Farmers teach the next generation

Our esteem for Diane Szukovathy and her contagious passion as a flower farmer continues to climb, especially after we spent a few days with her and other experienced cut flower growers at the two-day “Specialty Cut Flower Growers School,” which drew more than 50 enthusiastic participants.

The educational program was sponsored by the burgeoning Seattle Wholesale Growers Market, a soon-to-be cooperative marketplace that will connect Northwest cut flower farmers with wholesale customers including flower shops, floral designers and wedding and event producers.

Diane Szukovathy and Dennis Westphall, owners, Jello Mold Farm

Like A Fresh Bouquet, the market is a reflection of the popular “buy local” movement, which encompasses not just “slow food” but floral ingredients we enjoy in our homes and give to loved ones. “The number one way to use your dollar is to vote with your spending habits,” says Diane, who owns Jello Mold Farm with her husband Dennis Westphall. Stay tuned for an upcoming post with news about the Market’s launch.

Two other instructors shared their small-scale flower farming wisdom as well – Joe Schmitt, a third-generation flower farmer who is part of the nine-grower Fair Field Flowers in Madison, Wisc., and Vivian Larson, a Stanwood, Wash.-based grower and owner of Everyday Flowers. They were joined by Dr. Beverly Gerdeman, a research entomologist with Washington State University specializing in cut flower pests and sustainable production methods.

Vivian Larson, Joe Schmitt and Dr. Beverly Gerdeman

I was thrilled to learn from many students as to why they set aside two days, considerable travel time and expense to increase their flower farming knowledge. Participants attended from all over Washington State and beyond. Many already raise and sell flower crops, but yearn to gain a deeper understanding of that “lost art” and “old wisdom” from experienced farmers.

There were also familiar faces, including floral designer and grower Melissa Feveyear of Terra Bella Flowers & Mercantile, who will be working with the new Seattle growers cooperative. Our friend Stacie Sutliff of Blush Custom Floral also attended. She’s been sourcing local and sustainably-grown flowers from Jello Mold Farm and other farmers, but now Stacie and her husband are going to grow flowers, too – they have purchased a 2-1/2 acre parcel and she’s busy ordering seeds and starts for her first season. Like Melissa, Stacie embraces the old-timey definition of “florist” – a person who both grows and sells flowers.

MEET THE FARMERS

High energy floral evangelist Diane Szukovathy in an unguarded moment with her partner and husband, Dennis during dahlia harvesting season.

Diane opened Friday’s session at WSU’s Mt. Vernon Research & Extension Center with an inspirational overview. Featuring many of David’s images, her slide lecture introduced individuals around the country who make their living growing and selling cut flowers. She highlighted Northwest growers, their crops, and their seasonal practices, making a point to explain why and how each has been successful. “Know your land!” she insisted.

I love all of Diane’s “isms” – her one-liners that sum up questions that should be asked by anyone who loves the craft of growing flowers and the art of designing with them. “Can you cut it?” “Does it hold in water?” “Is it an interesting variety?” Whether the crop is a tender annual or a woody shrub, these concerns are constantly on the minds of growers when deciding what floral ingredients to plant and sell.

PLANT SELECTION

Vivian and Diane’s whirlwind talk on the potential universe of cut floral ingredients ranged from annuals and perennials to roses, ornamental shrubs and grasses. “I have been growing flowers my whole life,” Vivian says. “I’m in love with flowers.”

One of her specialty crops is the Kordes Rose, a favorite of brides and wedding planners. Vivian also grows annuals like sweet peas, and bulbs such as lilies, gladiolas and dahlias. For each of the cut flower varieties featured, she made a point of describing when to harvest it for market. In nearly every case, of course, she suggests cutting a flower when you begin to see a small bit of its color emerge from the bud. “The only time you see color in a cut flower growers’ field is when that crop has gone too far,” she points out. “Of course, that’s when you can dry those flowers and have a second chance to sell them (as everlastings).”

Vivian explains some tried and true methods for plug and transplant production.

I learned some other valuable plant-selection tips from Joe Schmitt in a separate talk that covered soil basics. One seems crazy, but I love it. Joe suggested we observe the weeds that take root in our gardens and fields. “Look at what is growing well in your soil as a weed,” he advised. “And then grow an ornamental variety of it.” Turn the negative into a positive: If there is a wild grass or perennial weed that thrives in your soil . . . there must be a prettier cousin who can be a bouquet beauty. Great tip!

GETTING STARTED

Joe Schmitt, Fair Field Flowers

As a lifelong grower, Joe has seen it all – and probably grown it all. His experience with flower farming is both inspiring and humbling to hear about. Joe spoke a lot about “making a decent living” as a flower farmer, an honorable goal and one that reveals his personal values and business acumen.

Joe has raised field-grown cut flowers for sales through a CSA and via “bucket runs” to regional florists in Southern Wisconsin for 17 years, the last seven of them with the Fair Field Flowers cooperative venture [gotta love the tag line on the delivery truck: "Fresh, Local, Sustainable"].

He shared some of the ways that Fair Field Flowers has improved the business model for a flower-growers’ cooperative. Each bunch or bouquet has a bar-code label organized by product code and grower. There is a computer and printer on the truck so that invoices can be generated at the time of delivery. “We’re providing a way for very small growers to participate and also providing a nice mix of flowers for our customers,” he says.

Joe demonstrates one favorite method of seedling starting.

A bit of a “MacGyver,” Joe is a solutions-oriented, mechanically-minded guy who retrofits equipment to help simplify the physical labor of tilling, planting, harvesting and even weeding. We learned many practical techniques from Joe, including establishing planting rows 5-1/2 feet wide on center and spacing them with 36-inch-wide paths. Joe’s delivery truck has a refrigeration system, so he makes it simple to go from field to bucket: “I cut and stick my flowers directly into the truck; my truck is my cooler.”

Joe begins each season by starting 75,000 “plugs” in his basement under lights. The efficient operation takes advantage of every single inch of that space. As the seedlings begin to mature, Joe moves them to outside cold frames, including one attached to the side of his house that encompasses part of the foundation and two basement windows (making it easy to move plants from indoors to the outside). Later the starts are transplanted in the fields of a cooperative CSA where Joe barters labor and expertise for use of 1-1/2 acres. He produces cut flowers for market customers from late May through early October.

David and I believe greatly in the power of storytelling. After all, that is what A Fresh Bouquet is all about. One secret to Joe’s success as a flower farmer is in part due to his ability to connect with his customers through stories. He includes a CSA newsletter stapled to the sleeve of every bouquet as a “value added” part of the presentation. In addition to lists of what’s in season in the fields, Joe writes humorous narratives and describes the ingredients of his bouquets with a personal flair. Here’s one excerpt:

A hint of fall in today’s bouquet.  Don’t know if you’ve noticed it where you live, but here the signs of summer winding down are already evident.  If that’s the case, however, it looks like it’s shaping up to be a helluva hot winter.

Billion Dollar Grass (or maybe not) Echinochloa crusgalli (see other side).  Also known as Japanese Millet, this highly touted fodder and pasture crop has also been used in desalinization projects in Egypt.  A folk remedy for everything from cancer to carbuncles, there are claims that it can be grazed within three weeks of sowing, and as many as five times in the life of the crop.  I’ve got no reason to doubt a word of that.

Here’s another one, from a Father’s Day edition of his newsletter:

When they were working without talking, however, my men were still teaching.  How to cut with one hand and hold a hundred stems in the other.  When a flower is too tight and left for another day, when it’s just right, and when it gets tossed on the ground.  Everything was taught by showing.  Everything was learned by watching.  And somehow, silently, they also taught me what all good working men learn, that good working women don’t seem to (or need to?).  Watch men work and you will surely see it.  We read each other’s minds.  Really. Bend down to pick up a long board and a man will be at the other end.  Think about a tool and he’ll be handing it to you.  True.  Is it ESP?  That singular focus?  Collective consciousness?  Who can say?  Maybe we’ve got but one good brain among us.  If so, to all the fathers, and their fathers, and their fathers’ fathers – thanks for passing it down in such good shape.

It is clearly a cost-effective effort: “One third of my customers say they buy my bouquets for the newsletter,” he says. Yes, I would buy a book – and the flowers – from this man.

School attendees talk about what they've been learning and their flower farming aspirations during a sunny lunch break on the second day of the school.

WHY DO PEOPLE WANT TO GROW FLOWERS?

During a free-form session with participants, Diane and Joe got people talking about the passion and motivation of a flower farmer. Here are some of the comments from the participants:

  • To attract beneficial insects and pollinators
  • To use and preserve farmland
  • To be a “producer” and not a “consumer”
  • To walk outside and be at work
  • To be surrounded by beauty
  • To diversify my food-growing farm
  • “I see flowers as the financial center of my farm.”
  • To grow flowers for my own floral design business
  • To improve the quality of life for my customers
  • To include every generation of my family in the process
  • To have a sense of community and know my neighbors

DAY TWO:

After sitting in a classroom for a full day, the participants were happy to don scarves, hats and coats the following day for class-on-the-farm. Diane and Dennis opened up nearby Jello Mold Farm for several hands-on workshops and demonstrations. Their charming red barn has a vast loft with banks of salvaged movie theater seating . . . just perfect for gathering a crowd. The workshops covered marketing, seed-starting and succession planting, how to build hoop houses and more. I was especially disappointed to miss out on the “Marketing Panel Discussion” with Kindryn Downing of The Floral Design Guru; Melissa Feveyear; Vivian Larson and Kristen Parris, the flower buyer at Seattle’s Town and Country Markets. But I can only imagine how much it energized folks to learn practical and creative ways growers are connecting with their floral customers.

Just remember, the next time you buy a bunch or bouquet of flowers, one of the people you see on this screen may have grown them with love and passion. We love helping acquaint you with them.

Note from David: I understand that there is a great deal to wade through here this time, with all the pictures and the video in addition to the layers of Debra’s rich story. But truthfully, there was an awful lot going on during the two days that the growers school ran and between us, we really wanted to give you an accurate rendering. So, rather than risk showing too little, perhaps it will seem that we’ve erred this time on the side of showing too much. You will decide for yourselves of course. Either way, rest assured that not all our stories will be so plump, friends.

Thank you for joining us and as always, we’d love to hear from you.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane Szukovathy March 5, 2011 at 9:32 am

Wow! I am deeply honored by your blog post on “flower school”. LOVE IT!!!!! As I read down through your accounting of the event, Debra, I was struck by how much wonderful community and teamwork we have going on in this world where maybe a living is to be had, not least the work of you two!! and how much greater is the sum of the whole than the parts. A lesson there in the richness that can come from needing each other and freely sharing what we have.

Joan E. Thorndike March 5, 2011 at 5:02 pm

AWESOME! truly.

All of you, writer, photographer, flower nuts – you make our world look so good. Thanks, many thanks.

Jan Roozen March 5, 2011 at 5:37 pm

Hi, Guys, sorry I missed that.It sure looks like you all had a good time
and learned something in the process. We were visiting our daughter
and granddaughter in Rochester NY. We had some good and some really
cold weather. Glad to be back here.

David Perry March 13, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Fun! Three of our favorite flower farmers weighing in one place. Diane, Joan and Jan it is such a treat to have your impressions here, and an honor to be telling your stories in ways that you feel portray you and happenings within your industry well.

David and Debra

commonweeder March 18, 2011 at 5:26 am

I love reading about flower farmers – and thinking about the flowers I will grow for cutting this summer. I like the tip about looking at the weeds growing in my landscape – and growing cultivated varieties – hmmmmm – achillea and solidago to start.

Duet Designs March 22, 2011 at 10:26 am

We look forward to supporting the Growers Wholesale Market come April, and to be a part of this vital movement! See you in Georgetown.

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