be within five cents of the commodity crop or he won’t consider it. However, we do appreciate that he tells us what price he is willing to pay. Sometimes, as is the case with sunflowers, we are able to find ways to grow more efficiently in order to lower the price and still be profitable. As we try to expand our florist clients, finding the balance between what is unusual and what is useful, what we can grow at their price and who will pay more for a local product, is the biggest challenge. However, the success is that our products speak for themselves. While we can’t always get the price we want, no florist has told us they aren’t interested in local flowers. I think the awareness of local quality is fairly widespread, at least in our area.