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 one

My first year as a flower grower was 2008. I had previous experience in the landscape and floral areas and decided it was time to do something with my life. I had considered this for a couple of years and decided it was time to do it. I asked my gramps if I could borrow a little land for a couple of years to get started and he said sure. I suspect that it was Grandma who made him agree to it. There was a little field (less than half an acre) that was not being used by anyone. He used to keep pigs but they were long gone and now it was just weeds that he mowed a couple times a year.

Here’s how it went…. I attended the Wisconsin Cut Flower Growers School in February, it was a stroke of luck that it just happened to be going on when I needed it. My mom went with me (and even paid for it I think) she has been super supportive if this endeavor, which has helped me to continue. At this two day workshop I learned a lot of things but the biggest take aways were: join the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, subscribe to Growing for Market, buy The Flower Farmer  and  Specialty Cut Flowers, effective bed sizes, as well as a some vendor and equipment lists. So I went home and did all of these things and I can say, without any doubt in my mind, that if it had not been for these resources I would not have made it.

By the end of March I have some flats going in my strange attic apartment and started planting out Mother’s Day weekend. My husband and parents helped, they actually helped a lot that year. We didn’t get very far, that half an acre looked huge once it was all tilled up. There was not much for succession planting and I direct seeded a lot. With the weed seed bank having never been disrupted until now we had so many weeds, more than I knew how to handle. I was working 50 hours a week at a regular job and driving an hour to get the farm a few times a week. The water was coming off of 300 feet of hose attached to my grandparent’s house. It was hard to stay on top of things.

We got about 30% of that little field planted and our fist flush of flowers came on late in June and we did our first farmer’s market. It sucked, a lot. But I was not to be discouraged so I went back every week and it never got much better. I met a woman who was starting her own floral design business and wanted to use local flowers so I sold to her when she was in need, which was only a few times as she was just getting started.

By August I was on the verge of a melt down. I hated my job and I spent all of my free time getting sunburned pulling weeds that never seemed to end. And to top it all off, I was not making any money. I had a few melt downs that fall and I was really not sure if this was a good idea. By late September most of my flowers were done. Then Nich an I went to the ASCFG national conference in Portland. It was a bit expensive but I needed some learning and we both desperately needed a vacation. This conference saved me. Much of the content was over my head or systems/new plants that I was not yet ready for. But I met lots of people, people with answers to some of my questions. And most importantly, there were hundreds of flower growers here, they were making it work which meant that I could too.

We came home and I was ready to pick myself up, dust myself off and start getting ready for next year. But it all came to a screeching halt a week later when Nich was in a motorcycle crash on his way to work. He had a broken collar bone (as well as a concussion and some trauma) and he was out of work for eight weeks. The flower growing operation was going to be put on hold until the spring. To top off a shitty year we discovered that our health care coverage had been lost months earlier because my employer had stopped paying the premium. We only discovered it when Nich’s doctor visits and physical therapy claims started getting denied.

And so ended 2008, the next year had to be better, it certainly couldn’t be any worse.

a look back

I am getting ready to post a summary on each of the last six years of my business. I thought it would be good for me to review and also might help some newer growers out there avoid some of the mistakes I made. In looking back, I am realizing how far I have come and how far I still have to go. I really want this to be a sustainable and profitable life for me and my husband. I have learned that having a small business (especially a farming operation) really does make your work life and your home life become involved in a very intimate way. It is all about finding the balance that works for you.

I have notions about how the future will go but I am proceeding with eyes wide open. I have met so many people along the way and learned that flower growing is good supplemental income for a lot of people and families. There are some who are making it work on a full time, main income level but I don’t feel like they are the majority . Most of them have other parts of their business that help to make it profitable. Many do weddings and design work, some are writers, landscapers, nursery growers, or farmers of another sort. Some even have full or part time jobs that are unrelated. I am confident that I will find the best fit for me in the coming years.

So please read, learn, and ask questions along the way. It is the only way to figure out the right fit for you.

2.20.14

This week I am having a hard time focusing. I am going to blame it on February, it sucks. It’s sort of the end of winter and I sort of have a lot to finish up before the snow melts. But it doesn’t really seem like it is going to melt so I am not motivated to do anything in a hurry.

I am slowly finishing up orders for more perennials and woodies. I think that I am going overboard again this year but I just can’t help myself. Worst case scenario is that I have little room for annuals next year, which I guess would not be the worst thing in the world.

More seeds to be started: stock and bells this week, snaps and campanulas last week. I am officially out of room under my lights. I am using a sunny attic room as overflow until I can get things to the farm. I wanted to take some out next week but they are calling for another week of below freezing temps so I suppose I will shoot for the week after.

Image

I did go out to the farm to shovel out the doors of the hoops and I need to remember to put up snow fence this fall, the drifts in front of the doors were three feet high. They are calling for lots of rain today followed by a cold week so I figured I should shovel before it turned to ice. It was warm enough in there for the fans to turn on yesterday and the soil temps are approaching 60. I carried in some buckets of snow to water since there is no way I am getting hoses out there right now.

last year

So, here’s what happened last year. I had every intention of buying a farm. We looked at a lot of them, nearly made offers on a few, and I had my ridiculously long loan application ready to go. This process had been going on for a few years as I had outgrown the land that I was using (and continue to use) by my third year. I had gotten creative with how I used this little piece of land, squeezing my beds so close together I could barely walk down them, double cropping as many beds as possible, and even expanding a bit into my grandpa’s yard. There was no other option if I wanted to expand my business, which I had to do in order to make a decent wage.

It was a lot of number crunching and anxiety but I came to the conclusion that I was not entirely sure that a flower farm would make enough money to cover the impending expenses of buying a farm. So I gave up looking for a farm and decided to make the best of the situation that I have. Which is not ideal for a lot of reasons, but it is what I have and it does come with some added personal benefits. Now these benefits are not going to pay my bills so I have had to get creative with my business plan.

I have about a half an acre already and I was able to finagle another acre or so out of Gramps. But there is no water on this extra land so I am fairly limited on what I can grow, especially since we rarely get rain during July and August. It’s some sort of weird rain shadow. I had decided that I was staying so I had to move forward and make a lot of improvements and purchases that I had been putting off. And thus began my crazy year of flying by the seat of my pants. It was late April and I decided to start over. I tossed my plan out the window, and I mean way out the window. I decided to focus more on the long term sustainability of my business than the immediate season. I still planted lots of my usuals but then I went about ordering lots of perennials and shrubs knowing that they wouldn’t start to earn their keep until the following year or two. I decided that if I didn’t have enough flowers I would buy them from other local growers to fill out my orders. I decided that I should put up those hoop houses I bought a couple years ago. I decided to buy a house, not a farm just a regular house. And I decided that I Gramps has to stick around for a while because I am not ready to move.

my bulb forcing experiment: part 1

Last September, after a long year of making planting an business decisions on the fly, I decided that I should try to force bulbs for early sales this year.  I was exhausted by autumn, but this last push was going to get me sales earlier than I ever have before.  Locally grown flowers, in Milwaukee, on Valentine’s Day. Fantastic! Well…. It didn’t really work out like I had planned. Image

There’s my crates with nothing in them. I had my doubts about forcing bulbs this early in the year. For many varieties they just have not had enough winter but I was hoping that some earlier flowering bulbs would cooperate, mainly hyacinths and crocus. Well they didn’t. The hyacinths have not even sprouted. They have roots and the bulbs still seem to be in good shape so I am going to stick them back outside and see if I can get something for later this spring, maybe Easter. Now I did not put all of my eggs in this Valentine’s Day basket, while I am prone to rash decision making, I am not entirely crazy. I did make a schedule and plan to pull in more crates next month for March and April blooms. Tulips, hyacinth, muscari and crocus from the middle of March to the end of April. Fingers crossed.

right now

20140207-125756.jpg

20140207-125816.jpg

It is the end of another cold and snowy week here in southern Wisconsin. Usually by this time of year spring begins to temp us with longer days and warmer temps. We are getting the longer days, but it doesn’t feel like spring is around the corner. Despite the snow there is work to be done, and here’s the abbreviated list that I am hoping to finish up this week.
~Plant those anemone bulbs
~Water everything, it all is looking great
~Cold stratify the seeds for the prairie I am planning
~Look at my crates of hyacinths and will them to flower
~Think about starting on my taxes…
~Work on a sales plan for my bouquet CSA