“There is incredible value in having a local brand.”
Earlier this month I visited Tulsa, Oklahoma to take in two days of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers’ annual conference.
It was a long way to travel for 48 hours’ worth of flower research, but I loved every moment I was on the ground (I was not enamored with the hours sitting in air planes, or getting stuck overnight during Denver’s first ice storm of the season, but you can’t have everything!).
ASCFG is the trade group for flower farmers around the country. I believe there are about 450 member farms, as well as allied members, including floral designers and academics. Executive director Judy Lauschman and her colleague Linda Twining put on an amazing conference. The committee, including Vicki Stamback, ASCFG president and owner of Bear Creek Farms in Stillwater, Oklahoma, offered excellent speakers, tours and hospitality.
Our first day began before dawn when we boarded a coach bus for the 60-minute-plus ride from Tulsa to Stillwater. For any of you who’ve been part of the Garden Writers Association annual symposium, it’s very similar. Nothing like a suspended moment in time, on a bus, to bring out good conversation with your seat mate.
We arrived at Bear Creek Farms, which Vicki has operated for more than a decade.
The big metal barn was converted into a classroom for 100 of us to participate in the ASCFG “Grower’s School,” a one-day intensive covering everything from seed germination and succession planting to insect and disease control and greenhouse operations.
A highlight was a demonstration by Wisconsin flower farmer Joe Schmitt, who sells cut flowers through a growers’ cooperative called Fair Field Flowers. I was fascinated with Joe’s show-and-tell of a Japanese farming device called a “paper chain pot planting system.” It was originally designed for small-scale commercial shallot farms, but Joe has adapted the implement for various flower crops, including celosia, sunflowers and ornamental grasses. He demonstrated how to open up the paper honeycomb framework, stretch it over a planting tray and spread seed-starting soil into the openings.
Next, since there are holes in the tray’s cover to match up with each honeycomb, you simply shake seeds across the top so that one or more drops into its planting pocket. Once the seedlings are about 4 weeks old, attach the seed-filled honeycomb onto the planter. With tiny front wheels and larger back wheels, and a pair of wheelbarrow-like handles, this is an easy-to-walk-behind device. As you “steer” the planter down a row, the honeycomb framework turns into a paper chain, unfolding with ease. Voila! – you can plant hundreds and hundreds of flower seedlings in an instant.
We were mesmerized by the demonstrations Joe showed from YouTube movies. Check it out:
It’s this kind of innovation that low-tech flower farmers use and adapt for their own needs. Joe says the machine costs around $1,300 and is being imported for the U.S. market by Small Farm Works of Wisconsin.
Lunch was followed by a presentation from successful flower farmer Lynn Byczynski, author of The Flower Farmer: The Organic Grower’s Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008). I love her book (read my review here) and I knew Lynn would have a lot of good information to share with her peers. Her talk, “Marketing Before You Grow,” was a reminder that anyone who loves growing flowers must also understand what’s happening inside flower shops and design studios.
“Match the flowers to the market and grow flowers most appropriate to what you can sell,” Lynn advises. It’s a reality that the fresh, seasonal and local crops grown by domestic flower farmers compete with cheap imports.
With this in mind, Lynn recommends that local growers concentrate on flower crops that are expensive on the wholesale market (peonies, garden roses, hydrangeas, lisianthus and lilacs, among others) and those that typically get damaged in transit. “You can deliver something so far superior,” she points out. Delphinium, Bells of Ireland, larkspur, lisianthus, sunflowers and sweet William are among the ones on that hard-to-ship-long-distances list.
Lynn also urges domestic growers to raise and sell flowers that lose their fragrance while in transit (dianthus, lilacs, stock) and those not typically available to designers from conventional wholesale sources: Celosia, zinnia, salvia, herbs, perennials and native plants.
Years of experience have made Lynn very successful in her local market, Lawrence, Kansas, where she operates Wild Onion Farm. Lynn also publishes “Growing for Market,” a monthly newsletter for market farmers.
Her takeaway message resonated with the entire audience: “There is incredible value in having a local brand.” Supermarkets want to jump on that bandwagon. Floral designers, on the other hand, probably respond most to the superiority of fresh, unusual ingredients. “They are visually creative people, so make sure you have flowers to show them,” Lynn advised.
That evening, after a long day, jet lag and little sleep the night before, I did the obvious thing. No! I didn’t go to bed early. Instead, I met friend and fellow garden writer Dee Nash of Red Dirt Ramblings, a popular Oklahoma blog. Dee drove more than an hour from her home to meet me for dinner. That is true friendship. We didn’t have a ton of time together, but we covered a lot of ground, gabbing about our careers and writing projects, our families and children. It was a treat to see her and have an evening dedicated to one conversation.
The following day, after allowing myself to sleep in a bit, I devoted the afternoon to two more flower-growing workshops before trying to fly home to Seattle that night. That’s where the unplanned overnight in Denver occurred.
I’ll write next about what I learned from Janet Foss of J. Foss Garden Flowers in Chehalis, Wash., and two Midwest growers, Patricia Banner of Banner Flower Farm in Allegan, Mich., and MaryLee Johnson of Windswept Acres in Cecil, Wisc. Stay tuned!