Opportunities and rewards are ripe for the picking when the crop is organic cut flowers.

It’s no surprise that organic cut flower growers are passionate about what they do. Raising top-quality stems isn’t enough for these farmers. “The spirit behind organics is that when we leave a place, it will be in the same or better condition than when we took it over,” says Joan Thorndike, certified organic flower farmer at Le Mera Gardens in southern Oregon. “I’ve farmed this way for 28 years, and there’s no question that I would farm only if I could do it organically.”

Other organic flower growers share that sentiment. “There’s no doubt it’s safer for the environment to support organic production—and it’s safer for everyone in the field working with the crops,” says Cathy Jones of Perry-winkle Farm in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “It also yields a clean product that’s safer to take home.”

For some growers, embarking on the path to organic flowers is a choice. Deena Miller, certified organic farmer of Sweet Roots Farm in Grass Valley, California, followed a course of study in organic, regenerative agriculture with the intention to farm organically with flowers, vegetables, and plant starts. Deena farms with her husband, Robbie. “For me, it’s really important to be a sustainable grower and take into account how we’re impacting the land that we’re growing on.”

Dr. John Dole, North Carolina State University, points out that, “to a certain extent, organic or sustainable production is often forced on many growers. Why? There are fewer traditional products available for cut flower growers to use. The broad range of crops grown on a typical farm makes it challenging to use the products that are available without potentially damaging one or more species. Plus, the diversity of species encourages many natural enemies, which growers don’t want to harm.”


Organic, Sustainable or Regenerative?

Buzzwords abound in organic flower growing, starting with the nebulous “green” and most recently ending with five-syllable “regenerative.” If you feel confused about what it all means, you’re not alone. Here’s a quick rundown of the terms.

Organic:  To market flowers as certified organic, growers must earn USDA certification, working with local certifiers. The certification process is rigorous, involving recordkeeping, tests and inspections. With organic certification, federal guidelines stipulate the inputs and processes allowed for growing and processing flowers. Although there is variability in how the rules are interpreted based on region and/or certifier, the certification establishes a standard. (Watch for a future article with more details on certification.)

Sustainable:  More of a philosophy, sustainable growing focuses on protecting the planet. This type of cut flower growing embraces eco-minded practices that are not necessarily required to earn USDA certification. Sustainable farms are usually small and may pursue water conservation, renewable energy, eco-friendly packaging, local markets or worker-friendly environments. 

Many flower growers who don’t want to complete the certification process (for any number of reasons, such as cost, client base or paperwork) sell their flowers as sustainable or sustainably grown. Jones warns, though, that “sustainable is being co-opted by so many products and causes that there’s no credence.” Customers do recognize the word, though, and respond to it.

Regenerative: With regenerative farming, a systems approach to farming focuses on nurturing all life on the farm, from soil to laborers. It’s a conservational approach that aims to increase biodiversity, regenerate topsoil, and improve the water cycle. Practices include recycling farm waste and adding compost from outside sources. Regenerative methods are well suited to small farms.

“Regenerative farming is a complex, yet logical way to farm,” says Don Lareau of certified organic Zephyros Farm & Garden in Paonia, Colorado. “Nurturing the web of life from soil microbes all the way to people on the farm makes for a healthy and sustainable system that is organic, and so much more.”

Which is right for you? It really depends. “I like certification because with that standard, I am conversant with someone in any state,” Thorndike says. “If we all have that stamp, we’re all following the same practices. We can trade information and materials, and help each other source materials. The biggest motivation for getting certification is if you’re wholesaling out of your area.”

Miller agrees. “You can make the case for not getting certified if you’re growing only cut flowers and not trying to market produce or plant starts,” she says. “You can still grow with intentionality and choice—and actually give yourself more options in terms of market outlets. By not using heavy chemicals, such as hormone regulators and fungicidal dips, we’re growing flowers that are clean for everyone who handles them, from grower through supply chain to someone’s kitchen table.”

At Perry-winkle Farms, Jones and husband Mike Perry have utilized organic practices for over 30 years. “We were certified organic for about five years, but then dropped it due to cost,” Jones says. Despite the lack of official certification, the farm is “totally certifiable at any time. We use organic practices—that’s just how we farm.”

Demand for Organic Flowers

Consumers have embraced organic products from bedsheets to beard wax, but where do they stand on organic flowers? That’s the million-dollar question. Over the 28 years that Thorndike has been selling cut flowers in Oregon, she’s seen a steady increase in flower sales at local farmers’ markets. “Half the market booth now is flowers, and people do seek out flowers regularly,” she says. “There’s more demand for local flowers, and for a moment the trend was people asking for organic. I welcome all of it. If I can sell more flowers, then I can preach the virtues of organic.” 

Jones has a similar story to tell—selling at farmers’ markets for 30 years, with booth space devoted to flowers increasing from a few jars of zinnias to 50 percent. But are people asking for organic flowers? “The great irony is everyone is so concerned about finding organic vegetables and poultry—and we sell both. But no one asks about organic flowers.”

Sweet Roots Farm bridal bouquet, Roseann Bath Photography
Isabella Thorndike, Le Mera Gardens

“We do have customers every market who ask us if we spray,” she adds. “They may have a suppressed immune system or just really care about spraying. I take time to give a little education, telling them that they’re asking the wrong question. As organic farmers we have approved sprays. The right question is what are people spraying?”

I believe that a regular person who experiences the freshness of organic flowers will come back to buy more. They’ll become aware that the flowers in the big box store are indestructible, which isn’t natural.
Joan Thorndike, Le Mera Gardens, Ashland, Oregon

Lareau has started to see a rising consciousness at farmers’ markets. “A woman last year asked where we got our flowers from, and we said we grow them on the farm. When we told her the flowers were all certified organic, she was jumping for joy and so excited to be able to buy clean cut flowers. I’ve had that reaction a few times in the last few years,” he says. “It makes me wonder if people are finally reading Flower Confidential or hearing about it from Martha Stewart or Slow Flowers.”

Sweet Roots Farm does at least 60 percent of their business in weddings. “In response to a bride’s reason for coming to me, I usually add that by the way, we grow organically, and 100 percent of the time they say that’s great. But very rarely do they say they want organic flowers,” Miller shares. “Last year about a dozen florists found me because they wanted to buy local and organic, and we’re becoming more of a network in those florists’ minds, which is great.”

“Local” is the main word that customers mention when buying organic flowers. “People are definitely interested in flowers with a lot fewer miles in them,” Lareau says. Thorndike estimates that maybe 30 percent of brides who find Le Mera Gardens have specifically searched organic. “But the main draw is local flowers.” Jones echoes a similar theme: “Do I see demand for organic flowers? No. Do I see demand for local flowers? Yes.”
Garden roses by Le Mera Gardens
Price Points for Organic Flowers

Most organic goods give consumers a case of sticker shock with prices that far exceed conventionally-produced items. Organic flowers do not follow suit. Miller sells nursery starts and some produce, and being certified organic is very important to people with these items. “The mark-up is significant on organic versus conventional starts,” she says. “I would never not be certified organic to sell starts.”

With a focus on growing quality flowers, Jones says their product is higher priced than local box stores, but “we’re not getting any more because they’re organic.” Thorndike also doesn’t charge more for organic flowers. “So many organic products are priced so they’re beyond the reach of the great majority of people,” she says. “What we want is to get to the place where the average person is actively looking for organic flowers and can afford them.

“I believe that a regular person who experiences the freshness of organic flowers will come back to buy more. They’ll become aware that the flowers in the big box store are indestructible, which isn’t natural. And they’ll also become aware of the seasons. The seasonal palette of the organic flower farm will bring customers back.”

Julie Martens Forney

Flower and plant production

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 [email protected]