in like a lion…

Around here we learned that March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb. Well if they are still teaching kids that today I’ll bet that they are confused. I had to go out and cover up all of my little plants in the hoop house. Come on, it is the end of March! I should not have to cover up cold tolerant annuals inside of a hoop. Forecasted lows in the single digits got me scared and out I went to cover those babies up. And yes I am still watering with melted snow in buckets, though they were mostly frozen this morning.

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Also on my schedule for today was to catch up with my seeding plan, which I mostly did. I’m feeling pretty darn good about that. There are few items that I have just decided to skip for one reason or another. And I have had to modify some of my plans since it looks like I probably won’t be planting out in the field for at least three more weeks (probably more). I had it on my schedule to start seeding into my paper chain transplanting system but that requires the ground to be in good shape (not too wet, not too dry) and most of what I am planning to plant probably shouldn’t sit in those trays for more than four weeks. The one exception is my lisianthus. Not seeds, transplants, only crazy people start seeds. I fill up that flat very loosely with my potting mix and then I just smoosh the little plants on top. The cell size is about the same as the flats that they arrive in but a little deeper and way easier to plant out afterward. And that is my favorite reason for having this fancy little system.

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3.19.14

Last week was a busy one for around here. The weather finally seems to be less of an issue so I started planting in the hoop house. Anemones, ranunculus, with sweet peas down the middle of the bed. Snaps, stock, and godetia in another bed. And those are buckets of snow melting so that I can water everything since the water source is located 300 feet away over at the house and there are still crazy snow drifts between here and there.

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I picked up some willow cuttings and they look great. I am super excited about these guys. When I got home there was a box of lisianthus plugs and a box of dahlia tubers waiting for me. More exciting stuff! The willows I stuck in a bucket of water for now and the lissies I set aside to deal with later. The dahlias I had order because I lost all of mine from last year. I tried that plastic wrap method and it did not work for me. I had a moldy box of plastic and grossness. I tossed the whole thing and ordered new stuff.

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The dahlias I potted up into some cow pots and I will take cuttings after they sprout. Since I had to start over with the dahlias I decided that it would be cost effective to propagate through cuttings this year. Of course I have never this before but I am really banking on it working since I only order about 40 dahlia tubers.

On my list for the rest of this week is more planting out into the hoop and starting lots more seeds. I am about three weeks behind. Some stuff I am just going to skip but I will try to catch up as much as possible. I should be mostly caught up by the end of next week. Then I can move on to the perennials and prairie seeds that I am going to start.

a look back: year six

2013, year six, was last year. I have said a lot about last year already but there are a few things that I have not said.

Last year I decided that it would be a minimum of three years (probably more like 5-7) before we can afford a farm. That is still the end goal in all of this. We had started the farm search with some limiting criteria: size, price, proximity to Milwaukee, condition of house and buildings. The criteria got looser and looser until we were looking at farms an hour away that would need 50k of work just to make them livable. I do have some long term plans sort of sketched out in my head. But for now I am committed to 3-7 years in my current situation, which has relieved a lot of stress and allowed me to move forward instead of constantly waiting.

I did get an FSA micro loan to help out with some infrastructure last fall. Let me correct that statement. I applied for the loan last fall and then with the government shut down things moved very slowly. It was supposed to be an easier process than the full on FSA loan but I found it to be tedious and redundant. I did get my money in December, $10 000. I had already purchased all of the stuff I needed with my credit card as winter was on it’s way and it’s hard to dig holes and stretch plastic in the snow.

I do not feel like it is a sustainable business model for a person to grow all of their own flowers and do wedding work. It is like having two full time jobs but this is what I need to do now to make things better for the future. I like wedding work but that is not why I started this business, there will come a day when I have to decide between being a floral designer and a flower grower. I hope that I have a few years because I am not ready to make that decision yet.

I think I made some really good decisions last year about how best to move forward in future years. I had previously been all about the year I was in. I started thinking more long term which made it a really hectic year. I wanted to get stuff in place, I was tired of waiting, I was tired of not making money. I have some more work do but I am finally starting to feel comfortable with my business. I know what my limitations are and I have learned to work with them. It has been a long and difficult journey at times but I really feel like it is going to start getting easier.

a look back: year five

2012 was my fifth year as a flower grower. There was a lot riding on this year. I had to make a profit or I was going to quit. I intended to throw everything I had at it this year. I was very cautious about my purchases, partly because I wanted to make a profit, partly because they might be rendered useless and a waste of money if I did decide to quit.

There is this sort of loose flower farming model that says for every acre that you grow you can profit $10-20 000 per year. You will also need about one worker (including yourself) per acre. From all of the people who I have heard this from, their main sales outlets are florists and farmer’s markets. Well I decided that with a half an acre and no employees the best I could do with this model was $10 000  per year. Not even close to enough so I decided to really pursue the retail end as much as possible. I really marketed the weddings and I started a bouquet CSA. I also intended to sell to a few florists with whom I had developed good relationships and I was going to sell those grocery store bouquets again. My thought was plant whatever I want for the weddings in large numbers and what I could not use from week to week would go to one of these other outlets.

Spring came very early that year and I had tulip bunches and lilacs in April, just in time for the the last two weeks of the winter farmer’s market. It was a good thing to get an early jump on sales. I had booked a good number of weddings and they kept coming in. I had a good handful of people buy the CSA, all farmer’s market pick-ups that year to make it easy on me. And one big decision that I made was to sell as many flowers as I possibly could even if I had to buy them from other growers. I really needed to see the sales potential before I could justify ramping up. I wound up buying flowers almost every week for weddings and to fill out my grocery store bouquets. It made the profits very low on those grocery store orders but I really wanted to see how much they could sell. It turns out quite a bit, now if I only had more room to grow….

I decided to squeeze those beds as close together as possible. I went from about 35 total beds to 42. Some already had perennials in them but seven more beds was a lot for me. The only problem was that we couldn’t get a push mower down them to mow so we had to string trim which made a mess on the flowers. But I had lots of room to plant. And plant I did.

In that year it basically stopped raining around mid May and really did not start again until October. Gramps said it was the worst drought  he could remember since the dust bowl. I had his well running day and night to keep stuff alive. It was not going to thrive but it was going to live. Some stuff didn’t, some stuff never got planted because the ground was too hard and dry. There were days I had to choose between watering plants and watering bare ground just so that I could till it and plant. I became acutely aware of how fragile life can be when you are relying on the weather. If I was going to buy a farm I absolutely was going to need an agricultural well. The cost of this alleged farm was really starting to become unforgiving.

Despite the relentless drought and the fact that I had to buy flowers on a weekly basis, I was able to make a modest profit that year. I had decided that with such a small amount of land I really had to focus on weddings as much as possible. I was cautiously optimistic that this would work. I went back to revisit my business plan and decided that it was now or never, time to buy a farm and expand. I revised my business plan and filled out most of that ridiculous FSA loan paperwork. And I was looking at farms, lots of them.

a look back: year four

2011 was my fourth year as a flower grower, I was more determined than ever to make this work. It just had to work. I had gotten a job that winter and I was not sure what I was going to do when the spring came. It was an ok job with some serious potential but it was still a job and I was not sure that’s what I wanted. I spent my free time that winter and spring working on a business plan, planning for the upcoming season, and looking for farms. I had tweaked my big master growing plan a bit from the year before. I made the walkways a little smaller so that I could squeeze in a couple more beds and a took over a little piece of shady lawn to plant some hydrangeas in. The previous fall I had planted a bunch of perennials hoping to get an early jump on the growing season. I had gotten them in late and only about half of it worked out as planned. I discovered that a good mix of early perennials is key to filling that gap between spring bulbs and summer annuals. Spring came late that year and I had actually booked a few decent sized weddings for early in the summer. I took that as a sign a quit my job.

Much of my planting had been planned for wholesale to florists but I was beginning to see that option was not going to pay out for me. The year before I had found a couple of new floral designers who were my age and committed to buying as much local product as possible. They both had closed up shop over the winter and had gotten themselves some “real” jobs. They were not the only ones to close up shop in 2010-11. I decided to try wholesale bouquets to a local natural food store chain. It was ok and I made some good money there, I had a few good florist clients, a handful of weddings and the farmer’s market. This was the first year that I decided to do only one farmer’s market, mid-week markets were just not worth it for me and I was done trying.

Weddings, this was the first year that I really saw the potential to earn money from weddings. I was starting to attract some attention and book more weddings from people who had some larger budgets. I was not able to grow enough of the flowers that I needed for the bigger weddings, especially early and late in the season so I started buying from other local growers to supplement what I had growing in my own field. It was nice to see what other people were doing with the same season, it was also nice to not be totally screwed if something went wrong in my production. I could still deliver.

That fall I bought a used hoop house frame but Gramps was reluctant to let me put it up. I was a bit reluctant myself, I thought we would be moving soon so it didn’t really make sense. Just like planting lots of peonies and hydrangeas didn’t make sense if I was just going to dig them up in a year. So we get to the end of the growing season and I have nearly broken even. I went to that ASCFG conference looking for answers. I started to get this feeling of “parents just don’t understand.” There were not very many young growers at these conferences (which is starting to change) and I was wondering if everyone had forgotten how hard it was to get started. You can’t tell me that in a room with hundreds of flower growers that every single one of them hit it out of the park right from the very beginning. Maybe I was asking the wrong people. I really wanted to know if this was all going to be worth it. Should I just quit now and go back to school?  I did learn that it usually takes five years to make any sort of profit and usually seven years before you start to get comfortable. I also learned that most of the growers have an additional source of income, or had a good job and money in the bank before starting their farms. That was not to say that one couldn’t make a viable long-term, save for retirement, buy your own health insurance type of career out of flower growing but I had yet to meet very many people who had done it. And at this point I should mention that Nich has a full time job that pays all of our bills. He has little in the way of benefits but he does make enough to pay the bills, buy groceries, and get us out for a little fun on occasion. He does not make enough that we can go on vacation, or save for retirement, or even afford a new (used) car. If we want these things (and we do) I have to contribute to our income.

And so year four ended with me getting a part time and temporary job. I had nearly broken even but was uncertain of my future. I was very sure that if things were not better next year that I would quit. I just could not keep doing this, it was exhausting both emotionally and physically and it was draining our finances.

a look back: year three

2010, my third growing season. Well let’s just start out by saying it was not great. It was better but not great. It started out with my accountant scolding me for deducting what was clearly a hobby business. What! Yeah, she thought that since I had lost money during my first two years and I was growing flowers it didn’t count as a real business. Again I said WHAT! I got a new accountant after that.

I was hardcore into planning that winter as I had not found a job. I spent a good month coming up with calendars, schedules and maps to figure out how we were going to fit in all in. Remember I have just under half an acre. We built a grow room in the basement and I had seeds going by the end of January with some very high hopes for a good season. We got a crazy early spring and I started planting in March, I got into a brand new farmers market in a nice part of town, I reluctantly booked a couple of weddings, and I had found a few more florists to call on. Things started to seem like they would work out.

Late in March Grandma passed away. It was hard to deal with but not a big surprise. I still had no job and started spending almost everyday there with my flowers and my gramps. I worked hard that summer. I filled the entire field and double cropped a couple of beds. Nich hardly had to help at all.

The new farmers market started in May and turned out to be alright. It wasn’t great but showed some real promise. Around the end of June so many flowers came on at once and I freaked out. What was I going to do with all these flowers. My plan had worked out better than expected. I hopped in my car and started selling, or at least trying to sell.  It was harder than I thought it would be, I knew it would take some patience and this was what I had planned my crop schedule for. So I kept at it for a while but soon decided that there had to be another way. I did make good relationships with a few who I still work with today. Everyone seems to agree that it takes about three years to build up a good clientele, I just could not wait another three years to collect a paycheck. I had done a few weddings, they went well, it was fun, and I made good money. So I decided that I should probably do more.

I was buying lots of stuff to improve my operation, plants, bulbs, irrigation, row covers, etc. but not making enough money to cover my expenses. I was more determined than ever to find a farm, I needed more room and Gramps was not willing to sell (or even rent) more land to me. He has his reasons, some are valid, most are not, but it is his choice. That fall/winter I took some small business classes and received a small business certificate from a local college. Some were great and some were a waste of time but over all it was well worth the money. I started looking for a farm and talking to the people at the FSA about loans and business planning. I had learned about lots of resources for business assistance but the help that I was really in need of would come from the USDA. What I needed was more land, which meant a large loan, and the Farm Service Agency was the only entity who would work with me, additionally they have the best rates. I did not know which county I would wind up in so I called a couple of different offices and spoke with people in the FSA as well as some NRCS folks. Some of these people were helpful. Some were baffled by what I was doing and didn’t seem to know how to help or even want to figure out how to help me (it’s no  wonder women and minorities brought a lawsuit against them.) I sort of felt like I was on my own.

The business plan was my big stumbling point. I’m a smart enough person and had gone to college so I had written plenty of papers and researched plenty of projects. That’s sort of what this was, I found some templates online and started to build a plan. The part that I was not able to come up with answers for was the financial section. I had no track record to draw from and had not really even seen the potential in some of these markets I was tapping into.  So I asked the ASCFG, they didn’t really have any info either. It turns out people are not big into sharing about their finances. I tried asking around a bit but didn’t really find what I was looking for. Some people were helpful but their operations were either much larger or had drastically different markets that made it difficult to translate to my situation. Overall I felt like the answers I was getting were in the realm of work hard and be patient or being a flower farmer is so great who cares about the money. I would just like to say that I was working plenty hard and my flower love does not pay my bills.  So I made up some entirely bullshit numbers that look good on paper but I had no idea if I could actually do any of it. It was not even that I needed this plan so much for the acquisition of a loan, I really needed to know for myself. Could I make money doing this? Or am I just wasting my time?

I did find a job that winter which helped, it was ok as far as jobs go and would have led to something bigger and better had I stayed.

And so it stands, year three, I lost money and worked my butt off to do it.

a look back: year two

2009 was my second year as a flower grower and it was just as difficult as the year before. Nich was back in good health for the most part so he was back to helping.  The resession was really starting take hold in these parts, businesses were closing, the unemployment rate was skyrocketing, and people were scared to spend money even if they had it. Gas prices were through the roof, I was easily spending $100 per week just getting to and from the farm. I knew it would be a tough year but since we had seemingly hit rock bottom I figured the economy had nowhere to go but up. By the time we all recovered I would be a rock star at flower growing.

I had spent my free time that winter (which was not a lot) scouring the ASCFG bulletin board and reading back issues of GFM. I learned some good stuff and got a little jump on the season this year. I only planted about half of that little field but I was getting the hang of succession planting, I ordered lisianthus plugs, and started setting up an irrigation system. I think I even planted tulips that fall despite not having made any money. It was out mantra that year (and every year since) “gotta spend money to make money.” Though we were hesitant to spend too much money on anything permanent at Grandpa’s as it was understood that this was a temporary situation. We were trying to save for a farm but with no one buying my flowers I would not even come close to covering my expenses for that year let alone save anything.

I was still working at that job I hated and driving an hour to the farm. I had flowers for sale a little earlier that year and went to all sorts of farmers markets in the area. Not one of them turned out to be worthwhile, I don’t think I broke $100 at any of them. There were lots of days that I didn’t sell more than a couple of bouquets. This certainly was not going to be the way to make money. My floral designer friend from last year was buying more and I set my sights on selling to more florists. I got in with a few but was hesitant. I wasn’t sure what to charge or how to approach them or even what I would have from week to week. The last thing I wanted was to show up looking like some flakey hippie flower girl with no business sense. So I proceeded slowly with this plan.

In July our lease was up on that inconvenient attic apartment and we moved a little closer to the farm, only 35-40 minutes away. We also had a garage and I set my dad to building me a cooler with a coolbot. Sales weren’t great but I was starting to figure some things out. I was still on the verge of a meltdown by August, I was just so stressed out and tired. Then I lost my job. I sort of panicked, I hated that job but it had enabled me to start this business and it was the only reason I was able to continue. It turned out to be a blessing, jobs were nearly impossible to find so I was able to collect unemployment all winter and just plan, plan, plan.

I went back to that ASCFG confernce that fall with much the same result. A lot was over my head or things that required a more permanent land situation than I currently had. I really needed to find a more permanent land situation if this whole thing was going to work out. I just knew it. I filed some thoughts away for the future and picked up some good tips, reconnected with old friends and met some new ones. And then a much needed mini vacation in New York.

To be honest I don’t remember a lot about that year. It is sort of hazy for me. The newness of the situation had worn off and nothing very remarkable happened. The one thing that I do recall is that I was really enjoying getting to know my grandparents as an adult. I had been away for most of my adult life until now and only saw them a few times a year. But here I was visiting with them four or five times a week. During that summer I know that I would get frustrated, I was so short on time and somedays I just wanted to get out there and get to work. Now, looking back, I would not trade those moments for anything, that may have been the best part about that whole year.