We were delighted to host an ASCFG Farm Tour here at our place in Vermont in mid-August. I’ve been feeling cut off from my flower family since COVID came to town. People are what make the ASCFG such a valuable organization, so having a group of 40 growers right in front of me was a real treat.
Throughout my farming career I have grown just about everything there is to grow and tried to sell it to every outlet in every way imaginable. We have sold retail at farmers’ markets, sold to florists, sold to wholesalers, sold to DIY brides, offered wedding design services, and hosted floral-themed events on our farm. We have responded to the successes and failures of each of these attempts, and have ruthlessly taken an axe to our production list; what remains is the farm we see today. It’s an odd lineup, but it works for us.
This season we are mainly growing sweet pea seeds for retail sales, hosting a few on-farm events, and selling cuts from our 3-acre planting of woody and herbaceous perennials to a tiny list of wedding florists. Living in the poorest and least populous county in the state has its challenges. We used to drive our flowers further afield, but there are probably 30 flower farms between us and Burlington, Vermont (our state’s biggest city with a whopping population of 45,000 people). It’s just not worth the 2-hour drive to get our product to an already saturated market.
A few years ago there were far more untapped markets than there are today. At that time there was a widely circulating notion that the cut flower market was endless and that we were all going to get rich and it was going to be relatively easy. Sadly, I still see people selling this pipe dream.
I set aside a portion of the Farm Tour day to tell our story and to be clear on what has worked and not worked for us. Another portion was devoted to a group discussion about a wide range of growing and marketing issues. I come from a long line of preachers, so when faced with a crowd of mostly new, very eager cut flower growers, what was I going to preach about? I want to encourage and support (that’s what the ASCFG is all about), but I don’t find joy or value in setting people up for failure. The following were the main points of my sermon.
Flower farming is not easy or necessarily profitable. Each tour attendee was asked to submit anonymous questions for the group discussion section. My favorite was “How do I make the most money with the least amount of work?” I giggled when I read this, but isn’t it the question we all ask ourselves each day? To be clear, there is still money to be made in this business, even for new growers, but nobody is standing around with a fistful of cash waiting to shove it in your pocket in exchange for a bouquet of short-stemmed, half-dead, bug-eaten flowers. Sorry to burst your bubble.
Quality sells. Before knocking on your first door or even trying to start selling, you need to have figured out how to grow a good quality product. If you don’t know what good quality is, you need to learn. Imported flowers are bad-mouthed quite often, but the one thing they do have going for them is quality. The largest remaining untapped market in this business is selling to retail, event, and wholesale florists, so take time to educate yourself on what those imported stems look like and what price they sell for. The best way to do this is to get a job working for a florist. Wedding florists have been strapped for help this season, and retail shops always need help on Valentine’s and Mother’s Days. A firm grasp of the floral industry will serve you well as your career unfolds.
You don’t need to grow everything. My first year I planted a little bit of everything and I planted too much of it. I couldn’t weed it all, the quality was mediocre, and more than half of what I planted didn’t get cut or sold. I would have been better off growing half as many varieties on half as much ground but doing it well. Had I carefully studied 10 crops and given them exactly what they needed I would have had more and better flowers to sell than I did by just winging it and jamming everything in the ground. Now that we have our key crops locked down we tinker a bit each season with a couple of new ones to see if we can grow them successfully and if they will sell to our market. If you can grow something well once, you can probably do it again.
There is value in specialization. Internationally, most professional flower growers produce just 1 or maybe 2 kinds of flowers, but they grow on a large scale. In Holland, for example, you may find a grower that has grown roses and only roses for generations, and in fact they may grow only red roses, and make millions doing it. Developing this kind of expertise can help you tap into larger markets, especially if you can supply this crop with consistent quality and availability. This has been our approach with sweet peas. They like our cool climate, few people have mastered their culture, and I like them. I never tire of looking at them, breeding them, touching them, and propagating them. You are fortunate if you can find this kind of long-term committed relationship to a cut flower crop.
The plants are the boss. I grew better flowers once I realized that I work for them, not the other way around. Plants are selfish and think about only themselves. If you let your tray of plugs get bone dry because you were too busy to notice, you can’t sweet-talk them back into living by apologizing and explaining to them how busy you’ve been. Even a day or two of plant stress can result in a poorer quality product in the end. The goal is to give your plants perfect conditions every day. If your research ability starts and ends with asking a question to a group of unqualified strangers on Facebook, I question your dedication. Every crop has clearly defined parameters in which it will succeed, and this information is widely available. Let me be clear, this information is more available now than ever before in the history of humankind. Read culture sheets, read books, and search ASCFG resources or ask other trusted resources. Once you commit to providing a crop exactly what it needs it will reward you with exceptional quality. If you have declared yourself a farmer, this is quite literally your job now. Treat the plants well and they will support you.
Don’t be afraid to garden. We Americans have lost the art of having a hobby. We feel the need to monetize everything. I suspect a good number of ASCFG members would probably be happier gardening than trying to grow for profit. A well-tended cut flower garden can be a thing of pride and beauty. Keep an open mind about your venture as it develops, and be willing to move some crops into the garden and out of commercial production.
The biggest point I drove home was how valuable the ASCFG has been for me and our business. We wouldn’t have a flower farm without it. All of the resources necessary for success are available to members at any time. Members have been exceedingly supportive and generous with their information through the years, and I am trying to keep that spirit of generosity alive. Is flower farming easy? No. Is it always profitable? No. Is it worth the effort? Absolutely.