The cut flower business is booming – many say it’s the best way to make profit as a grower, and we hear time and time again how revenue and margin has dramatically increased when vegetable growers start including cut flowers into their product lineup.
Growing a new crop can be a bit daunting, though, so we’re hoping to ease the load by sharing stories from cut flower growers about how they got into the business and the most important lessons they’ve learned over their years of growing.
Martha Parker of Nanny’s Sunshine and Blooms has been growing cut flowers for a few years now. Here’s her story.
How Martha’s Cut Flower Busines Began
I was lucky enough to grow up on a farm, and despite the hot and dirty days, I knew it was something I loved doing. My career after college took me off the farm but I bought a 5-acre property as soon as I could. After I retired, I seriously started thinking about growing for profit.
Education and Helpful Resources
The first thing I did when I retired was to take a Master Gardener class through the state of North Carolina. Even though I was a farm girl, that class gave me the confidence to proceed with the idea of growing for profit. The class not only provided me with knowledge, but also exposed me to the many resources available through our state extension services. (You can find your state’s extension here)
This is a great time to grow. There is so much information available through the internet and social media forums. Contacts that can be made with other growers who are willing to share their expertise. Loving Harris Seeds' new Professional Growers Facebook Group by the way!
How Her Cut Flower Business Evolved
I feel that there are three aspects to consider when starting a cut flower business.
- Ability to grow a quality product
- Marketing the product
- Business aspect
Lessons Learned About Cut Flower Selection
My first two years were focused on whether or not I could grow the flowers. I did lots of research on how to grow cut flowers and kept seeing the advice of starting with sunflowers and zinnias. I am a great believer in not reinventing the wheel, so that was what I concentrated on and found success.
I really did my research and knew my flowers. Especially when I was just starting out, it was much easier to grow flowers that were native to my area. Even today, I still focus on native genera, although I may start to experiment as my business grows.
Another thing that has been really helpful to me is to mix up my colors and variations to match the change of season. I mean, there are so many sunflowers to have fun with.
One area that I need to improve on is record-keeping of what I plant where and in which field. Some flowers haven’t done as well as I would like, so I need to keep better records of what I planted and where.
Lastly, I pay attention to what my customers like, not necessarily what I like.
Next season, I plan to expand into cool weather, hardy annuals based on research from Lisa Mason Ziegler, who is another great resource for cut flowers. Right now, I don’t have a tunnel or greenhouse, and growing cool-loving flowers will get me into the local farmers markets with product as soon as they open in spring, instead of having to wait for the sunflowers and zinnias to mature. I think it is important to have a presence at the market right from the get-go.
As you start planning for next season, it’s a good idea to make a master calendar for succession planting to ensure you’ll have a steady supply of flowers throughout the season.
Tips on Harvesting and Vase Life
How you harvest is just as important as growing those flowers. Harvest at the proper time of bloom for your particular flower, usually early morning or late evening, and make sure the plant is well-hydrated post-harvest. Use sharp and scrupulously clean cutters or knives.
Before each cutting, I wash all my buckets, rinse them with bleach, then fill with cut plant food. Flowers go into the buckets as soon as they have been cut and their leaves have been stripped. If not harvested properly, the flowers will have a short vase life which can turn away repeat customers. I also make sure buyers know the importance of how to take care of the flowers once they get them home. I have vase-life instructions pinned to the top of my Facebook page.
Next season, I’ll be investing in a flower cooler to cut down on some of the cost of lost flowers that bloomed too early to sell as a quality product.
Lessons Learned About Marketing
This past year, I put a lot more effort into marketing my cut flowers. I went from selling at one familiar market to two unfamiliar markets. Surprisingly, both have been better than the original market, and both have surpassed my expectations, especially in this crazy COVID year.
Investigate the markets; look at the costs associated with the markets (and don't forget to include travel). If you try a new market without much success, don’t be afraid to move on. However, give it time, as it takes folks a while to try you out sometimes. Each market is different, and what sells in one market may not sell in another.
I also strongly urge you to only sell the best flowers you have. It might be tempting to sell an inferior product to save losses, but my experience has shown that a quality product is the way to go. Quality ensures repeat business.
I am not tech-savvy but have found resources and support to take that big step. There is no doubt in my mind that a social media presence can make a big difference in sales at local markets. When customer after customer says “I saw your flowers on Facebook,” I know it works.
So far, I have concentrated on selling at a local market because I love the social interaction that comes with meeting customers in my community. I am ‘the sunflower lady’ and proud of it.
After listening to customers and other growers, I plan to expand in areas outside of the market, such as growing for events, selling to florists, flower CSAs, and maybe even doing farm visits with photo opportunities.
Future Plans for the Business Side
2021 is the year in which I will be really concentrating on the business aspect of cut flowers. I know I can grow a quality product and have had success marketing, so my next step is to start paying more attention to profits.
Advice For Other Cut Flower Growers Who Are Just Getting Started
I suggest you do your research but then jump in. Start small, but nothing replaces experience. Don’t be afraid to fail. Keep notes. My phone is full of things I think about while working in the field or while I’m at market. If you don’t write it down, some of those brainstorms will be lost. Look around at what others are doing who are successful or learn what not to do from those that are not. I have loved my small success and am really excited to be thinking about next year!
You can find Martha at Nanny’s Sunshine on Facebook. All photos are courtesy of Martha.