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For some it’s getting straight A’s, for others it’s making partner at the law firm (my winter courtroom television drama binge is already in full force), or winning that Oscar or, I don’t know, qualifying for the local roller derby team. It may not be every little girl’s dream, but for me, joining the ASCFG Board of Directors means that I have arrived. I made sure to drill the ASCFG acronym into the minds of my friends and family months ago so that when the day finally came, they were able to respond with the kind of enthusiasm I was looking for. I think it worked—my boyfriend caught me rereading the latest issue of The Cut Flower Quarterly on the couch the other day and exclaimed, “Oh! Isn’t that a great issue?!” They get it.
I’m so excited to take over the reins from Paula Rice and want to thank her for being such a generous, business-savvy, flower-obsessed, workhorse of a farmer and mentor. For those of you who haven’t heard her speak about her farm operations and systems, go back and check out some past presentations on the ASCFG web site. She sees a promising variety or sales outlet or new venture and goes after it full-force, all the while being the most organized person around. And then she shares with us her successes and lessons learned; I always come away with useful wisdom to incorporate into my own business planning. So thanks, Paula, for setting the bar so inspiringly high.
I don’t have nearly the level of experience as Paula, so I’m going to focus on sharing lessons that I’m learning along the way, along with tips gleaned from others, notes from the field, and plans for the future. I’m hoping that my new role will allow me to bring more of us growers together more often, and get me out to visit more farm operations. Join me!
For now I’m going to share some reflections on this past year and planning for next, with the hope that my experiences can help some of you. This past season was my first year in production of B-Side Farm, a half-acre plot that I cultivated to sell cuts to designers, small grocers, florists, and for use in my own little wedding design business and local flower CSA. I juggled this in the early mornings and late evenings while employed full-time as the farm manager of a small, educational non-profit farm, Petaluma Bounty. It was too much and it has come time to choose. So after three years at the Bounty—a job I’ve really loved and that has taught me tons—I’m leaving to make the jump into flowers full-time. I’ve just broken ground on another half-acre plot about thirty minutes away, and am currently working out what to plant where.
In the midst of this transition, I’m thinking of this leap into flowers and how to be smart about it. Here are the main improvements and ideas I’m working on for this coming season.
Streamlining Processes for My Customers and for Me
This year, I began each week by cutting everything that was ready on Sunday and Monday, and delivering it each Tuesday to my biggest customer, a hugely supportive, busy florist just ten minutes from me. Through working with them—and even working for them in the studio—over the past few years, I’ve learned what varieties and colors they’re looking for and in what quantity. This has meant that for the most part I can just bring them what I have each week with little to no communication beforehand. It’s a dream. They head down to the San Francisco Flower Mart every Wednesday, so the amount of flowers I provide is just a drop in the bucket for them.
As the week progresses, I fill smaller orders for local designers and for the new Sonoma Flower Mart (a venture I’m hugely excited about and will come back to), harvest for my own mixed bouquet sales and restaurant accounts, and then finish the week off with a Thursday/Friday harvest for either a wedding I’m designing for, or perhaps another delivery to the florist.
This worked pretty well for me this year. But now that I’m scaling up, and want to expand my customer base—and because I’ll have more than the twenty maximum bunches of any one variety at a time—I need to change my system. I’ve gleaned some good ideas from ASCFG conferences regarding availability and ordering. My plan is to create a list of projected availability each Sunday for the first part of the week, with the intention of doing two main harvests every week. I’ll then send the spreadsheet to my big florist customer and ask for a quick turnaround. Once I get it back, I’ll edit what’s left over, and send it to my next biggest customer, and so on and so forth. On Wednesday or Thursday after I’ve harvested and delivered all my big bulk orders, I’ll harvest what has bloomed in the days since and know that I’ll be using all of those flowers for my CSA, restaurant accounts, and grocery bouquets. Sounds like it will work, right? I’m a little nervous about either overestimating how many bunches I’ll come up with and disappointing customers, or underestimating and be faced with unsold flowers at the week’s end. But growing pains are inevitable…I’m telling myself.
Pull – Don’t Push – Product
I’m reading all the same books that many of you are this winter: The Lean Farm, The Market Gardener, and of course Richard Wiswall’s work. One salient idea for me so far is this idea of responding to existing customer demand (pulling) rather than pushing a certain product on them. There are certain things that I consistently could have sold far more of this year (‘Cafe au Laits’, green amaranth, white snaps, dark hellebores), and others that were always a struggle to sell in the quantities that they were blooming. I had a 100-foot bed of bright ‘Amazon Neon’ dianthus, for example, that I planted because in 2014 it was incredibly useful in my supermarket bouquets. But this year when I was selling to mostly florists, it proved to be way too much of one color. My big florist account would take, reluctantly, up to twenty bunches at once, but called me to say, “You know, Lennie, bright purple isn’t really a huge wedding color for us. We’re trying to make it all work, but…” This shows how supportive my accounts are, but the subtext is clearly, “Stop pushing product on us!” So in planning my crop this year I want to focus much more closely on filling holes in the local marketplace.
Invest In the Bottlenecks
There are certain processes that always take much longer for me than I expect them to. This year, transplanting stands out as one of those. Seeding in the greenhouse was manageable and predictable, as was harvesting; actually, harvesting moved more quickly than I anticipated. But time and again, transplants sat on benches, rootbound, for weeks as I struggled to find time to get them into the ground. I’ve identified a few small things I can do to fix this problem. The first is to hire help for plant-outs. I tend to be stubborn and tie my ego to my ability to get everything done on my own. I have to let this go, and how better to start than to get help on those big days?
Another thing I can do is resign myself to paying more for lisianthus plugs in 72’s that can go straight in the ground when they arrive. Last year, like the one before, I ordered them in 288’s, as many people do. I got them potted up in 72’s on time but then was weeks—and I mean weeks—late getting them into the ground. They were in rough shape and constituted one of my biggest crop failures of the season. I lost a significant amount in potential earnings. This year, I’m going to spend a little more money getting sized-up flower plugs, plan my shipping date more carefully, and mark a big red “LISIANTHUS PLANT OUT” day on the calendar.
What Do I Love To Do? Where Is The Money? Where’s The Balance in Between?
I’m still figuring out my niche.
I’m a good farmer. I love growing big quantities of a wide variety of flowers, the hustle in the field, the long, long rows, the standing back after a harvest and being overwhelmed by the quantity. I love making tons of on-the-fly yet stunning market bouquets. But I can’t succeed as a production-focused flower farmer growing on just an acre selling bunches for $6.
I’m an okay-and-improving-every-day designer. I’m thrilled to have found my creative side, and I love figuring out what works and the adrenaline and the way my dirty sweaty work can suddenly look so fancy next to a white wedding dress. But I don’t want to sacrifice work in the fields to work on big weddings every weekend, and I don’t want the bulk of my work to turn into figuring out logistics and hiring in help for big weddings that I can’t handle on my own. What’s the comfortable number? How many can I do a month and still have fun with them? How few can I do to bring in enough money to provide some semblance of a work/life balance?
I love teaching and sharing the beauty of things growing in the field. For three years I’ve been teaching people how to grow things and connect to the land. I’m trying to work out how best to incorporate workshops and learning opportunities into my 2016 plan. My new farm plot is connected to a commercial kitchen and event space that is excited to collaborate and allow me to host workshops. This could be a great opportunity for me to attract city folk from San Francisco and start up a really robust workshop program. How do I gain momentum with this branch of my business while not neglecting the work I have to do on the other ends?
I hope that sharing some of these inquiries specific to my plan will be of interest to some of you as you work out your plans. Where do you find balance between passion and money and time? Where does your workflow stall and get caught up in bottlenecks, and what can you do to eliminate them? What should you grow more of—or less of? And how is your ordering and availability process working for both you and your customers?
Thanks for reading, and for your support of the ASCFG. Again, I’m honored to be serving on the Board and can’t wait to connect with you.