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.

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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.

crop planning

Right now I am up to my neck in crop planning for the year. In an ideal world I would have had this done by the end of last year so I could work a little less hard this month but…. well it didn’t happen. We bought a house (no not a farm) and are busy building a new germination chamber and grow room in the basement. Yay! So in the hopes that this fancy new grow room will be functional come Monday morning, I am scrambling to figure what I am going to plant first. Here’s my process….

1. Figure out who my customers are and when they need flowers. Well that might be a topic for another day, but the short story is that I need to squeeze as many flowers out of my operation as possible for the longest possible time frame. I am particularly interested in having more variety early (April, May) and late (October, November). These parts of the season take a bit of risk and creativity. The addition of my hoop houses last fall should help.

2. I already ordered my seeds based on what worked well in the past and what I wanted to add this year. I made a list of all these seeds and how many I have and separated them into annuals and perennials. The annuals I separated one more time into plants that will be direct seeded into the field and those that I will need to start plugs for. Since the plug production is allegedly starting Monday I am working on that part first. Annuals are first on my list since most of the perennials aren’t going to produce much this year anyway.

3. I take that seed list of annuals that I created and go down the list writing in potential seed dates with the corresponding flower dates. Some, like snaps and sunflowers are going to have 8 different sow dates, others like gomphrena and kale will only have 1.

4. Then I go through that list of all the possibilities and start fitting them into my field map. I have sort of a small field so I know that not everything will fit. I begin to look for things that I know are not going to work well for me based on past experiences and cut them out. Things with multiple sowings get looked at to see if I can tweak the dates and turn 4 sowings into 3 with out much interruption in the flow of flowers.

5. Now I am going to look at that field map (which is a ridiculous mess and doesn’t make sense to anyone except for me) and group flowers together by flower date. With only 12 beds dedicated to annual plugs I am going to have to double crop as many of them as possible. I am hoping for 6 beds to be done flowering and tilled up in time to get another later group of flowers in that same bed. Which is sort of like having 18 beds to work with. That doesn’t seem so unreasonable.

6. I have the list of possibilities and the tentative field map and I start to make spreadsheet for every sowing of every variety with: variety, seed date, plant out date, flower date.

7. Lastly, I will take that spreadsheet and make a new field map. Double checking that I got everything on the map that is in my seeding plan and adjusting quantities based on how much I am trying to squeeze into each bed. Then I will repeat a simplified version of this process for the direct seed items. I have additional room for those. Lots of room actually but there is no water access in that part of the farm so I am limited to only directly seeded flowers.

I know that it will not all work out exactly like I have planned. I will forget to water some flats and plants will die, or the germination will be bad for some things, or the weather will not cooperate. Lots can and will go wrong but this makes it a lot easier in the middle of the summer when I am feeling overwhelmed and there is still planting to be done if I want fall blooms.

summertime….

No question about, summer is in full swing. I am covered in bug bites, the weeds are threatening to take over, there is a mountain of unreturned emails/phone calls to deal with, I cannot remember the last time I had a day off (maybe in May?), there are spiders living in my car, I wish we had a dishwasher, there is so much to do at the farm but it is hard to stay focussed in the heat of the afternoon. And, most importantly, I harvested the first sunflowers of the year a couple days ago. Yep, summer.

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what’s up emily?

I had started this blog with the intention of documenting my progress through this year since I knew it was going to be a busy year. Well you know what they say about the best laid plans. So I will just have to summarize the last three months the best I can.

First off, we decided not to buy a farm for real. In a few years we will reassess our situation. We talked to Gramps about using more of his land and he said sure. But it is not really what we had hoped for. We were hoping for a long term lease with a purchase option. What we got was more land super far from water and electricity. So sunflowers, cosmos, zinnias, some woodies, and sedums are getting planted back there. And I am just going to be grateful for what I have got.

And since we decided to stay put I went absolutely crazy putting together plant orders and rearranging my field in May. We put in permanent beds and have been transplanting the perennials that made it through last year to fit into my plan. We added lots more perennials, peonies, David Austin roses, hydrangeas, and other woody cut. Most of this is not going to produce anything for a few years but when it does…. It’s going to be great. I mean really great.

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And we finally put up that hoophouse. There is no plastic on it yet but I put a bunch of stuff in the ground. We also put up a giant and crazy trellis system for the hops. It’s no wonder I haven’t had time to write about it.