Cut Flower Growers’ Concerns: Results of the Survey

Chris Wien, ASCFG Research Foundation

What are the most pressing issues for cut flower growers? Your response to the survey sent out in early January was swift and enthusiastic, with 141 replies in 3 weeks. The intent of the survey was to provide the ASCFG Research Foundation with information on what research we should be fostering, but the responses also gave a useful picture of the constraints growers face.

The first set of issues centered on production factors, where continuing interest in new varieties topped the list, followed by plant establishment techniques. Management of nutrients, soils, insects, diseases, and weeds scored almost equally in importance, and many commented that they considered these as a group and difficult to separate. Several growers expressed interest in more information on organic management methods. Use of supplemental irrigation was of special importance for growers in the Southwest, and this year, also in the Northeast.

Here’s a look at the scoring, ranked with ten as top score.

Production Factors, ranked to 8

• Production and postharvest information on new cut flower varieties        6.19
• Young plant establishment (propagation to planting)                             5.24
• Nutrient management                  4.79
• Soil management                        4.70
• Insect management                    4.42
• Disease management                 4.01
• Weed management                    3.48
• Water/irrigation management     3.16    

Management Factors, ranked to 7
    
• Economics (improving the profitability of individual crops and the farm in general)      5.51
• Harvest efficiency (harvest to processing)                             5.17
• Postharvest management                                                      4.52
• In-field season extension                                                       4.40
• High tunnel (unheated) management and production               4.38
• Greenhouse (heated) management and production                 2.44
    

Among the management factors, which tended to be more general, optimizing “the bottom line” was most important for those who responded. This was true for both experienced and new growers, and points out the importance of publicizing case studies in the Quarterly, and expanding the Mentor Program to help individual growers. Sharing of techniques and tools to improve the harvesting and postharvest handling of our many flower crops is also a top priority, as well as more widespread knowledge of efficient postharvest practices. This indicates that the long-awaited publication of Postharvest Handling of Cut Flowers and Greens will fill a big need.

Few of the members responding produce flowers in heated greenhouses, but interest in management techniques in field and high tunnels is high.

In addition to filling out the ranking tables, some correspondents also added specific comments. Here’s a sampling:

• Soil and nutrient management are complex subjects that go a long way toward dealing with insects and disease. It’s fun to talk about new varieties, but everything depends on the soil.

• All of these are important issues but since each farm varies, not all are equally relevant based on other farms’ experiences. In general, we are most interested in cultural requirements, growing results (yield, etc.), and postharvest treatment. Next, disease, insect, and weed management.

 We need improved genetics in zinnia to help with obvious issues. Also, we need a replacement species for the zinnia window altogether. We rely too much on this species. Worse, one breeder of one variety of the species.

• The business of making flowers profitable is of most interest to me. All pest and disease issues, fertility, etc. are very important and make me a better grower. However, many of those issues are location specific and less universally applicable. It also seems that there is more veg info available to growers on these growing topics; topics specific to flowers is of most interest to me.

• Whatever will make me more profitable. Being a small grower is a tight place to be. Efficiency reigns king.

 Most of the information shared from the Trials is wide reaching, but the specific information seems to be aimed at growers selling to the public or retail florists. As we only sell to wholesalers or distributors, specific information about durability or shelf life in the wholesale chain would be useful. We sometimes struggle with how long we can hold product in our cooler before selling to the wholesale customer. Standard vase life figures are not that beneficial to our operation.

• Just beginning a second season, so some of what I learned last year is just beginning to sink in. I anticipate doubling my production this season without adding labor. Crop selection and marketing for my area are critical economic decisions that I need to make, as well as being able to increase my efficiency in all phases of production.

• My farm is not a hobby. All things I can do to grow better without getting sucked in to every new fertilizer, pesticide, or tool are very important to me. Lean farming is how we can make this venture profitable and sustainable.

 For me, at this time, it is all about the economics. All the information I’m gathering now is to inform my business model, and make the farm healthy economically.

• Our interconnected world brings new insects every season that can destroy the marketability of our products, yet we want to control the damage without them totally disrupting the ecology. High tunnel use and management allows season extension and some climate control to add some predictability in production, but present their own challenges as well.

• New varieties are important because competition at the farmers’ market means that older varieties are soon being grown by other vendors, too. Postharvest management is one way to offer higher quality cut flowers than competitors may be offering.

• We need more straight-up sharing about business management. Hardly anyone talks about numbers. If I can’t earn a living doing this, I have no business treating it as my primary work. We can’t keep putting flower farming forward as a viable business option if we don’t study this.

• It’s all about economics, not pretty flowers. Working less and making a better profit are important goals.

• Best harvest point practices will generate more usable stems per planting. Spacing experiments with different varieties will also help with general guidelines/expectations for own testing. As an example, Chris’s spacing research on sunflowers and lisianthus was very helpful to increase production per square foot.

So now what? The responses to the survey provide a guideline to our ASCFG directors on the health of our industry, and the topics that need to be addressed in our meetings and publications. The survey results also will guide the Research Foundation on where research emphasis should be placed in future. Thank you, members, for sharing your ideas!

“Zinnia Meltdown” to be Investigated

Several cut flower growers have reported the occurrence, and sometimes recurrence, of what has come to be called zinnia “meltdown”, a condition in which zinnia stems can become mushy and soft, and petals may exhibit a type of burn. Questions about whether this is caused by rainy, humid  conditions, soil-borne disease, or variety selection are almost as numerous as potential cures: different postharvest solutions, variable pH, or temperatures in the cooler.

The ASCFG Research Foundation recently awarded plant pathologist Dr. Fulya Baysal-Gure of the Dept. of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Tennessee State University $5000 to study this issue. Using information gathered from surveys of ASCFG members, Dr. Baysal-Gurel hopes to first determine the distribution of the disorder by geographical location, cultivar, month and year when the problem was observed, as well as field strategies such as seed and water treatments or sanitation practices. If you are asked, please participate in this important project.

Donate to the Research Foundation and Get Mugged!

The ASCFG Research Foundation is funded solely by donations from ASCFG members. It’s up to you to keep projects like John Dole’s postharvest projects or this new zinnia study operational. Even if you can contribute only $25 or $50, your support is essential.

Donate today http://tinyurl.com/jm7agfm and we’ll send you a mug for your desk!

The Certified American Grown Council approved a new variation of the Certified American Grown logo that gives Certified farms the option to feature their state as part of the brand and labels. A formal request of consideration was sent to the Certified American Grown Council from the board of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. Certified American Grown will be issuing the state version logos to current Certified farms upon request. For more information, please contact [email protected]