It finally rained last night and a whole lot today too. They kept on saying it was going to rain last week and it really didn’t, which sort of caused me to fall behind in my office work. So I breathed a huge sigh of relief when it started to come down last night. Not only is it giving me a day to catch up with inside work but it has been couple of weeks since we got any measurable rain at the farm and the ground was starting to dry up. I have transplanted so many things in the last couple of weeks and a good soaking is just what they need. What have I been planting you ask. The list is long: lisianthus, snaps, stock, bells bupleurum, sweet peas, dusty miller, campanulas, grasses, dianthus, scabiosa, and more stuff I can’t think of right now.
It finally got warm last week and so many perennials and shrubs are coming up and leafing out. There will be a lot happening in a couple of weeks, inside the hoops and out in the garden. Right now I have anemones and ranunculus in the hoop and fritillaries, narcissus, and tulips outside.
The to do list seems endless right now. There are still so many transplants to get in the ground, more seeds to start so I’ll have flowers late in the summer, irrigation lines to set up, weeding to do (yes, so much weeding), and my first wedding of the year is on Friday. Yikes! At least Mother Nature took care of the watering for me today.
April is one of my busiest months as a flower grower and, as it is in it’s final days this year, I am thinking about all of the things that should be done by now but are not. Not entirely my fault, most of it can be chalked up to the weather. We have been on a roller coaster ride for the last few years so I think I am over the anxiety that it causes (mostly over it.) By now I would like to have a whole lot of annuals planted out. I did get a couple of beds in last week: snaps, stock, sweet peas, bells, calendula, but there are about 20 more flats sitting out there waiting for the ground to dry up a bit so I can till and plant.
I have also been ordering, paying for, and receiving stuff. You know the type of stuff you know that you need but you don’t really have the money to pay for it because it’s only April, but you need it if you want to have a productive season. Stuff like plants, bulbs, shade cloth, landscape fabric, cover cop seeds, market booth fees, a new market table, gas to get to the farm…. It’s enough to give a girl a headache. I try to keep my attentions pointed in the near future and resolve that this fall I will save more money so that I can make it through the long and expensive spring. It is hard to do when you need so many things to run a profitable business, sometimes it’s hard to draw the line. But look at what I got last week, a bunch of bare root stuff. Probably won’t pay for itself this year but hopefully next year I will have at least recovered most of their expense.
And I am still starting seeds, both annuals and perennials. The annual seeding schedule starts to lighten up a bit in the basement and moves into more direct seeding as the weather warms, assuming that it will warm! On my list now are more heat loving plants: celosias, marigolds, gomphrena, grasses, as well as more successions of scabiosa, and snaps. On top of all the actual work of growing the flowers April is a big month for marketing and beginning to sell these flowers. I can grow as much as my heart desires but unless someone actually pays me for them, well, I don’t eat. Tulips and anemones are blooming in the hoop. Ranunculus, stock, snaps and poppies are getting buds set. Mother’s day is coming, people have weddings on their mind, and I almost always feel like I am forgetting something. And that is the madness that is April, every year. It brings new life and excitement along with long work days which are scheduled around the unpredictable weather.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.