Small Steps Yield Big Success
Flower farming is like slow motion chess played outdoors against Mother Nature.
Tripling sales in three years is no small feat, especially when the team consists of just two people. “We’re both past retirement age, so that dictates what we do compared to younger farmers,” says Clarence Denton, owner of Daveco, a fresh cut flower farm in Clearwater, Kansas. “Flower farming is like slow motion chess played outdoors against Mother Nature. You’ve got all the logistics of the moving pieces, and you’re going against someone who can change her mind at any time, and change the rules any way she wants.”
Clarence tackles this game of chess-against-nature with his partner in business and in life, Lou Lemont. They started growing flowers six years ago in 2016 on Lemont’s farm, which has been in the family since the 1940s. With ample space, Clarence’s natural growing skills, and Lou’s born-to-sell personality, the couple broke ground with a small 16 x 32 hoophouse.
The goal was to grow landscape flowers and plants for Daveco’s lawn and landscaping business. Somewhere along the line they discovered an online video about a day in the life of a flower farm, and a seed took root. “If the weather is good, cut flowers bring a better margin,” Clarence explains. That margin has led him to grow specialty cut flowers for florists, along with others for his landscape business.
“We thought it would take 10 years to get where we are now,” Lou admits. “We’ve grown into our market and grown with our customers.” Clarence explains, “We didn’t start with a whole lot of different flowers or a lot of depth—of anything. We slowly added more as we had demand. As a result, we’ve been able to sell almost everything we’ve grown in the last two years.”
Catering to Local Florists
The philosophy behind Daveco’s success comes from Lisa Mason Ziegler, aka The Gardener’s Workshop. “Years ago she said ‘Sell to people who need flowers every day.’ We took that to heart,” Lou recalls. She took buckets of flowers to local brick-and-mortar florists in the nearby Wichita area, introduced herself and Daveco, and slowly built relationships with eight different florists.
The fascinating parallel between taking Ziegler’s advice and the start of Daveco’s flower success is that both businesses blossomed on the heels of daily life disruptions. For Ziegler, the life-altering event was 9/11. For Daveco, it was pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions.
“We’re not trying to grow our client list. It’s really just the two of us doing everything here 90 percent of the time. That’s a lot of labor for two people who work other jobs,” Lou shares. “If we can make those florists happy, we’re doing good.”
The couple divides the business of growing along the line of their natural skill sets. Clarence handles seeding and growing, and Lou takes over when flowers are ready to head out the door. They serve their client base from roughly 5,000 square feet under cover, with an additional 4,500 square feet in outdoor beds. Every stem that’s grown is within 50 steps of the processing and cooling area, which keeps the flowers in premium condition for florist clients.
A Crop Mix that Sells
Daveco aims to grow quality and quantity for their customers. “Florists don’t need 16 different varieties. They need reliable quality and quantity weekly,” Lou explains. “At one point Clarence wanted to plant 100 sunflowers per week, and I thought he was crazy. This year we’re up to 350 sunflowers per week, and the florists love them.”
Clarence agrees. “Florists want everyday stuff. We’re not selling mixed bouquets so we don’t need a wide variety of material. We’re selling stems for everyday floral work. With the sunflowers, for instance, we focus on medium size varieties, like ProCut® Orange and ‘Sunrich Orange’ in summer. In the fall we add ProCut® Red and ProCut® Plum.” Daveco will plant over 6,000 sunflowers in the course of this growing season.
The crop mix also includes ranunculus, anemones, dianthus, snapdragons, lisianthus, and dahlias. Dusty miller is the must-have foliage that florists clamor for—so much so that Daveco has had to triple their supply. Snapdragons are a big draw for florists, and Lou says they can’t wait for fall snaps, too. “They love our snapdragons because they’re not more than two days old when they get them,” she adds.
Dianthus is a big Mother’s Day seller. “We harvest 3,000 to 4,000 stems from a 3 by 60-foot bed,” Clarence says. “Each year that bed has made us over $2,000.” With the addition of high tunnels, Daveco now overwinters dianthus and snapdragons.
Daveco’s secret to snapdragons is succession planting. “I grow some single stem and some I pinch so they branch. If the weather cooperates, in a typical spring that spreads out the harvest for us,” he explains. He follows the same method with lisianthus.
The greatest challenge for Daveco is being a small-scale flower farmer, but it’s also the biggest benefit. “In a small business, you’re more directly involved in each step of the process, and if you make a mistake, it’s easier to correct,” Clarence shares. He expects the business will hire additional employees at some point, but it will occur the way the operation grew—gradually.
In the interim, a major key to Daveco’s success is maximizing efficiency. The mantra of efficiency comes into play with each decision made on the farm, from focusing on a simple crop mix to ordering plugs. Seeding is definitely more cost effective, but “we’re always trying to experiment with things to make it easier for us. The consistency we get with plugs allows us to have less burden on our time and thinking,” Clarence shares.
Listening to Ben Hartman’s “Lean Farm” podcast has helped shape how Clarence thinks about things. He especially recommends listening to interviews with urban farmer Curtis Stone of Green City Acres, as well as Diego Footer podcasts. “Farming is about always learning something new and how to improve what you’re doing,” Clarence says.
The latest example of efficiency on the farm is a little green tarp that’s usually used for moving yard waste. In an effort to improve his own lisianthus crop, Clarence was watching a video of a Japanese lisianthus farmer who was using the tarp for hauling harvested stems. Lou uses the 3×3 tarp to carry 60 snapdragon stems at once.
She explains, “I put the snaps on the tarp as it has handles to carry it. It works for everything we cut, and is so much better than in a bucket. Over 4000 snaps carried one season, and only two broken from the tunnel to the processing spot.”
Other examples of farming efficiency include:
• Standard bed sizes. Daveco makes all planting beds—inside the tunnels and out—the same size. That makes moving a piece of weed barrier from inside to outside easy.
• Small tunnels. The 16-foot Farmer’s Friend tunnels are easier for two people to cover. They get a little hotter in summer, but maintaining them is easier.
• Soil prep. Daveco’s ground prep is forking new beds with 9-inch fork. After forking he uses a Grillo Walk Behind Tractor with a power harrow to make the bed plug ready.
• Stand-up planter. Lou calls this the “most beautiful thing on the farm.” It’s a custom-built planter tool that eliminates bending over to plant. The design is borrowed from a model that Johnny’s Selected Seeds used to sell. The stand-up planter takes two people to operate, but with it Daveco plants 350 sunflowers in an hour.
• Free buckets. After Valentine’s Day, the local Dillon’s Floral Dept. has extra buckets (literally hundreds) that they throw away. Lou learned about them as she works part time for Dillon’s. Daveco picked up 400 free buckets this year in February. “We just had to scrub them and store them,” she says.
Advice to New Farmers
With six years of flower growing, Clarence and Lou have definite opinions on what they’d do differently if they were starting over again. “I would have gotten a cooler right from the start,” Lou shares. “We went two full years without one. Without a cooler, you lose flowers because you can’t hold them for more than a day or two. Our ranunculus last over two weeks in the vase—that’s once a consumer gets it home—thanks to the cooler.”
If Clarence were a younger version of himself, he’d get a multi-bay greenhouse, although he’s quick to point out that with different tunnels, he can do different temperatures and grow different crops. “We can use shade cloth and moderate temperatures. We have areas that can go fallow. With one greenhouse, I wouldn’t have that flexibility.”
He urges new farmers not to be afraid to get into more permanent structures if you have the room. “Farmer’s Friend has perfect starter high tunnels that are 16 or 14 feet wide. It’s much better than having hoops that you move or take off. I built mine with roll-up sides because a pull-up side would rip the plastic in the wind,” he explains. “You can customize the tunnels to fit your landscape.”
For instance, Daveco overbuilds his tunnels to withstand Kansas winds and hail by reinforcing with more purlins and cross bracing. “Without the tunnels, we’d lose a crop when hail comes,” Lou explains. “Kansas wind can destroy dahlias. Clarence loves his tunnels.”
For new farmers, Lou suggests finding your market. “Once you find it, grow for that market. Since we started this, we’ve learned constantly. Three years ago, I couldn’t tell the difference between dianthus and lisianthus.”
These days she’s enjoying the fruits of her labor, like walking into a local florist and watching their eyes “light up because they know what you’re bringing them. They can pick from my bucket and put it right into their floral piece. That gives me great satisfaction. It makes this time-consuming, hard work worth it.”
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 [email protected]