Whether you’re hosting pick-your-own days, farm tours or workshops, welcoming the public to your farm brings a host of benefits—and potential problems. Glean advice you can use from flower growers who have already rolled out the red carpet to on-farm customers.

Learn the basics of inviting the public to your farm. Growers who are already doing it share wisdom about benefits, hidden costs, insurance advice, and event ideas based on their combined 50-plus years of experience.

Customers—wholesale and retail alike—love visiting flower farms. The fields of color are irresistible and fill visitors with a sense of awe. Jamie Rohda, owner of Harvest Home Flowers in Waverly, Nebraska, sells to wholesale florists. She typically hosts one annual open house evening, but this past year road-tested some pick-your-own events.

“After people visited the farm, we’d get texts and emails that said things like, ‘That was amazing.’ ‘I’d come out every day and work for free—I just love being there.’ Or my favorite, ‘You could charge 10 times as much and I’d come out even if I didn’t get the flowers.’” Rohda realized pretty quickly that “for most people, it wasn’t even about the flowers. It was more the experience—not how many stems did I get.”

Theresa Schumilas, owner of Garden Party Flower Farm in St. Agatha, Ontario, thrives on hearing the reaction from customers when they first visit the farm. “Our flowers are mostly hidden from the road, tucked behind some fields. When I show pick-your-own visitors where to go and they find themselves standing in an acre of flowers, they just say, ‘Wow.’ It’s so rewarding,” she says.

Because Schumilas sells mainly wholesale through an online marketplace to designers, she doesn’t interact with the customers who are picking up her flowers. “I don’t get that instant feedback,” she says. “I rely on that wow from my pick-your-own customers to keep me going. That’s why I keep doing it.”

Val Schirmer of Three Toads Farm forces amaryllis and paperwhites. She's started a workshop on winter bulb forcing for commercial growers.

Woo Visitors with Workshops and Plants

While pick-your-own flowers might be the most common way to bring guests to your farm, it’s not the only option. At Three Toads Farm in Winchester, Kentucky, Val Schirmer has created an on-farm following with bulb workshops and seedling sales. “When I first started this, I thought about doing pick-your-own, but realized I didn’t want people showing up unexpectedly to the farm—it’s our home. So for the last six to seven years we’ve done workshops and pop-up sales,” she says.

A highlight of her workshop topics focuses on one of Schirmer’s specialties: forced bulbs. “I started forcing bulbs for a high-end antique and garden show that’s the first weekend in March. I’ve been doing that since 2003, forcing about 6,000 bulbs in deep 6-packs,” she says. But forcing bulbs for one weekend is tough, so a few years ago Schirmer started doing 2-hour spring bulb garden workshops in February to balance the work a bit.

“Now I have people wanting to do private workshops,” she shares. “This year I’m not doing the garden show— I’m doing all workshops at the farm.”

She’s also taken her forced bulb workshop on the road, debuting her spring bulb gardens version at a brunch held at a popular local wedding venue. That workshop for 40 sold out in an hour.

She also hosts a winter flower school on the farm, an all-day event. “It’s everything I know about forcing bulbs—amaryllis and paperwhites for tabletop gardens. I limit it to 10 people. For $385, they do four projects,” she says. “I think once you make the reputation for having great flowers, people really want what you have.” Now she’s setting her sights on cultivating a commercial grower workshop base. “I did a bulb forcing workshop for commercial growers this past fall this past fall and it was SO much fun,” she says. “I think there’s an opportunity there.”

Schumilas has also found great success with on-farm workshops. “It’s very much still an experiment in progress, but I find that my customers really respond to foraging workshops. We have two acres of sugar maple forest with meadows, so we have beautiful natural places to walk,” she says. A fall seed-saving foraging walk is a hit with customers. “People just wander around with little envelopes, bags, and containers. I give them clues first by taking them on a tour. I tell them which ones are easy to grow, ones I wouldn’t bother with, ones that come back each year—things like that. Then they gather their seeds,” she says.

A winter wreath foraging workshop includes evergreens harvested on site, which Schumilas pre-gathers and piles outside the barn work area, just to save time. Attendees forage for materials like branches, lichens, fungi, and seed pods under the direction of a local wedding floral designer Schumilas partners with for the event. “On the foraging walk, the designer points out things that would make great wreath additions, and then we both coach people through the wreath-making process,” she says. Attendees easily make $200 wreaths and enjoy a day on the farm, complete with hot apple cider.

In spring, Schumilas hosts a seedling sale featuring plants for a cut flower patch. Schirmer does the same thing. “People want what flower farmers grow, so we offer home gardeners a chance to buy our specialty cut flower seeds or seedlings,” she says. “We did this last May as a four-hour pop-up event, and it was almost overwhelming.” Her secret? Create a collection and give it a name, like “Cutting Garden Collection.”

Schirmer posted availability on Instagram, and customers could pre-order, which means pre-buy. She sells super jumbo deep 6-packs for anywhere from $12 (cosmos, zinnias, marigolds), to $20 (Scoop scabiosa). Crops include everything from lisianthus—including new Japanese varieties for $18 per 6-pack—to nasturtiums (a Cincinnati florist drove 80 miles to get some of those). “Any time we do something like this, people are buying something that’s not a bedding plant. It’s not blooming—it’s just 6 inches tall,” she shares. She prepares a color handout (cost per page: 80 cents) of everything being offered, including detailed information on planting and care.

A wreath foraging workshop at Garden Party Farm, Ontario, fills fast. Owner Theresa Schumilas partners with a local wedding designer to coach attendees on foraging for and creating their wreaths.

“Last year, we had $4,000 of pre-sales, which is a fortune, especially at that time of year. The day of the sale we sold another $1,600 to $1,800,” she says. She also sold seeds in coin envelopes, but people went for the pricier plants. “I was really overwhelmed, but now a lot of customers are coming back, so that’s good,” she adds. In terms of time invested, it took the time to set up for the actual sale, plus another day before the sale to package the pre-orders up.

Work Bees Get the Jobs Done

Some growers have found success in opening their farms for work trade programs—customers work for a few hours in exchange for flowers, seeds, or whatever. Schumilas calls these events Work Bees, borrowing terminology from a quilting bee. “I cap the interest at 8 or 10 spots, or I would have more people than I can manage,” she shares.

She arranges her work bees around big projects, like early spring weeding in the perennial or herb patch, or planting lisianthus. People typically work for two hours and then break and chat. “They always have lots of questions about various things. They take home plants, cut flowers, or a mix,” she says.

For instance, in spring, when folks are cleaning out perennial beds, Schumilas lets them dig what they want—divisions of astilbe or iris, for instance. “That way I don’t have to prepare anything for them to take,” she says. One of her most popular work bees is autumn dahlia digging. “I let them take tubers with them, which is good, because I never have enough room to store all the dahlias,” she laughs.

Gretchen Langston, owner of Blooms Colorado in northern Colorado, has historically done work trade: a day of labor at the farm in exchange for a flower CSA subscription. Langston is a career risk manager who’s been growing flowers for the last 5 years on tough Colorado terrain. She offers solid advice to flower farmers who are hosting the public on-site for work days—or any events.

“In order for individuals to come for a work trade day or events on the farm, it’s important to have them sign an acknowledgement of risk before the actual event day,” she shares. “Waivers of liability do not hold up well in today’s litigation climate. You can’t really ask someone to waive all liability when they don’t truly know what type of hazards or perceived negligence might arise. What holds up in court is an acknowledgement of risk, where you list the obvious hazards.” At Blooms Colorado, the significant risks are “rugged topography and significant wildlife pressure, aka rattlesnakes,” per Langston.

Prior to growing flowers, Schumilas raised and sold organic vegetables for 30-plus years. “For me, insurance is key. I carry extra liability insurance for visitors to the farm. In addition, I have written procedures to mitigate risks so I can prove due diligence if anything happens,” she says. Think worst-case scenario at this point. “A child slips, lands on a fence post holding up support netting and loses an eye. Or a woman wearing flip flops slips down a hill and pulls a tendon. If there was an incident like this, I would lose everything I’ve built—my home, pensions, etc.”

Langston agrees. “As the host of an event, liability is significantly limited when you fulfill your duty to warn. You can mitigate loss so much with signage and warnings—and this includes having it on your website. If you have all the information on your site about the farm, when to come and all the other necessities, but have no paragraph about risk, you need to address that.”

She says it can be a simple statement along the lines of, “Your safety on our farm is paramount to us. We want you to come and have a wonderful experience and go home safely. In order to do this, we ask you to stay on marked paths. If an area is blocked off, do not go there. Do not hand pruners or other adult-intended tools to children. Etc.”

Having a statement like this helps to protect you if a situation occurs and goes to litigation. “If you have customers purchasing admission through your website, you should have safety information there. It can be as similar to the many ways websites have incorporated information about COVID changes over the last year, adding a statement in bold or red type. Remember, the easiest claim to manage is no claim at all,” Langston adds.

 

Jamie Rohda, Harvest Home Flowers, Nebraska, invested in white pitchers from IKEA for pick-your-own guests to carry flowers. She offered an option to buy;75 percent of visitors did. the vase

Infrastructure Workarounds

For many growers who host workshops, tours or pick-your-own, one limiting factor is infrastructure. At Three Toads Farm, Schirmer’s workshops really had room to grow once they knocked down an old machine shop on the property and turned it into Boggs Cottage. “It’s where we do workshops now, and also serves as a guesthouse and poolhouse—it’s totally multifaceted,” she says.

At Harvest Home Flowers, Rohda’s events take place outdoors. “My barn is a working barn, and it’s not that big, so we focus on small things that we can do outside. We did finish a 10 x 10 foot room in the barn last year for a little store. I stock it with things related to the farm: our honey, dried flowers, pressed flower art, succulents, vases, things like that. It’s really cute,” she says.

“We’re a working farm, so we’re growing on as much land as we can, which means we don’t have a lot of parking,” she shares. “My husband helps with that, which he enjoys.” Once cars are corralled, pick-your-own visitors start their event at the store, which helps generate sales, before heading to a tent outside the barn where Rohda provides clippers, and white pitchers filled with water. The tent pulls double duty as a source of shade and a work space, where guests can arrange their flowers after picking. A quick farm tour shows guests the one-acre flower field and perennials areas where they can cut.

“What makes our farm so appealing is that there are plantings throughout areas that aren’t in the garden per se,” Rohda explains. “I was going to have one garden for pick-your-own, but people really enjoy walking around to the different gardens. So we can’t really have an honor system or self-service. One of us has to be around to show people where they can cut—a clematis vine here or a hydrangea bush there.”

Her ideal event formula is 20 to 25 bouquets picked in an evening time slot that’s billed as “Sunset on the Farm. I can market it as a date night, which people like. The natural fading light helps end the day, and at the end, my husband and I usually just look at each other and feel it was fun, relaxing, and not physically exhausting.”

The trial run this year has been positive enough that Rohda is planning to drop one of her wholesale routes next year and go all-in on pick-your-own. “We plan to offer picking more times of the week, including the potential for a private evening with the farmer for groups of 10 or more. We tried that this year and found that the private groups are actually easier, because we can explain how it works and show the group where to pick one time,” she says.

“Part of the experience for everyone is having the farmer on hand to answer questions. That may make it less profitable for us, but we enjoy it. It reminds us of all those years we sold at farmers’ market. The part of that we miss is customer interaction.” Other changes she’s making include upcycling pallets to build little tables for people to set their pitchers on while they’re picking, and creating some kind of area in the shade garden to host private groups. “We’ll eventually make a patio with a structure, adding it to the slab from an old foundation of a hog barn,” she explains. A true farmer, she’s working with the resources at hand.
Another way to host events without adding infrastructure is to develop partnerships with local businesses. With her Colorado wildlife challenges, Langston isn’t willing to take on the premise’s liability involved in having workshops at the farm, so she partners with a local venue like Wolverine Public House in Fort Collins, the closest town. “They have an upper area of the silo barn that’s great for workshops. Folks love the on-farm experience, but ours is so remote that hosting events in town is the best answer,” she says.
When partnering with another venue, she purchases “general liability insurance with significant coverage. In the risk management world we call it ‘2-2 coverage’ and it provides $2 million per occurrence and $2 million in aggregate. If someone is hurt at the partner venue, we want to insure we have that off-premises liability. The reason for this is because if someone attending is hurt during a workshop that we’re hosting, we would be likely be named if a liability lawsuit asserting negligence arose. Always make sure you have premises liability.”

The Cost of Opening to the Public

When it comes to costs, growers don’t typically see huge outlays of cash to host events. Most advertise on social media with great results.

But allowing visitors can lead to a common problem: uninvited guests. Schumilas suggests thinking through your feelings about privacy before letting anyone visit. “If you’re a private person, don’t do it. Even with a sign that says ‘Closed,’ people will drop by. You can’t put that genie back in the bottle.”

Are any hidden expenses incurred when hosting pick-your-own or events? For Schirmer, the only hidden expense is her time—“the time to set up because you’re having company and of course, the time involved with the event versus doing something else that needs done. But when you’re the face of the business, you need to be there talking to people.”

For her pick-your-own events, Rohda wanted guests to have a visually inspiring experience, so she invested in white Ikea pitchers for visitors to take to the field. “We gave people the option to buy the pitchers, and I really underestimated how many people would do that. This year 75 percent of people bought pitchers! I had to keep ordering—I placed seven orders over the summer,” she says. “That wasn’t a big deal, but it took time.”

Schumilas admits that pick-your-own events can lead to ruined flower beds. “People don’t cut things low enough, and they leave a mess. You have to have lots of flowers or you won’t have any to sell anywhere else.” But that isn’t the only price she’s paid for hosting the public on her farm. This year she experienced a theft of newly planted bush cherries. The theft in itself wasn’t a large dollar value, but knowing someone came on her property in the dead of night to dig up plants is unsettling. She’s had guests on her farm for over 30 years, and theft has never been an issue.

At Harvest Home Flowers, Nebraska, owner Jamie Rohda found that many families came to enjoy Sunset on the Farm. While mothers would pick flowes, fathers would often take children to play on a swing set on the property.

The whole thing has made her re-think how she allows visitors to take photos on the farm. “I suspect that’s what led to the theft,” she says. “It’s made me realize that we’re allowing people to post pictures of our private spaces, and there’s no way to control that. Everyone who comes on the farm has a cell phone. Who doesn’t want a selfie in a field of flowers? Those posted photos are a great promotion for me, and it’s one reason people come. I may have to be stricter in terms of where I let people take photos and what they shoot.”

One other cost that’s easily overlooked relates to insurance. Langston advises all growers who host pick-your-own or on-farm or off-farm workshops to disclose those events to your insurance underwriter. “What you need is a commercial general liability policy. If you fail to mention that you have people on the farm or host events elsewhere, you could end up with some kind of exclusion in the policy that you hadn’t anticipated,” she says. Where would you find that exclusion? Buried in fine print, likely in an attached endorsement.

“For on-farm events that involve third parties assisting with the event, such as a band or food vendor, the proper thing to do is to require them to evidence to you that they have insurance. They should provide you with the certificate of insurance that lists you as an additional insured as respects that one event,” Langston explains. “This is what protects you as a farmer when someone trips over an electrical cord and breaks their hip. It sounds ridiculous until it’s not, and then it’s a catastrophe.”

Do Benefits Outweigh Risks?

Every grower agreed that they enjoy hosting the public on their farms. For Rohda, customer interaction is something she enjoys. More than that, she’s at a stage of life where having a less rigid schedule lets her enjoy nearby grandchildren. “With a wholesale account, there’s no flexibility—you can’t just skip a week. But the pick-your-own business model is completely different. We can schedule events around our lives. It also is less physically taxing, something we’re thinking about more and more,” she laughs.

Generating income is another benefit of workshops and pick-your-own, but make sure you crunch your numbers. “For me, subscriptions or CSA sales help more with cash flow because you get that large amount up front. On-the-farm events and pick-your-own provide supplemental income, like decoration on the icing on the cake,” Schumilas says.

“Selling wholesale is much easier and moves way more flowers. But I love those ‘wow’ moments of pick-your-own days. I’ve also always thrived on selling what I grow in ways that build community, and on-farm events do that.”

What surprises Schirmer most about having visitors on the farm is “how much they want to connect with you, how much they want to see where and how you do what you do. I’m always embarrassed —this place is not a showplace. But they don’t care, and that makes me feel good.”

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]