Greetings from snowy Vermont!
I am pleased to be starting my term as the new Northeast Regional Director. I have been a gleeful and active member of the ASCFG since 2014, and you all have taught me so very much that frankly it’s my duty to return that favor! I do have a side hustle selling cut flower plugs, but that’s not the Bailey that you will hear from in these columns, or the Bailey talking your ear off at meetings. I am here as Bailey the cut flower farmer, trying to figure things out one year to the next, just like you.
Our farm, Ardelia Farm & Co., sits in a zone 3 frost pocket in Vermont’s picturesque Northeast Kingdom. We are very close to the border of Quebec, and frankly very far from people with money or anyone who buys appreciable numbers of cut flowers. Our climate and our local demographic have shaped our business. After trying on several business models for size, we now grow entirely cool season annuals (primarily sweet peas) and perennials, and ship them to East Coast wholesalers, as well as to a couple of wedding designers.to fill and it is our job individually to become experts of our farms, our climate, our crops, and our markets.
While there is much to be said for improving our marketing, business, and design skills, my focus is growing good flowers. If you can consistently produce the highest quality flowers you will find a market. We have learned that there are no guarantees in this business, and trying to emulate someone else’s business model or crop plan will likely not work in your particular climate or with your particular demographic. I think this is great news! We all have a niche to fill and it is our job individually to become experts of our farms, our climate, our crops, and our markets. While there is much to be said for improving our marketing, business, and design skills, my focus is growing good flowers. If you can consistently produce the highest quality flowers you will find a market.
So much of what we do as growers is respond to what goes wrong, to be constantly trying to fix things. After a few years of being that kind of reactive grower, I have gotten better at foreseeing what may go wrong and preventing the problem before it happens. 2019 slapped us in the face with a cold reminder that we will never have it ALL under control. While sipping wine in Portugal one February evening (we firmly believe in vacation) we got a call that our newest 30’ x 160’ high tunnel had collapsed under heavy snow and ice. We had not grown a single flower in it. As if that weren’t enough, we had to ask an employee to cut the plastic off the rest of our big tunnels to prevent their collapse as well. The loss of the growing space sent our season into a tailspin before it even began. With our last frost occurring around June 5 and first frost coming just 90 days later, we rely heavily on our covered growing space.
Since it’s too cold to grow all winter here, even in a tunnel, we came up with a plan to cover the tops of our high tunnels separately from the sides so that we could roll up the roofs around Halloween, and then roll them back down in March. This would let the snow and rain fall onto the ground, reducing salt buildup. It would also allow our -35 degree lows to kill off any vulnerable pests. Most importantly, going topless would allow us to sleep easy, knowing collapse wasn’t going to happen again. While I was away at the Nashville meeting our crew got the tops rolled up to the peak and firmly tied into place for winter. For those with heavy snow loads, this may be an option to consider. I will share more about our technique once we have the tunnels re-covered in spring. For now I’m sleeping soundly. Very soundly indeed.
My other big lesson from the 2019 season is that it’s okay to say no. We stopped doing weddings (of all kinds, even “bulk” bucket brides) and the reduction in stress and increase in time has allowed us to focus on our sweet pea production. We brought in far more money from those sweet peas than we ever made doing weddings with far fewer emails, negotiations, or complicated installation. My for-profit design days are over and it feels liberating to admit that.
We’ve also started saying no to more and more crops. Every year we plant a big tulip crop and every year something goes wrong. Poor drainage, diseased bulbs, mislabeled bulbs, extreme freezes, and lukewarm sales have all taken their toll on our bottom line. So tulips are off the list, and have moved into the realm of the garden. I love tulips and can’t imagine a spring without them, but they’re not for sale anymore. They’re for me, and that feels good. We don’t all have to sell everything, and we don’t all have to grow everything. “No” can be liberating.
I will be planning a meet-up of some sort on our farm in 2020, so keep an eye on the Facebook group. We are growing around 30,000 sweet peas this season, and the smell alone will be worth the trip. I am excited to meet more of my Northeast and Canadian neighbors. And if you haven’t started your sweet peas yet, get on it! They prefer a cold and slow start to life.