In the winter of 2007, I came across a copy of The Cut Flower Quarterly at a friend’s house, the cover having caught my eye—a beautiful photo of white delphinium. I eagerly read the entire edition, discovering it was dedicated to what I had long fantasized about: growing and selling cut flowers.

It was an exciting discovery, a terrific magazine, and was the catalyst for my joining the ASCFG. The ten years since then have been exciting for me, as I have been able to fulfill that fantasy and now am a flower farmer on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Of course, in my original fantasy, flower farming was going to happen in the future, when I was retired. While not yet retired, I’ve learned many lessons along the way. I would like to share with you how our honor system roadside flower carts have become a significant part of the success of our business.

Some Experience, But More is Always Better

I certainly did not start flower farming without experience; in fact, I have been working in the horticulture industry for thirty-seven years. When I came across the ASCFG, I had been running a successful fine gardening firm on Cape Cod for sixteen years. We had been growing bedding plants and perennials in several greenhouses I owned, so I was well versed in growing in that environment. We grew material only to plant in our clients’ gardens, no retail. We cut and arranged the gardens’ harvest for several clients, and I had produced several weddings for friends and family. I was confident that doing events was not a direction I would expand into.

When I joined the ASCFG, I took advantage of the experience of my newly discovered colleagues. I read Bulletin Board posts, Quarterlys, and learned with excitement about members gathering at national meetings for farm tours, educational sessions, and growers’ schools. I kept thinking about my dream of flower farming. I was interested in growing lilies, because land on Cape Cod is expensive and hard to find, so using my greenhouses for growing seemed like a good fit. My intention was to sell only wholesale to local florists. I began with a crate or two of lilies, grew and sold the stems, and the next year I ordered a few more crates. I knew I was ready to move forward and that’s when I started attending regional and national meetings of the ASCFG.

At my first National Conference, the single most important thing I heard was the advice from Dave Dowling: “Don’t grow anything until you know who you are going to sell it to.”

I, as I suspect is true of most of the ASCFG membership, had no formal education in business, but I had founded and developed a very successful landscape maintenance and gardening company and was not intimidated by structures and equipment. However, I was already maxed out with running that company and the demanding schedule that goes along with a dozen employees and 70-90 accounts. I was developing a whole new enterprise and while I had a plan of who I would sell to (florists), the reality was I needed more help. That help came in the form of the secret weapon already on my payroll. Sandy Fitzgerald, who has a background in marketing, is an incredibly organized and tireless workhorse who back then was employed only part-time in the office doing the bookkeeping. Always eager to learn more about all aspects of my business, Sandy observed and supported me from a distance through my first couple of plantings of lilies.

I easily found buyers for the few hundred stems produced each of the first few years of dabbling. In 2011, I attended the National Conference in Reston, Virginia, and it was there that I caught the serious bug. Energized and excited, I was able to get Sandy enthused about some expansion. With her support, we immediately placed a larger order of lilies to plant that winter in one of our greenhouses.

By the time that first lily harvest was expected in late winter 2012, Sandy had jumped in and taken charge of plantings, sales, and marketing; we had visited local florists with a promise of local product, held an open house attended by a few interested buyers, and had what we thought was a good plan to sell our lilies and peonies. Late in the fall of 2013, with the help of the USDA Farm Ownership Program, I purchased a little over four acres several miles away from my business’ home base on one of the busiest roads in the area, our second farm location was born.

You Take the High Road, I’ll Take the Back Road

We are now in our fourth season growing cuts in that field in large enough numbers to produce thousands of mixed field flower bunches mid-June through October after our ranunculus, daffodil, and tulip harvests have slowed to a crawl, and have constructed a respectable greenhouse from which we can harvest our lily crops Easter through Thanksgiving.

Our first farm location is on a busy back road. This is important, because as in most resort areas, locals on Cape Cod learn to get where they need to go by using back roads and shortcuts to avoid the inevitable heavy backups and difficult left-hand turns that are the curse of living and driving in a tourist area. We have a respectable year-round population and we are home to a large number of retirees—snowbirds who summer on the Cape and winter in the South. Summer traffic is a challenge.

On my busy road—the main route taken by a large segment of our population to get to Hyannis, the “city” on Cape Cod—some 15,000 cars can pass by my driveway on any given summer day. Back in 2013, within a half mile of my driveway, there were two seasonal flower carts each putting out three to five bunches each day, both with a five dollar price point.

I was happy selling flowers to our local florists, and I know that doing events was not a direction for me, my gardening clients being my first obligation. We have farmers’ markets here on the Cape and we have dabbled in attending them, with mixed results. The sales figures are consistently a disappointment, especially with the costs associated and all the preparations needed to get to that market. 

While the promise of exposure is exciting, the farmers’ markets have just been a dud for us. But one day, toward the end of the summer months of 2012, Sandy put our two-wheeled garden cart out on the dirt area at the end of my driveway with a few bunches of surplus lilies in a bucket, a “Five dollars per bunch” sign (so as not to exceed the other local sellers), and a small cash box. Those lilies sold quickly that day, so she tried again the next day. As the week wore on and each day the flowers sold easily and the cash box was full, it became clear that this system was a hit. We had a winning location along with a clientele who were proving to be honest as well as consistent.

Since that first real year of growing, we’ve made regular weekly or twice weekly deliveries to local florists who have become addicted to our lilies. Along with the lilies, we began harvesting sunflowers, dahlias, and assorted annual and perennial cuts, we gladly added those items to our deliveries providing local-grown product to these busy florists. But those first weeks and months of putting bunches out on the side of the road for people to police themselves and leave money in the cash box was a winning sales tool for us, and has now five years later has proven to be the main source of revenue for our farm.

Our flower carts are open daylight hours, seven days a week, from about March 15 through Thanksgiving, when the temperatures are above freezing. We have big days like Easter weekend and Mother’s Day weekend, but the arrival of the summer residents and tourists who are renting for a week or a month keep our daily sales consistent through the entire summer. Our regulars keep coming daily during the shoulder seasons.

We have from the beginning produced and sold Oriental and OT hybrid lilies wholesale. These are grown strictly in our heated greenhouse so we can control disease issues. Our florists are addicted to the superior quality and the wide variety we offer.

The same has been the case with our honor system flower cart clientele. We have developed a loyal following of people who adore our lilies! Every morning before 8:00, we put out 15 or 20 two-stem pre-made bunches of lilies. Our current price is eight dollars per bunch, we’re getting $4.00 per stem for these lilies, ($1.30 per bud). As of mid-August this season we had sold over 2500 of those two-stem bunches at the two carts. We have found little demand for floral design services, and encourage people to fill their special orders with mixed bunches from the stands.

Our daily routine, like most of our fellow growers, is to harvest our field of annuals and perennials daily. We condition that harvest and then make mixed field-grown flower bunches from that day’s harvest, which will go out on the stand the following morning. We harvest our lilies daily, and twice a week make bunches for the cart so we can easily restock as needed. What we do not do is put out anything that’s left over, or on the way to the compost pile. Sandy, who continues to run the day-to-day operation, has eagle eyes and is a stickler for quality. We stock the carts with only first quality flowers. We spend twenty minutes in the morning putting fresh water in jars, and moving buckets of flowers from our coolers to the stands, and ten minutes at the end of the day putting the day’s leftovers back into the coolers. There are no tents to erect, no trucks to pack, few staffing expenses.

Honor Systems on Trial

Since joining the ASCFG, it has become clear to me that there is not one magic marketing strategy employed by the membership. Some of you are floral and wedding designers and grow your cuts primarily for that market. Some of you are doing CSA and farmers’ markets, many of you sell wholesale to florists, many sell to groceries large and small, and a number of the membership have self-service honor system flower stands. Many do all of the above or at a minimum several of those methods.

We all live in distinctly unique areas and each has challenges associated with marketing of crops. Not everyone lives on a road suitable for an honor system cart. But for those of you who do want to use an honor system for your flowers, I am glad to share some lessons learned and encourage those of you who live in appropriate areas to persevere and try this method of sales.

I reached out to the membership through Facebook earlier this summer to get a feeling for who might be using the honor system and how it is working for them. The few who responded are almost all in rural areas or on roads adjacent to recreation areas and have only a small percentage of their sales from these carts. Some offer honor system “pick your own” as well as those who just offer pre-made bunches or surplus from markets or wholesale deliveries.

All respondents agreed that theft was a big issue. Most use cameras to discourage theft, with mixed results. We also now use cameras. We have been able to identify people who are taking bunches; we even identified our largest, most methodical thief who turned out to be a florist a few towns over. Our trail cameras work extremely well, taking clear pictures of faces and license plates, and even showing the denomination of money going in the box. We have shared pictures of thieves on Facebook and within hours have been able to identify someone we are looking for. 

However, it takes hours and hours to look through those pictures to identify the one suspect, who many times denies it, and although the theft ends, no one is paying for all the time looking through pictures. It may be that our past vigilance has helped, but with a better record-keeping system this year, we had a big surprise.

A Surprising Discovery

We have always been methodical about keeping track of the product that goes out, and what comes in at the end of the day. We have in the past focused only on the shortages at the end of the day, but now record when we have extra cash at the end of the day as well. We have been delighted to discover that while we are often short, we are also sometimes way over. One day someone might be short of cash and leave a few dollars less than their purchase, but on those same days, someone has only a twenty and leaves the extra to recoup on a later visit.

Over the past five months, more than $40,000 has passed through our two cash boxes. While it is devastating to discover that we have been shorted by $1460 this year so far, the discovery that we are likewise overpaid by $1425 is enlightening. I consider that a big win. We are no longer spending precious time looking through pictures on the cameras trying to identify the culprits of theft. We now have a new attitude and renewed excitement about this aspect of our sales.

Now six seasons into our experience with the honor system, we increased our bunch prices in 2017 from five and ten dollar price points to one single eight-dollar item. Since we started this cart, one of the two neighboring carts has disappeared and the second has more limited availability (cutting back due to excessive theft). We have found that we have a very regular clientele, but almost daily someone who has never stopped before does for the first time.

Our customers are in love with the selection, and price does not seem to be their main reason for their frequenting our carts. Sure, once in a while someone needs special attention and interrupts our busy crew, but it almost always results in a large sale.

People are thrilled to be policing themselves and the enthusiasm for a little eight-dollar bunch of mixed cuts or a six-bud bunch of lilies is relayed to us daily by people who leave notes or we run into while restocking. And while the work is hard, I feel so fortunate that I didn’t wait until retirement to become a flower farmer. To be able to bring the simple joy of flowers to so many is truly work worth doing. I count my blessings every day for the contribution and consistent never-say-die attitude I have in Sandy, and likewise am so appreciative of that day she put out the two-wheeled cart with a bucket of flowers. The flower cart honor system is a winning arrangement for us!

Rebecca Perry

Sabatia Flower Farm

Rebecca Perry is owner of Sabatia Flower Farm in Centerville, Massachusetts. Contact her at [email protected]