Thinking about becoming a certified organic flower grower? Learn what you need to know to make the right decision for your operation.

Second of a Three-Part Series

The era of certified organic products has definitely arrived, with sales booming in many areas, including grain crops, mushrooms, livestock, maple syrup, and personal care products. The latest addition to the organic line-up? Hemp. “It’s interesting that flowers, for some reason, haven’t shown as much growth when it comes to certified organics,” says Don Franczyk. He’s the Executive Director of Baystate Organic Certifiers in Dighton, Massachusetts. “There aren’t that many certified organic flower growers in the marketplace now. Maybe there’s not enough consumer demand.”

A former flower farmer, Franczyk is very familiar with flower production and still grows flowers—just for himself. These days he dedicates his work hours to helping producers cross the finish line to earning organic certification. “The biggest advantage to getting certified is that you can market your product as organic,” he says. “You can use that happy USDA seal that identifies stuff as organic and gain an advantage in the marketplace, because consumers recognize that seal.

Baystate Organics currently has 50 to 75 flower growers who are certified organic, with most growing flowers in addition to vegetables. “We have a lot of smaller farms up and down the East Coast who are adding flowers to their crop mix,” Franczyk says. “For growers who are good at raising flowers and can bring a nice bouquet to market, there are customers looking for them.”

Choose Certified Organic for Marketing

Missy Bahret, co-owner of Old Friends Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts, is one of those growers Baystate certifies. The farm raises a variety of certified organic products, including cut flowers, salad greens, vegetables, and ginger. “I have only ever farmed organically and feel best aligned with those practices,” Bahret says. “We noticed that many farms were claiming to be organic but not actually adhering to all the guidelines, and we wanted some differentiation for better transparency to our customers. Ultimately we chose to be certified organic for marketing reasons.”

Bahret’s decision to pursue certification reflects that of other flower growers. According to Franczyk, there are three main reasons flower growers give for getting certified. “Mostly, it’s for marketing purposes,” he says. “Some growers believe in the program and want certification. Others want to market something as organic, so they need certification.”
 
For Deena Miller of Sweet Roots Farm in Grass Valley, California, pursuing organic certification was intentional from the start, a philosophical choice that’s opened doors to marketing opportunities. Sweet Roots is certified with California Certified Organic Farmers. “That certification helped us land our wholesale client Flora Fresh, who has a dedicated cooler for organic sustainable flowers,” Miller says. “Being certified organic also helps when your farm is big enough that you’re shipping. It opens doors for selling. We don’t ship our flowers.”
 
Joan Thorndike, at Le Mera Gardens in southern Oregon, tells a similar tale. “If you’re selling only locally, the organic certification isn’t as important. But for us to sell to New Seasons Market, a Portland supermarket chain that wants certified organic flowers, the certification is vital. It’s a fantastic opportunity for us. We’ve created a size of market style bouquets for their stores.”

Thorndike has been growing organically for over 28 years, long before the USDA created the certification process. After years with Oregon Tilth, Le Mera has switched to USDA certification. “I really appreciate that the USDA enforced what organic means,” she shares. “There was a lot of backlash when that happened, but it was good. What they did basically says that if you follow these practices and are certified, you can have that green stamp.”
Why Growers Don’t Get Certified

At its heart, organic certification is essentially a marketing program. That’s the huge advantage. But at the same time, because a certifying agency grants you the right to use that organic moniker, you’re committed to keeping records—and lots of them. “One of the main reasons growers don’t get certified is recordkeeping,” Franczyk explains. “For farmers who are already stretched thin, it takes a lot of added labor and time to maintain the necessary records.”

 

Sweet Roots Farm - Deena Miller flower field Rosemann Bath Photography

Despite being a strong advocate for organic flowers (“they deserve their own moment beside organic food”), Miller advises growers to pause before pursuing certification. “If your market doesn’t demand it, it’s a lot of recordkeeping,” she says. “But I’d also say that although the initial application takes time and records, maintaining them is not that difficult. Recordkeeping is definitely not at the top of the list for not becoming certified for me. I struggle more with the lack of organic alternatives for specific floral needs, such as rooting hormones for cuttings.”

For flower growers with a split operation—part organic certified, part in transition to organic certification—there’s even more to the recordkeeping process. “You have to track things very closely if you have a split operation,” explains Don Lareau of certified organic Zephyros Farm & Garden in Paonia, Colorado. Zephyros is certified with OneCert.

Cathy Jones of Perry-winkle Farm in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, follows organic growing practices, but isn’t certified. “Most people say it’s too much paperwork, but that actually helps you become a better farmer. Our farm is certifiable at any moment, so we’re committed to organic growing. The main reason we’re not certified is cost.”

Cost is actually the second reason that flower growers give for not becoming certified. “Growers pay a certification fee every year,” Franczyk explains. “The fee schedule includes a cost-share reimbursement that lets growers recover a portion of those certification fees each year.” Administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) of the USDA, that program has typically reimbursed growers 75 percent of eligible expenses, up to $750 maximum.* 

“If you have a market that’s looking for organic flowers, the cost for organic certification is definitely worth it,” Franczyk adds. “Or if you’re developing a market for organic flowers, it’s also worth it.”
CSA bouquets are a great way to showcase the hundreds of flower varieties grown at certified organic Zephyros Farm & Garden

Choosing an Agency

The single most important part of the organic certification process is selecting an agency. Growers typically choose an agency in their state. “Most growers don’t understand that they can work with anyone,” Franczyk explains. In the United States, there are 47 USDA-accredited certifying agents. Not every agency works in every state, but between local and national agents, there are typically multiple options for certification in each state. The USDA offers an Organic Certifier Locator search engine on their website.

Franczyk urges “definitely shopping around to find someone you want to work with. Look for someone whose style suits you. For instance, do they answer the phone or return your emails? Customer service is very important.” When you’re in the process of becoming certified, you can contact any certifying agency when you have a question about materials you’re using on the farm. That’s when customer service really gets put to the test.

It’s also worthwhile to ask about the agency’s experience with flower growing. “Our inspectors really know a lot about floriculture,” Bahret shares. “But I’ve heard this is not always the case, and inspections can take longer as the inspector is learning how to adapt their veggie-based questions to flower growing.” Lareau says that “every three years our certifying agency sends a new person, and it takes them about the whole three years to figure out what we’re doing. They don’t have a lot of flower growers in their client base.”
The other thing to consider is cost. “Every agency is set updifferently,”Franczyk adds. “Some are for profit; some are not. It’s very competitive. Some charge what the market bears, while others work to keep their fees lower. And some unfortunately make it difficult to figure out the fees.” 
When considering an agency, he suggests downloading the fee worksheet and determining the costs before you apply. “Especially if cost is a factor in your decision to certify or not, work through the fee schedule for different agencies and figure out what you’ll pay. Our fees are fairly reasonable. We start at $400 for a new operation with minimal sales and go up from there. You can find an agency in your price range.”

Is There a Case for Not Certifying?

n addition to recordkeeping or cost, flower growers do cite other reasons for not getting an organic certification. “It is possible that someone may choose to support local vendors for things like compost, seed, soil or plants, rather than sourcing from a certified organic outlet,” Bahret says. “In that case, the grower may not be able to be certified because of that choice.”

Perry-winkle Farm dropped their organic certification due to cost. “That was back before there were cost-share reimbursement programs. We have been able to stay uncertified because we sell directly to our market customers. After 30 years of marketing in our area, customers know us, and they trust us. The organic seal isn’t going to influence them,” Jones explains. “When new folks show up at our stand, we’re able to engage them in conversation and explain our farming practices. 

“All of that being said, I always recommend that new growers obtain their organic certification as soon as they are able. Then the organic seal can do the talking for them. It will open doors and hopefully provide a better price for their product.”
For growers who do under $5,000 in sales, it’s legal to market your flowers as organic—without being certified—as long as you’re following organic standards. “Usually these are small farms that are selling directly to consumers,” Franczyk says. “Certified organic flowers certainly have the opportunity to grow like other organic product areas. If consumers knew what was actually being done to most flowers from south of the border—they’re heavily sprayed. It’s not something they’d want in their home. If people understood that, they’d flock to organic flowers.”
*In August 2020, the FSA blindsided certifying agencies with an announcement that reimbursements are dropping in 2020 to 50 percent, up to $500 maximum. If you’re currently a certified organic grower, you have until October 31, 2020 to apply for reimbursement at the higher rate. Contact your certifying agency to apply for reimbursement as soon as possible. Also contact your Senators and Representatives to lobby for the reimbursement program. Learn more at www.baystateorganic.org/costshare.
 
Due to Covid-19, Oregon Tilth is currently not accepting new applications for the USDA National Program (NDP) certification.
 

Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney is an avid gardener and freelance writer who’s been writing about flower and plant production,
horticulture research and consumer gardening for over 30 years. Contact her at juli[email protected]