Brad and Shelly Brubaker, Little Creek Valley
Bringing old-fashioned business sense to a growing venture
Brad and Shelly Brubaker were looking for opportunities to spend more time with their children. Farming, the couple believed, was the answer. But with only a quarter of an acre available for production, the Brubakers knew their focus needed to be on high-value crops. In 2011, they planted their first field of flowers.
“Flower farming captivated our interest and seemed like a fun challenge,” Shelly recalls. “With such a small space, we had to till up our yard and use very intense production methods to grow as many flowers as we could.”
The first season, their farm, Little Creek Valley in West Manchester, Ohio, grew 25 varieties of cut flowers, selling them to local florists and via two weekly markets.
Though demand was strong, the learning curve was steep: With no flower farming experience, the couple relied on photos and descriptions in seed catalogs with no idea whether their picks would resonate with customers. Shelly recalls, “Every year, we try new things that either become new favorites or give us something to laugh about.”
Intrigued by the colors and offbeat shape of Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera), the couple planted it but struggled to sell it, explaining that the flowers were too fragile. After one season, Little Creek Valley retired Mexican hat from its fields.
“If we took the time to grow something, we always try to sell it,” Shelly says. “It always goes on the truck, sometimes for weeks at a time; we never give up as long as we still have it available.”
Nevertheless, They Persisted
The Brubakers showed the same persistence when it came to developing relationships with customers. Without high-tech tools such as a website, social media accounts or email to market their flowers—a decision made for religious reasons—the couple took an old-fashioned approach to promoting their flowers.
“We knew we’d have to put a lot of effort into marketing,” Shelly recalls. “We loaded our van with flowers and started going to visit florists; we’d show up at the same time every week and we knew if we could get them out to the van to see our products, they hardly ever closed the doors without buying something.”
Shelly acknowledges that operating a cut flower farm without some of the high-tech tools most growers take for granted does require a little extra effort. Instead of buying seeds or bulbs online, she orders through catalogs; without a smart phone to accept Square or PayPal payments, customers must write checks to her.
“It wasn’t like we went backwards,” Shelly explains. “Since we’ve never had the Internet, it’s not like I think ‘Oh, bummer, I used to be able to order online and now I can’t do that.’ We’re used to picking up the phone and making calls, or going to visit people”
In fact, forming personal relationships rather than connecting via social media is a cornerstone of the business model at Little Creek Valley.
Stopping in to visit florists and make deliveries helped the Brubakers develop personal relationships with their customers. Shelly calls florists each week to tell them what’s available and accepts orders over the phone—though most florists prefer to “shop” from the back of the van.
Without a blog or social media, Shelly remains in contact with customers via a printed newsletter that’s sent via snail mail (or hand delivered).
Recognizing that some businesses might struggle without the ability to conduct certain transactions such as sending electronic invoices, their church partnered with a private company that provides email services (without Internet connections), allowing Little Creek Valley to get its first email address. Although the Brubakers can email catalog order forms, email invoices, and send e-newsletters, Shelly believes florists prefer face-to-face visits and printed newsletters, explaining, “They seem to really appreciate the fact that we’re stilling to spend time talking with them and getting to know them. It feels more personal.
“Not having social media has blessed us rather than hindered us because we have personal connections to all of our customers that we wouldn’t have if we were all paperless and wireless,” she adds.
The regular personal interactions also taught the couple an important lesson about their market: Most florists lack understanding about the benefits of local blooms. In the beginning, Brad and Shelly spent a lot of time explaining that local flowers are fresher and will hold up longer and, unlike imported flowers sometimes doused in chemicals to survive the long journey from field to market, Little Creek Valley focuses on farming sustainably.
A Blooming Success
The old-fashioned marketing efforts have paid off. By the third growing season, Little Creek Valley’s customer base blossomed alongside their flower fields and Brad was able to quit his job to grow flowers full-time.
Little Creek Valley sells flowers to 25 florists in Ohio and Indiana. Demand for their flowers allowed the Brubakers to move to a new, larger, farm with more growing space. The couple now grows 50 different varieties of fresh cut flowers, including ranunculus, delphinium, sweet William, salvia, larkspur, amaranthus, rudbeckia, foxglove, peonies, and zinnias.
In addition to the one-and-a-half-acres of field production, the farm relies on a greenhouse and two hoophouses to extend the growing season. The new farm, with its 1800s farmhouse and red bank barn, is located near an interstate, making it more accessible to visitors than their previous rural location. Last season, the Brubakers started hosting farm tours, offering classes, and selling buckets of fresh flowers for events, opening up new possibilities for the farm.
“Being here is allowing us to fulfill one of our visions for the farm of connecting with our community,” Shelly says.
The farm is also helping the couple deepen other connections.
Little Creek Valley is a true family farm. The Brubakers have five children ranging in age from four to 12 and each has his or her own role on the farm, from pulling weeds and harvesting flowers to bundling bouquets and helping with deliveries.
“We make a great team and that interaction we have as a family is precious,” says Shelly. “Farming also keeps us all in close connection with God. He is the provider of our strength and wisdom and we are so blessed that He has allowed us to have this farm and grow these beautiful flowers.”