Ideas for Improving Farm Profits
Flower farming isn’t a cookie cutter business. There’s no one-size-fits-all plan that works for every farm, turning seeds and plugs into fields of cash. That’s just not how it works. Ask 10 different flower growers their best strategy to turn a profit, and you’ll get 10 very different answers. That’s the beauty of this business. All it takes is one creative idea custom fit to a market to make the margins that fuel a thriving business.
We talked with four growers, in four different markets, running four different business strategies to find out what makes their flower farm flourish. The answers are as varied as the growers. Check out their stories.
Shelly and Brad Brubaker, Little Creek Valley
West Manchester, Ohio
The basics: Started in 2011, Little Creek Valley is an 1880 farmstead that serves picturesque views, complete with a meandering creek. It’s a family-run business. These days Brad handles the field work, while Shelly runs the office. Together they plan everything from product mix to next week’s field chores. Their five children have grown up on the farm and are very much a part of the business.
Business model: Brad, with one of the children in tow, runs two florist routes twice a week in the Cincinnati-Dayton area. “We have 30 to 40 florist clients we serve,” Shelly says. “The majority are event florists, but all have walk-in business, too.” The farm also sells bouquets at the weekly farmers’ market in Oxford, Ohio, a university town. A small percentage of flowers sells through a small local farmers’ collective.
“With different outlets, we can use all of our crops,” Shelly explains. “We’re moving a good bit of product just because of how we molded our business to fit our outlet. The farmers’ market works good at the end of the week because as we harvest for that, it gets the beds back in shape for cutting for our florist routes at the start of the following week.”
What makes us money: “Our clients expect something different and unique from us, something they can’t get from the local floral wholesaler,” Shelly shares. “We grow a specialty crop that doesn’t ship well—and it’s fresh. We strive to only keep flowers in the cooler overnight. That’s our niche.”
For instance, Little Creek can’t compete with Canadian-grown snapdragons, so they focus on snap varieties that don’t ship well, like the double-petal ‘Madame Butterfly’ or open-face, butterfly-type ‘Chantilly.’ Tulips are another moneymaker, again with a focus on unusual varieties that don’t ship well, including parrot, fringe and double tulips. “Our florists can buy Canadian straight French tulips for the same price we’d pay for the bulb alone,” Shelly says. “We let those big Canadian growers do what they want, and we do what we can.
“We make our margins on variety selection and uniqueness. For example, every July through October we have lisianthus, and our florists actually book weddings around that crop. It’s something they know they can get and use.” Other crops that do well with Little Creek’s florists include dahlias, sunflowers, celosias, and ornamental grasses.
The other secret to Little Creek’s success is customer service. “We interact personally with our florists every week through email, text or a phone call,” Shelly says. “I take the time to interact with our customers, and that makes them feel important to us. We know them and the type of work they do.”
Over time, the customers have gotten to know the Brubakers, watching the children grow through the years. “That personal interaction we have with our florists and farmers’ market customers has helped our business be successful,” Shelly shares.
Christian Ingalls, Daisy Dukes Flower Farm
Papaaloa, Hawaii on the Big Island
The basics: A full-time first grade teacher, Christian Ingalls started growing flowers to sell in 2019. Three years into flower farming, she “can’t keep up with the demand. Every single stem is taken,” she says. Christian is aiming high with flower farming, setting financial goals that will permit her—eventually—to farm full-time.
Business model: Wholesale direct to florists accounts for 50 to 60 percent of Daisy Dukes’ business, with grower’s choice buckets bringing in the lion’s share of sales. After cutting flowers early in the morning, Christian drops custom-labelled buckets at florists on her way to school twice a week.
She also sells to DIY brides, event hosts, and local jewelry stores, and hosts u-pick in summer during the peak cutting season. “The u-pickers get what’s left over in the field, taking things that we don’t cut.” Christian explains. “Everything is used on the farm—sometimes the u-pickers even put weeds in their bouquets. We’ve got to maximize everything we grow—nothing should be going to waste.”
Recently, Daisy Dukes has started shipping flowers to other Hawaiian islands via air cargo. Her next venture is a flower studio at the farm for processing and arranging flowers, storing supplies, and hosting workshops. “We’re working on marrying all the different aspects of the business. My goal is to fill all the floral needs and niches, while extending the business as much as I can,” she explains.
What makes us money: Grower’s choice buckets are Christian’s biggest earner, and she calls snapdragons (available year-round in Hawaii’s island climate) her gateway flower. “Once florists try those, they’re hooked on my flowers,” she says. Another one of her big moneymakers is zinnias, which she grows in six 60-foot rows each year. “I’ve had other growers tell me they can’t sell zinnias because everyone grows them. I say if you mix it and market it the right way, you can sell it,” Christian says.
She calls zinnias her “cheap way of having the rainbow all summer long, with very little investment. You don’t have to grow that many to have a million stems in every color. Then, when someone wants something dark purple in the middle of summer, I cut ‘Benary Giant Purple’ zinnias and pull in other things that go with the palette. Dark purple lisianthus is too much of a risk in summer, but zinnias—that’s easy.”
Christian’s favorite zinnia varieties include ‘Queen Lime’ (“that ombre with a hint of green ties other flowers together easily,” she says), heirloom Oklahoma Series, and Benary’s Giant Series in every color. For blushy tones suitable for weddings, she grows ‘Senorita’ zinnia from Select Seeds, and heirloom ‘Isabellina,’ “the cutest, creamiest ivory. Every time I use it, everyone goes crazy. It’s super stunning in wedding bouquets,” she says. Daisy Dukes’ zinnias sell wholesale at $1 per stem, with a 25 percent mark-up for retail ($1.25-$1.50 per stem).
“I’m determined to do things in different ways to make profits,” Christian shares. “I’m constantly thinking how else can I get myself out there?” Her latest marketing project makes a profit off those short zinnia stems that first form on each plant. It’s a bento box stuffed with edible flowers. “I love making botanical cocktails and using edible flowers at home,” she says. “Here on the island we have so many resorts, weddings, and events. I realized that edible flowers is a whole new market for me,” Christian says.
She sourced the compostable clamshell-type bento boxes through Sustainable Island Products. “It’s a new product for them, and I ordered a case,” she says. “There’s no rubber band—the box just snaps shut.” She takes the box into the field and literally cuts flowers into it. The flowers don’t have to be washed or conditioned. It’s cut and go.
A sticker on the box features the Daisy Dukes logo, along with the required instructions, “Rinse before use.” Customers include chefs, restaurants, artists, and DIYers who want fresh edible flowers for ice cube flowers or events. Regulations for edible flowers vary by state, so if this is a market you want to tap, do your homework.
“Flower bentos are a seasonal product, so the mix varies. I have multiple standing orders for bentos at this point, with $100 invested in the boxes and a $200 inkless thermal label printer,” she says. “At $10 a box, I’ll make a profit. I’m determined to do things in different ways and use every bit of what I grow to make profits.”
Erin McMullen, Rain Drop Farms
The basics: Erin and Aaron McMullen have been flower farming for 20 years, with both of them full-time on the farm for the last three seasons (Erin has always been full-time on the farm). Their farm endeavor actually took root with vegetables, but soaring local property prices led them to switch gears and grow flowers, which “we can pack into the small space so we can make a profit,” Erin says.
The bonus is that growing flowers isn’t monotonous. “One reason I love this job is that every year is a clean slate. You get to try something different, applying the lessons from the past to the future. You see how you can shift.”
Business model: The primary market for Rain Drop Farms is the wholesale floral markets in Portland and Seattle. Combined, they account for 60 to 65 percent of sales. Grocery sales gobble another large slice of Rain Drop’s flower pie, with CSA subscriptions and farm-based event design also rounding out the farm’s receipts. “I have a couple of staff members with a lot of design background, so we do events only because we like to do them. But they have to be the right fit,” Erin says.
Rain Drop Farms has started to analyze the things they’re doing and what they’re growing. “It’s exciting to do that, and it’s overwhelming,” Erin shares. “It’s hard to get down to the nitty gritty of whether or not something is profitable.”
Add to that the fact that nuances with revenue streams can make it hard to pin down profitability of a crop. “Some things we grow are not profitable in one revenue stream but are in another, so it’s a balancing act,” she adds. “It’s so important to remember that you can always change things. When I can break out of thinking ‘this is what we’ve always done,’ it’s a boon for the farm.”
What makes us money: In terms of volume and sheer numbers, dahlias are the biggest crop for Rain Drop Farms, with 35,000 in the ground this year. The farm’s success with dahlias hinges on several facts. First, the climate is amenable. “Dahlias just grow really well here,” Erin says.
Second, the farm focuses on extending the season. “We do everything we can to maximize the shoulder season with dahlias. We plant in hoops and plant early. We started harvesting dahlias out of our hoops in early June, while flower farmer friends further east won’t harvest until August. That timing creates an advantage.”
The farm’s diversified markets allow them to move a large volume of dahlias. Lastly, Erin is “fastidious about our collection as far as growing to our customer base. Variety selection is important with dahlias, as is harvest timing and postharvest care. All of those things together allow us to have a thriving dahlia market share.”
She also adds that dahlias dry beautifully, which provides another way to increase profits on this crop. “I haven’t been able to dry dahlias in volume simply because by the time they’re blooming the thought of getting them hung and dried is overwhelming,” she says. “But I really think that one of the keys to having a profitable crop of any kind is being able to maximize our use of them. I’m looking for crops we can use in multiple stages and multiple markets.”
One versatile crop that provides multiple avenues of revenue is eucalyptus. Rain Drop sells it fresh in straight bunches through their wholesale outlets, in consumer bunches at the grocery store and in CSA bouquets and event work. They also sell it dried. “Our eucalyptus is in the field. We have some winter die-off (we’re Zone 8b), but most of ours comes back every year,” she says. “Variety selection is important with eucalyptus. Some are hardier than others, so it pays to research this.”
Erin finds that “there are plenty of crops we grow that we would never have thought to sell in grocery or dry, but pushing the envelope of our expectation of crops brings revenue.” In early June, nonstop rain created a 2- to 3-week lag in flowers, but all of the greens were “moving like hotcakes. They’re not the flashiest things, not the most glamorous, but they are consistent producers that give us a consistent revenue through fall,” she explains.
Rain Drop’s greens include raspberry foliage, scented geraniums, eucalyptus, and mint. Once stems harden on eucalyptus, the farm cuts from the end of July through Valentine’s Day, while raspberries and geraniums provide stems until October.
Gretchen Langston & Gaylene Moldt, Blooms Colorado
The basics: Sisters-in-law Gretchen Langston and Gaylene Moldt broke ground on their flower-growing venture in 2017. This year they honed production to 4 acres, focusing on crops that make money. Gretchen handles crop planning, variety selection, and building terrific soil, while Gaylene tackles sales and marketing, along with cultivating lasting relationships with clients.
Business model: The majority of Blooms’ flowers move through local wholesale markets to high-end event designers. Florists can order crops from the farm’s website or the Colorado Flower Collective, selecting delivery or pick-up options. Fresh-from-the-farm bouquets sell direct to consumers through a local grocery store, as well as at farmers’ markets. Workshops held at local venues round out the farm’s revenue stream.
Gretchen tells the now-familiar tale of how the one-two punch of 2020 pandemic shutdowns combined with supply chain collapse propelled demand for local flowers. “Everyone wanted local flowers,” she recalls. “Anything we were growing, we were selling. The next year, we had to pivot again to what works in a more normal market. It’s been a ride, and great for sales and getting the word out about local flowers.”
What makes us money: Space is not a limiting factor for Blooms, so cut foliage and perennials have become the top earners. “We’re not as tied to seed starting and succession planting as more annual-centric farms,” Gretchen explains. The farm’s big moneymakers include spring bulbs: tulips, daffodils, and muscari. “We don’t really have spring in Colorado—it’s here and gone in a flash,” she says. “We go with bulbs because they can often take the cold snaps and still flower.”
Peonies also bring solid revenue, with the farm currently growing about 600 plants. Crops have a slight lull in late June, and perennial season kicks into high gear in July. The crops that thrive in Colorado’s xeric environment also sell well to event florists who have extremely busy wedding seasons, due to the state’s destination wedding status. “Yarrow is a moneymaker, along with kniphofia (in fabulous colors, like lime) and coneflower,” Gretchen says. “Our perennial field is pushing 3,000 plants, all of which are xeric. If it is a water hog, we don’t grow it.”
Woodies also play a big role in sales for Blooms, including viburnum, elderberry, and Nanking cherry. The No. 1 seller is ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius). “We continue to add more each year because every single bunch we offer is snapped up by designers,” Gretchen explains. Currently the farm tends about 400 ninebark shrubs overall, with new ones added each year. The variety list features Coppertina®, Summer Wine®, Summer Wine® Black, Diabolo®, Ginger Wine®, and Festivus Gold®.
The farm uses the largest ninebark starts they can source from wholesalers, and cutting begins Year 1. “With an early June planting, we find a plant is typically ready for cuts in early September,” Gretchen says. The plants produce long, straight shoots, and cutting in the first year doesn’t seem to affect the plant in terms of production. “Designers tend to request the largest stems around the end of August into early September for large installations,” she adds.
Ninebark is gorgeous in bloom, but Gretchen doesn’t cut in the flowering stage. “If we cut then, we take off so much of the new growth. We want the plant to get going and use all its energy to send out new shoots,” she adds. “If we do spring cuts, we get much less of the plant for less time in the season.” Instead, the farm focuses on straight foliage cuts from late June (on established plants) until autumn frost kills the plant. Gretchen gleaned this technique from an ASCFG live learning session. “We always learn so much from other more tenured growers,” she says.
Ninebark thrives in Colorado’s climate, and with its ability to ring up sales, the farm isn’t planning to scale back production. “When we use the stems ourselves for market bouquets, we can see why everyone loves it so much,” Gretchen says. “The depth of color, leaf form, and sturdy nature of the foliage makes it a perfect choice for bouquets!”
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]