As we’re wrapping up our third season with the Sonoma Flower Mart, I thought it was time to shed some light on our little mart, and how we’ve tweaked our model while we search for the best way to fit our particular corner of the world. I’ve gotten a number of questions about the SFM from ASCFG members in the past year who are looking to pull together with other local growers to form some sort of collective selling model, so here go some answers.

The Current Model

In a nutshell, these are the stats of the SFM as it operated in 2017:

• 2017 was the first season as an open, shop-the-floor market. We operated on a much smaller, pre-order only scale in the past two seasons.
• Run as an LLC by two women with a floral design company, with the “member” farmers as stakeholders. We had seasonal meetings and opportunities to voice our opinions in the business, although we’re not owners. We originally considered opening as a co-op, but didn’t have the level of organization, time, or buy-in to get this off the ground so it instead was spearheaded by a local florist and farmer advocate from our regional group.
• Housed in warehouse space in a building shared by a coffee roaster and the florists who run the Mart, we were able to negotiate rent for just two days per week.
• Open two days a week, Wednesday and Thursday from 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
• Six farms selling each week (three of us smaller farms shared one stall/salesperson/rent).
• Each farm/stall must be present to sell its own product.
• Open to both wholesale shoppers (must buy a $50 badge for the season) and retail shoppers, different price tiers.
• Mart-wide availability list and pre-ordering available to farms who want to pay a SFM staffer to take the time to compile the list, send it out, and receive orders. We use an online ordering platform called Freshr.
• Each farm pays monthly rent to LLC for warehouse space.
• Farmers keep 100% of their profits.
• The Mart runs one stall with items bought on consignment from non-member farms.

The Lay of the Land

We’re located an hour and a half north of San Francisco, in the center of Sonoma County, a huge destination wedding region. We’ve got tons of florists based in our area, but are also home to many weddings designed by San Francisco-based florists. Most florists in both camps travel to the huge SF Flower Mart on at least a weekly basis to purchase flowers. When we expanded into a farmer’s market model this year, we hoped to be able to provide enough consistency, variety, and quality to become a one-stop shop for florists. If we can eliminate the need to travel down to SF, and allow people designing with flowers in the North Bay to buy North Bay-grown flowers right here in the North Bay, we’d consider that a huge success. It’s hilarious that this is seen as an almost revolutionary concept in spite of how old school and sensical it is. It’s often the case that Sonoma County designers will buy Sonoma-grown flowers down in SF, only to cart them back up here.

Successes

• By joining forces in getting the word out about one central location to buy flowers, all of the small farms were able to greatly expand their reach. We got way more traction as a central body than most of us did independently.
• Florists were able to make big pre-orders for items they knew they would need, as well as “shop the floor” for last-minute, impulse, or rare items.
• The camaraderie, support, and sense of community created by the Mart was pretty spectacular.
• We were able to spread the word about local flowers far better together than any of us alone.
• Proved to be a great weekly sales outlet for most of the farms.

Struggles

• It’s still hard for customers to pre-order product sight unseen.
• We don’t always have enough variety in our products to draw florists from far away, or to become a one-stop-shop for them in a consistent way.
• Many farms grow the same items.
• Farms with destinations for shrink fared better. If I had had a grocery store or farmers’ market account this year, I would have cut more flowers to bring to the mart, knowing that I could have sold them elsewhere afterwards (even for less money).
• It’s hard for the Mart to depend on some of us super small farms for large and consistent numbers of flowers. They want to highlight and support us, but need to be able to fluidly buy in from larger farms (and slightly farther away) in order to fill in when needed. This seems like it must be tricky to flush out.

Room for Growth

We’re getting closer with each season to figuring out what works. With more variety in our products, bringing in some rare or staple products from non-North Bay farms, reaching out to grocery chains or other new outlets, and a bigger focus on advertising, we’ll be getting even closer in 2018 and beyond.