Is a Flower CSA Right for You?
Learn the ins and outs of floral CSAs from farmers who are making it work for them.
Community supported agriculture (CSA) has enjoyed a resurgence over the last year as pandemic-induced shutdowns shifted consumer focus from eating out to cooking in. Local farm produce that had been earmarked for restaurants found a ready outlet in the kitchens of consumers. It’s no surprise that flower subscription sales followed a similar path.
As a new grower, Erin Perry, owner of Rewild Flower Farm in Fort Langley, British Columbia, kicked off her flower farm with a CSA subscription service aimed to “bring joy and happiness to a small community of friends and family during the pandemic.” She chose CSA as her first model “because it seemed predictable and made the most sense. I liked that I could plan around it and be home on the weekend with family,” she says. Perry tends what she dubs a micro farm, growing roughly 1/7 of an acre of flowers on a larger 25-acre homestead farm.
Barnside Flower Farm in Red Bud, Illinois, also responded to the pandemic with a flower share. “During COVID, we wanted to be as available to our customers as we could,” says owner Carrie Koester. “We offered a subscription because people asked for it. In 2021, the subscription expanded to 32 members. It accounts for only 20 percent of our farm income, but it keeps our name out there in the community.” Barnside sells 1,200 garden mums on site each fall, so brand recognition is important to keep autumn sales forefront in people’s minds.
But the pandemic is just one part of the reason many flower farmers have jumped on the CSA bandwagon. Another great reason? Income. With 22 years in flower growing, Erin McMullen of Raindrop Farms in Philomath, Oregon, started offering a flower CSA long before the pandemic arrived. “One of the main things that prompted us to start CSA is because it provides cash up front that helps you get things growing in spring. It’s a great way to jump-start the season as far as finances go.”
Rebecca Kutzer-Rice, co-owner of Moonshot Farm in East Windsor, New Jersey, agrees. Moonshot opened in November 2020, and with bulbs arriving and seed orders going in, Kutzer-Rice launched a flower subscription to generate some needed cash flow. Koester also loves the income boost that the CSA brings. “It’s so nice to have income to pay for extra infrastructure, weed barrier, tools, and all the things you need when you’re setting up in spring,” she says.
Structuring a Flower Share
There’s really no limit to how creatively you can package your flower subscription. Koester delivers bouquets every other week over a 10-week period for a total of five bouquets. She ends the share in late August in order to prepare for the farm’s annual Fall Market Days, which feature sales of the farm’s garden mums, straw, corn stalks, broom corn, and dried flower wreaths.
Koester’s customers pick up their bouquets, wrapped in kraft paper with the Barnside label, at one of three local businesses: a brewery, winery, or coffee shop. “That relationship with other small businesses is a real win-win. Our customers go in on Friday to pick up a bouquet and typically pick up a pint or coffee while there,” Koester says. “It also takes pressure off our farm. We’re a family of six—it’s so hard to have our farm look pristine 24-7.”
Rain Drop Farm’s first CSA was an eight-week share that has evolved into a full-season share that runs 18 to 20 weeks from June 1 to the last week of September. “People like having that longer consistency,” McMullen says. Of her 25 subscriptions, 12 go to businesses. Those are vased and designed, where personal accounts receive a wrapped, hand-tied bouquet. Shares go out on Mondays, mostly because many of the non-business clients work at nearby Oregon State University. “Those bouquets end up on people’s desks for the week,” McMullen adds.
At Moonshot Farm, subscription deliveries occur on a monthly basis with customers choosing three early months, three late months, or all six. “I chose monthly because I wanted our customers to experience how dramatically the flowers change over the course of a season,” Kutzer-Rice says. For instance, August bouquets feature lisianthus, sunflowers, cosmos, millet, and zinnia. With September’s arrival, the floral palette shifts to dahlias, eucalyptus, broom corn and celosia.
“The monthly has worked so well for us,” she says. “We split the accounts so customers pick up on either the first or second Wednesday of the month. If they want more flowers during the month, they can visit us at the farmers’ market. That midweek CSA pick-up also helps spread out the workload of daily harvests.” Moonshot Farm currently has customers pick up their shares at the farm, which is a 25-minute drive from Princeton. The farm also offers fresh eggs, which customers often purchase while getting flowers.
For Perry, the decision to go with a monthly share came from her desire to grow her customer base. “I wanted to continue with people from last year while developing customers closer to my home. A monthly share gave me a way to let people who weren’t my friends and family test the water and see if it was for them,” she shares. She offered a monthly for 5 weeks, running from July to early October. “I realize now I could have offered 10 weeks, but the smaller CSA share price has helped me understand why people are signing up and if my marketing is working.”
Kutzer-Rice moved from New York City to New Jersey with her family to start Moonshot Farm, which also raises sheep. “When we lived in the city, we belonged to a vegetable CSA. Some weeks we would get so much, and other weeks, less. We use that model with our customers,” she explains. “When the farm is booming, we give them extra flowers. We might give a full bouquet with a small one for a mason jar, too. It balances out over the season.”
Plan Your Season
Striking that seasonal balance is one challenge most CSA flower growers encounter, especially in spring. It’s easy to deliver full bouquets from summer into early fall, but the spring window proves especially challenging. “When you’re starting to plan in December and choosing a start time in spring, in your mind, you think it’s going to work. But honestly, we started too early this year,” Koester explains. “We had high-quality, high-dollar flowers like ranunculus and anemones, but we just didn’t feel like we were giving enough in the bouquets. We need more fillers to create that full arrangement our customers expect.”
Every grower agrees with this issue. McMullen bumped her start date to June 1 this year and “is never going back. May is always challenging. It’s a constant battle not to feel we can fill bouquets adequately. What I struggle with most in spring is filler. I can overwinter eucalyptus which is popular in springtime, and that helps, but filler is what makes the bouquet substantial enough to carry it for the share.”
To solve the spring share conundrum, farmers are considering short shares featuring single bulb bouquets, early high tunnel peonies or pop-up shares held at small businesses where share pick-ups typically occur. Kutzer-Rice is opting for one month of weekly flowers featuring bulbs like ranunculus, anemone, daffodil, and tulip. “Those flowers are so popular with our customers,” she says. “These will be straight bunches, not mixed bouquets. I’m going to market it as ‘Spring Fling.’ I hope to sell enough to fund our bulb purchases.”
Other CSA Challenges
Communication is the No. 1 issue every CSA flower grower stressed, with forgotten pick-ups a close second. It’s important to communicate what pick-up looks like, what customers should expect, what time, day, etc. Rain Drop Farms sends out a weekly Mailchimp email newsletter to familiarize new customers with the process. “With a long summer share, you can run into holidays like July 4 or even Labor Day. We used to have confusion around those dates, but now we just consistently deliver every Monday, as long as our pick-up locations are open,” McMullen says.
Kutzer-Rice sends out an email newsletter the day before CSA pick-ups. “It serves as an update on the farm, helping our customers feel connected and part of our story, and a reminder that it’s time to get your bouquet,” she shares. The newsletter walks through the best of what is in the bouquet, giving information about the flowers and how to care for them. “We give little care tips, like removing lily pollen anthers or changing sunflower water often. Customers really like the newsletter. Next year we’ll include a photo of the bouquet with the flowers labeled.”
The most important information Koester shares with customers is to pick up flowers the day they’re available, recut stems to maximize water intake, and use the postharvest solution included with the bouquets. “We give our customers the longest stems possible, and tell them to have fun arranging it the way they want. If you want five tiny arrangements in five rooms, go for it. If you want one dramatic arrangement, do it. There’s no wrong way,” she says. “If you cut something too short, you can try again in two weeks. At the end of the summer, they’re all pros at arranging.”
One important detail is deciding what you’ll do about a missed pick-up. Koester lets the business keep any forgotten bouquets, suggesting they share it with a worker or customer to brighten their day. “I give anyone who forgets a bouquet an extra one at the end of the season. We won’t go bankrupt giving a bouquet or two away, especially at that point in the season when there is plenty. I want customers to feel they get the full value of their share,” she says.
With a long subscription service, another challenge you might encounter is burnout. McMullen does, right about late August. To counter that, Rain Drop Farms usually does a week of dried flower bouquets in August. “We can make those up and forget about them, and there’s no effort that week,” she says. “People love it because it’s different. I love it because it gives us a break and a way to keep the enthusiasm going.”
Setting a bouquet price starts with market research. “We also sell to florists, so we use the florist price as our basis,” Koester explains. “I won’t charge that same price, but aim to be 15 to 20 percent higher to cover our time, gas, sleeves, and other extras. Don’t reinvent the wheel—take it and tweak it for what’s happening in your business.”
At Moonshot Farm, Kutzer-Rice did a lot of market analysis. “We have a lot of flower farmers where we are, as well as vegetable farmers who are selling flowers. So we made a spreadsheet with a key of prices, which ranged from $5 to $20, what most people charge for a big bouquet.
“We decided we should have a luxury flower farm—that is our niche. We’re still slowly creeping into that price point,” she says. “We charge more of a florist price at $33 for that monthly bouquet (compared to other local CSAs charging $15 to $18). We’re definitely attracting those customers who are looking for a higher end product.
Perry also did market research, working with local flower growers to understand the prices they offer. “I want to stay current with local pricing and what the market bears, balancing that with looking at the crops I’m offering,” she explains. “For instance, if a grower has two 40-foot rows of ‘Queen Lime’ zinnia, it’s not rare for them, so they can be generous with it and price it lower. But with something more exclusive like the first peonies of the season, you can charge a more premium price.”
She intentionally kept her prices lower. “I chose a pricing model that I felt fit with my growing experience and bouquet-making skill level. I’ll earn an increase in price with experience and feedback from customers. My conditioning methods seem to be working, and that gives me the incentive and confidence to nose the price up,” she shares.
What to Grow for CSA
For a share, the ideal crops are ones that your customers won’t easily find elsewhere. All customers love lisianthus, dahlias, and ranunculus. For Kutzer-Rice, a surprise breakout favorite was calla lilies, because they lasted from two to four weeks. With the monthly share, she focuses on flowers with a longer vase life. “This year we grew double-flowering Roselilies, which were a hit. I used Asiatic and hybrid lilies for the first time this year, too. I’m doing succession planting every two weeks with them so we have a great focal flower always in season. It makes the whole bouquet seem big and grand.”
Koester’s flower choices tend toward high-end blooms, including celosia, cosmos, crimson basil, and ranunculus. “We try to find varieties no one has at the grocery store or florist, like ‘Madame Butterfly’ snapdragons,” she says. She grows 90 percent of her flowers from seed or tuber, which helps her get those unusual varieties.
“My customers are fascinated with the zinnias because they last so long. Between where we grow them and how I’m conditioning them, they’re outlasting other flowers,” Perry says. “In the house, mine become dry and don’t turn brown.” Her favorite fillers are grasses and orach. “You can use the orach leaves, the early part of the flower seed head, and the seed head itself before the seeds drop. All three stages are gorgeous.” She has a dedicated patch for it and broadcasts the seed. “The tighter spaced ones grow more slowly and develop later than those that have more room to start. It’s a good seven-week plant.”
Tips for Marketing a Flower CSA
Flower farmers find good success marketing their shares on social media and partnering with local businesses. Rain Drop Farms leans on Facebook and Instagram posts to boost sales, and their pick-up locations also promote the share on their social media. “The coffee shop we work with has four locations, one of which has an outdoor patio where we typically do a spring workshop to promote our share,” McMullen says.
Workshop topics include a flower crown, dried flowers, and posey bouquets. “It’s usually scheduled during Mom’s Weekend at Oregon State University, which draws customers. We consistently get a bump from those workshops,” she adds.
Perry has found good success through Facebook groups. “Look for community groups. Most have a small business day where they’ll let you promote your services. I had only one to two posts in a group and it generated so much interest. It’s also good to engage with local businesses any way you can. They may share your content or offer a pop-up at their studio. I live next door to a pumpkin and Christmas tree farm, which welcomes me with my flowers during their event weekends.”
Moonshot Farm partnered with a local organization, the Arts Council of Princeton, to offer a custom pottery vase for customers. “That relationship offered a good fit for our customers who are seeking out luxury products, and it helped us, as newcomers to the area, by introducing us to their established customer base,” Kutzer-Rice says.
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 [email protected]