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.

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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 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.

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.