Tanis, how will we ever thank you!

We owe Tanis Clifton a GIANT debt of gratitude for everything she’s done for each of us, our Region, and the ASCFG. She’s one of the best storytellers out there—with a huge and generous heart to boot—and has done such an amazing job sharing stories and photos of growers all around the Southeast Region and beyond. I’ll do my best to step into her work boots in this new role, but I know I’ll never be able to walk in her shoes. Thank you Tanis, for the last three years of making each of us, and all of us, better growers!

So, what to talk about for my first report?

It’s pretty daunting, staring at this blank computer screen, still with a head full of learning and inspiration from our amazing National Conference in Grand Rapids, my farming to-do list staring at me, plus all the dreams I have for our little flower farm simmering patiently on the back burner. I’m betting this issue of the Quarterly  will be jam-packed with TONS of info from Grand Rapids, so if you don’t mind, I’ll take this space to introduce you to Three Toads Farm.

All it took was a little Kentucky bourbon

Yep, a little Kentucky bourbon is probably the nudge behind just about every great big, far-fetched, crazy idea ever hatched and that’s what happened to us on that late summer evening in 1997 on our front porch. Our great friend Charlie Hendricks and I came up with the notion that we were going into the flower farming business as a sideline. Not only that, we had the totally insane idea that we wanted to “grow the kind of flowers that could literally stop people in their tracks.” And we were going to name it Three Toads Farm, after the name my husband and I gave our little place in the country.

Obviously, the bourbon was talking.

The next day we still thought it was a good idea, so we ordered up 500 Oriental lily bulbs from White Flower Farm and our tiny flower farm was born. Then we planted the bulbs too late, and it stayed cold and wet. The lilies didn’t exactly match our dreams. Fast forward two years, and we were still a mess, having made just about every mistake known to man. But we still had that darn dream to grow showstopping flowers. I joined the ASCFG and the third Toad signed up to help Charlie. That first ASCFG meeting around 2001 in Texas showed me—among lots of other things—the power of branding (thank you, Pamela and Frank), which became the foundation for everything we’ve done since.

Things literally took off for us. We grew the largest bulbs we could find (yes, we finally stopped buying them retail) of LA, OT, and Oriental lilies, and our farmers’ market customers went gaga over them. We decided to push the season and tried forcing them in my ancient backyard greenhouse. The experiment worked to get the season going early, but we failed totally forcing them for Christmas, but we learned about lighting.

What we were also learning is that people—well, some people—loved the idea of buying something special and would pay good money for our great big, gorgeous lilies. The first time we sold them for $4 a stem at the farmers’ market, I almost threw up, I was so nervous. But it worked. In 2003 we built a real production greenhouse, a 60 x 90’ polycarbonate setup from Stuppy, and started growing all of our lilies on tables inside, year-round. I’d been to enough ASCCFG meetings and tours to realize we needed a cooler, and the guys built one. We were growing lots of flowers outside and experimenting with more inside the greenhouse. Life was pretty good.

Fast Forward to Today

We have two of those Stuppy greenhouses and still grow 100% of our lilies inside, which we sell at the farmers’ market for $7-9 per stem. Yes, it took a while (and a whole lot of consistency about what we grew and brought to market) to build the kind of reputation where we could actually get that price. We still buy 18-20 and 20-22+ cm bulbs to get the biggest stems, largest flowers, and the most buds. We cut the stems long, condition them in the cooler, and when we sell them at the market, every stem goes in a vial of water with flower food, wrapped up in bright green waxed tissue paper. Lexington has some well-off people with the horse industry and all, but there are a whole lot of people who aren’t like that. We have lots of people who start out buying just one stem and for less than $10, they can spread all those great big buds all around the house to open, and smell like heaven.

We still follow that crazy notion of trying our darnedest to grow flowers that can stop people in their tracks. That’s been our niche and it has set the bar for everything we do. Lilies are still a big staple, but we’ve added other big focal flowers—dahlias and peonies—along with just about every kind of specialty flower or foliage we can try out.

We grow on about 2 ½ acres outside, between the flower farm with the two greenhouses and main flower fields and our farm, where we grow dahlias, peonies, and hydrangeas, along with spring flowers (ranunculus, anemones, forget-me-nots, and poppies) under low tunnels. The past two years we overwintered our 600 dahlias under low tunnels, learning from Bob Wollam. About 90% made it through our zone 6b winters and we could start cutting before the end of May. This year we dug them up so we can reorganize the dahlia patch, get rid of some of the poor sellers and grow more of the winners. We’ll see how well that works out! In 2014, we started doing on-the-farm Field to Vase workshops.

There Are Still Three of Us Toads

Charlie, me, and Charlie’s daughter Elizabeth, who was with us the first time we ever sold at the farmers’ market in 1988. Today, she’s 29 and in charge of all our weddings and special events. Elizabeth’s crazy talented and I think the reason Martha Stewart named us one of the top ten farmer-florists two years ago.

We started getting serious about wedding and event florals, using our own flowers and foliages, in 2012. We each focus on different things and yes, how we handle finances is definitely complicated, as you’d guess, but we work hard to keep that all behind the scenes. To our customers, it’s just Three Toads Farm. Square sales, no matter whose account the money goes into, always says Three Toads Farm.

Two Ideas to Consider

I’ll be the first to say that nothing we do is unique, but if you haven’t done this yet, consider doing on-the-farm workshops, and forcing spring bulbs to sell as fragrant spring bulb gardens.

We started doing workshops three years ago after a farmers’ market customer watched Elizabeth create a bouquet and asked, “Do you ever do classes on making bouquets like that?” It took us two seconds to decide “Why yes, we do!” And two hours later our first Field to Vase Workshop at Three Toads Farm was launched.

We created a flyer for the market, posted it on our Instagram and Facebook sites, and ten people signed up. We were ecstatic. We hosted two more workshops that year.

People loved the opportunity to come out for a behind-the-scenes tour and learn what we grow and how we do it. We cut the very best of all our flowers and foliages at both farms, condition them, and then display them in nice buckets and containers on our growing tables down the length of the greenhouse. Elizabeth shows how she creates a giant farmer-florist bouquet, and then we turn the attendees loose, with as much help needed for each  to go home overjoyed with their visit to Three Toads.

In 2016, we got a little more sophisticated, raised our prices a tad, and posted all of our workshops on the website. They all sold out.

This year, we tried again to get a little smarter and posted all the workshops on our website in November, touting them as Christmas gifts. As I write this, it’s working out pretty well. You can check them out at www.threetoadsfarm.com

If you’re not already doing this, you should! We are nowhere near the likes of Erin Benzakein, Jennie Love, and lots of other awesome flower farmers and farmer-florists, but we have a ton of fun doing these and have found people REALLY want to come to experience the farm, and try their hand at what we do. They go away telling wonderful stories, and totally making us seem a lot better at what we do than we think we are. It’s helped build the reputation of Three Toads Farm by leaps and bounds, and it will for your flower business, too.

If you’re forcing spring bulbs for early sales, pot some up as spring bulb gardens. We started doing this about thirteen years ago for a high-end event here, called the Blue Grass Trust Antiques & Garden Show. We don’t use our cooler much in the winter, so I get about 3,500 early-blooming, fragrant varieties of heirloom and multi-stem spring bulbs, pot them in six packs, and put them in the cooler for 12-14 weeks of cooling. Then we bring them into the almost unheated greenhouse to get them going, and pot them up in all kinds of beautiful baskets, concrete urns, and containers, topped off with Spanish, clump, or reindeer moss. If you have a high-end place to sell them, be sure to make your prices align with that.

Last year, we added a new spring bulb garden class to our roster, giving everyone “first dibs” on our spring bulbs. You know, people just love having first choice on just about anything.

Whew! This has been a whole lot of talking on my part. I hope to see lots of you at the spring meeting in Portland and look forward to hearing from you any time!

Valerie Schirmer

Three Toads Farm

Valerie Schirmer Three Toads Farm Contact at [email protected]