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Flowers for Profit: Growing Fresh Cut Flowers for Fun and Profit

By Jay White
Freelance Writer

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, something strange happened in the U.S. over the past 10 years. For the first time in our nation’s history, the number of people that listed their occupation on the census as “farmer” actually increased. As more and more Americans become more and more conscious of their health and the health of the environment, the demand for locally grown agricultural products produced in an environmentally friendly way has skyrocketed. This has created a vibrant niche market for small farmers. Because of all this demand, times have never been better to start a small farm.

If you might be interested in turning your gardening hobby into a money maker, let me give you a couple of tips. First and foremost, farming on any scale is hard work and it comes with zero guarantees. Whether you farm one acre or a thousand, workdays are long and Mother Nature is not your friend. Second, if you want to farm on a small scale and make the most profit possible, don’t grow vegetables. That’s right! While small scale vegetable production is thriving, you will make much more money per acre if you grow — flowers!

Locally grown, fresh cut flowers are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. floral market. Approximately 90 percent of the fresh cut flowers sold in the U.S. come from abroad. While foreign growers are great at producing the top three floral crops (roses, carnations and chrysanthemums) at incredibly low prices, the flowers that you buy from your local florist, big box or supermarket are harvested 10 to 14 days before they reach your shopping cart. To achieve this, foreign producers can only grow a limited number of varieties and they have to use an incredible amount of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and preservatives to make sure that their product looks fresh when it finally gets to the cash register. If you are like a growing number of flower buyers, you want something “more” to spend your floral dollars on than these standard imported bunches that were grown at a huge cost to the environment.

This is why the local, fresh cut flower market is thriving. Local growers produce a product that is fresher than their foreign competitors. In fact, many bouquets are sold the same day they are cut. The local grower can also customize his or her offering based on seasonality and local preferences. In addition, the customers of local growers often develop a personal relationship with them. They value knowing who produces their flowers and how that person grew them. When you consider that the local grower does all of this and still keeps prices extremely competitive, you begin to understand why this movement has taken off.

If you are interested in growing flowers for market, The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (www.ascfg.org) is a great place to start. The ASCFG formed in 1988 to provide information on growing techniques, marketing strategies and new developments to the field-grown and greenhouse-grown fresh cut flower producer. Currently, they have 450 members that specialize in this growing market. Twelve of those members are in Texas. While some of these growers are large producers who supply tons of flowers to high-end florists and supermarket chains, the majority is small. These small, independent growers are making a living or supplementing their family income by growing flowers on as little as one acre. These small growers usually run their operations with little or no outside help. They grow, harvest, package, market and sell directly to their customers. You can usually find them at many of the farmers markets that have popped up across the country.

Billabong
One of these small growers of field-grown, fresh cut specialty flowers is Kim Haven of Billabong Fresh Flower Farm (www.texascutflowers.com) in Hempstead. In 2002, Kim was looking for a more fulfilling way to make a living. An avid gardener, she began to volunteer at Peckerwood Gardens in Hempstead. Between her volunteer work and her own gardens, she found herself spending more and more time gardening. Her husband suggested that if she was going to spend so much time playing in the dirt, she should try to figure out a way to make some money from her hobby. Soon after that talk with her husband, she attended a lecture by Frank Arnosky at the Antique Rose Emporium (http://www.antiqueroseemporium.com) in Independence. Frank and his wife Pamela are the owners of Texas Specialty Cut Flowers in Blanco (http://www.texascolor.com/). The Arnoskys operate one of the most successful field-grown flower operations in the U.S. As she listened to Frank talk, a light went on in her head. Growing fresh flowers for market was the way to turn her love of gardening into some revenue! After the lecture, she visited with Frank, and he provided her with enough information and encouragement to get her started. The rest, as they say, is history.

Kim started experimenting with her field-grown operation in 2003 and sold her first flowers in 2004. She initially developed her business by walking into florist shops with buckets of her flowers and asking if they wanted to buy her product. She was almost never told no.

The florists loved her product because she provided them with things that the big foreign growers couldn’t produce and ship. Flowers like orlaya, zinnias, basil and gomphrena (bachelor’s buttons) allowed the florists to create more “romantic” or “cottagy” bouquets than they could with just the product they were receiving from their wholesale suppliers. According to Kim, the majority of florists are always looking for unique, high-quality flowers to offer to their customers. Because of this, she had a ready market in the spring and fall for as many flowers as she could produce.

However, the floral business is seasonal. While the retail florists were buying her product for the spring and fall seasons, she had trouble finding a market for her summer flowers. In 2006, she began taking her flowers to farmers markets in the local area. These markets gave her direct access to a large number of customers in a single location. Since the markets were open almost year-round, she found them to be a much more steady and reliable venue in which to move her products. Also, the direct exposure to the retail customers allowed the business to expand even further as the customers began asking her to prepare flowers for special events like weddings, baby and bridal showers, rehearsal dinners and private parties. Chefs who were at the markets to buy fresh local produce also began using her to supply their restaurants with table flowers. By 2008, she had decided to sell her product exclusively through these markets.

Today, she sells about 90 percent of her product at two farmers markets in Houston. On Tuesdays, you can find her at the Rice University Farmers Market (open from 3:30 until 7) and on Saturday she can be found at the Urban Harvest Farmers Market (located at 3000 Richmond, open from 8 until noon). She sells everything that she can harvest at these two markets in less than eight hours per week! While that sounds impressive, Kim is the first to point out that selling her flowers is the easy part; growing them is the tricky part. A flower farm is still a farm after all, and she must deal with all of the critters, storms, droughts and plagues that all Texas farmers face. Her product may be a lot more attractive than a squash or potato, but it is not any easier to grow.

Flower Production
Kim has some advice for those who would like to start a commercial flower operation. “Like most things we do in life, there is a learning curve to growing quality flowers commercially. It’s taken years for me to learn how to properly grow the 50 or so varieties of flowers that I produce in my environment. I had to learn when to cut them and the best post-harvest handling techniques to ensure the highest quality for my customers. When trying a new variety, I don’t always get it right the first time. I will try growing a particular flower at least three times before it gets thrown out. Also, before you start, read everything you can find. Two books are invaluable: The Flower Farmer by Lynn Byczynski and Specialty Cut Flowers by Allan Armitage and Judy Laushman. The Texas Department of Agriculture also has two publications, Cut Flower Manual and Cut Flower Resource Guide, which provide a good overview of the industry for anyone game enough to try getting their hands dirty. And, don’t forget, the best information comes from visiting with other growers.”

Since Kim’s is primarily a field-grown operation, her growing season coincides roughly with the freeze dates in her area. Her first flowers are ready in March and her last sell around November. In order to extend that season a little on both sides of the freeze dates, she recently installed a greenhouse. The greenhouse will allow her to provide more variety to her early spring and late fall customers. It will also allow her to grow flowers that prefer a sheltered and controlled environment like Lisianthus, Ranunculus and Campanula. During the summer months, the sides can be rolled up and shade cloth added overhead to protect flowers from the extremes of Texas weather.

According to Kim, the flower farm provides her with two types of days, both of which begin at the crack of dawn and often end way past dark. The first type is spent catching up on the things that need to be done to ensure that she has a ready supply of products for market. There’s always a crop that has finished and needs to be cut down or pulled out. Those now empty 4 x 100 foot rows are tilled and amended with organic material to get them ready for the next crop of flowers. Of course, there’s always weeding to be done. She mulches her beds with plastic mulch, but the weeds still find a way to germinate. She does all weeding by hand or with the help of her trusty stirrup hoe. In addition, there are always plugs that have to be planted and pests to look for in her sandy soil, especially moles and gophers. She is also constantly on the lookout for any signs of disease.

Her second type of day revolves around harvest and market preparation. There is a small window of opportunity to cut a flower in its prime (this is something you learn by doing it) and that window is usually open in the early morning hours. Harvested flowers are stripped of their foliage in the field and placed into clean buckets with plain water. This helps clean the stems of their field grime. The flowers are then placed in a shady area to start the cooling down process. When the harvesting process is complete, the flowers are re-cut and placed in a new bucket containing either a holding solution, plain water or a floral preservative. Different flowers get different treatments. After this, everything then goes into the walk-in cooler. The afternoon may be spent filling plug trays, seeding new flowers (she plants 300 sunflowers every week), cutting eucalyptus (she is a native Australian after all) and the other greenery that she uses to ensure that her bouquets have a blend of both color and texture.

Post-Harvest
Her small farm has been so successful that she has been able to install a walk-in cooler. This cooler is critical to ensuring that her flowers are always delivered to her customers at the peak of freshness. Proper post-harvest handling techniques are what really set a producer apart from competitors. To keep the flowers looking fresh for as long as possible, the grower must harvest them at the point in their development that results in the best possible longevity. Once cut, it is imperative that they are chilled as soon as possible and stored at between 34 and 42 until the flowers are sold. Kim is serious about supplying quality flowers and has little appreciation for those who don’t. She attributes this desire for quality to her father, who often told her, “If you are going to do the job, do it properly or don’t do it at all.”

According to Kim, flower farming is the hardest thing she has ever done. It has also been the most rewarding. The demand for locally grown, environmentally friendly agricultural products shows no signs of abatement. If you love growing things and you have a few acres, a small field-grown flower operation might be your ticket to a more fulfilling life. Aristotle said, “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your calling.” Right now, the world is calling out for beautiful flowers grown in an environmentally friendly way. If you are a gardener, this could be your calling.

Jay White is a full time computer specialist for the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and he is completing an M.S. in Horticulture at Texas A&M. In his spare time he gardens and maintains “The Masters of Horticulture” blog at http://yupneck1.wordpress.com/.

Boggy Creek

Carol Ann Sayle and Larry Butler of Boggy Creek Farm (http://www.boggycreekfarm.com/) in Austin are leaders of the Urban Farming movement in America. They founded their certified organic farm on five acres in central Austin in 1991. In the past 20 years they have seen their operation expand from a small, local vegetable stand into a nationally recognized Mecca for those who want the freshest and safest produce and floral products for their tables. Visit the farm on any Saturday or Wednesday and you will find an impressive array of vegetables and flowers being picked over by individual consumers and chefs from the most prestigious restaurants in the area.

Beginning with a farm stand, Carol Ann and Larry started growing and selling field-grown flowers in response to customer requests. Now, their fresh cut sunflowers, sweet peas and other old-fashioned flowers are just as much in demand as their vegetables. Their central Austin farm is only five acres. Of that, half of an acre is dedicated to flower production. According to Carol Ann, “We sell every flower that we grow. We could sell a whole lot more; we just don’t have room to grow them.”

If you are in the Austin area, stop by and visit with Carol Ann and Larry. They are gracious hosts and they love to share what they are doing with those that are interested. As Kim Haven of Billabong Fresh Flower Farm noted, the best resource for learning how to grow field cut flowers is visiting with others who are doing it.

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