one big step

Last year I began to seriously consider the fact that my business had a bit of an identity crisis.  When I began Stems my intention was for it to be a flower farm selling to florists and at farmer’s markets, maybe an occasional wedding. Well that occasional wedding turned into a nearly every weekend occurrence and it soon became evident that I was running two separate businesses. It eventually seemed like a good idea to officially make it two separate businesses. And after much deliberation Wood Violet was born. Being that the wood violet is Wisconsin’s state flower it seemed an appropriate name for a business that is focused on using locally grown blooms.

Why in the world would I walk away from a name I have spent years branding? Well there is the accounting aspect. I am hoping to actually be accountable to myself for the flowers that I am growing and using. Realistically I know that it is not going to happen this year. I am hoping that if I can get the systems in place and scrape by this year, that moving forward I should have two sister companies which are both fending for themselves. Now this really can be done by setting up Quickbooks properly and without creating a different entity.

Which leads to the main reason, the big motivator behind taking this plunge was marketing. I was having a hard time targeting my audience. I realized I had a few different audiences with varying degrees of overlap. I have done fine with marketing the farm. But I have decided that I need to make more money and I feel like a flower shop is more feasible than a farm for my life right now. In these parts no one calls a farmer for flowers in the winter time, or even in the late fall. People also don’t generally call a farmer when they want fancier wedding flowers. So there you have it I decided to really push the limits of my sanity and begin another business.

There is a third reason for this new business and it may not be a good reason by itself but given my supporting arguments I will mention it. I really am excited for a new beginning. Stems has sort of consumed my life for the past few years in good ways and in bad ways. I feel like my own personal momentum behind this new venture is greater than if I just opened up a shop under the same name.

OK fine, there is another reason. Since this is apparently a denial free post we’re going to jump right in there and put it all on the table. Gramps is not getting any younger and when he goes I do not know what will happen to the farm. I do not know if I will be able to buy part of it. I do not know if I will want to buy part of it. I do not know if I will want to pick up and move it all somewhere else. This uncertainty used to cause me a great deal of anxiety but I have made my peace with the situation. That being said there may come a day when the flower growing part of my business ceases to exist (and that day is likely to coincide with the loss of my last grandparent). I think separating the two aspects will make that day a little easier…. Easier as far as the business is concerned. I’m not sure anything will make it easier on a personal level.

building a shade structure

I finally decided to invest in some hydrangeas 3 or 4 years ago, well I had a good amount of flowers that were not usable because they didn’t get enough shade. So I decided it was time to build a shade structure, I decided this two years ago but we finally put it up last summer. I also decided that since I was putting one up, maybe I should just put two up. Now I have a space for all sorts of shade loving stuff: ferns, astilbe, hostas, even mint likes a little shade.

I had seen a few different set ups at other peoples farms. The most common seems to be a caterpillar tunnel with shade cloth over it. I felt like that design would involve buying a lot of stuff and lead to some wasted space in my tiny and overcrowded field. The design I was more interested in was one I had seen that came from a ginseng farm. Posts in the ground with shade cloth flat along the top. So I made a couple of inquiries with people using some form of this set up and here is what we came up with. FYI, I’m not sure that it is any better than a caterpillar but it’s what we did.

We used 10 foot long sections of 2 inch conduit (not fence top rail) and waited until the day after a good soaking rain. Then we pounded it 3 feet into the ground with a post driver. The shade cloth I have is 80 feet long so we put in 3 posts per side spaced 40 feet apart. Then put the eye bolts in since they get in the way of that post driver if you put them in before. We did not set these posts in concrete, it’s probably not a bad idea to do so, but we are going for cheap and easy. We chose to provide downward tension with cables and ground anchors. Seemed easier on paper but a tractor with an auger and a bunch of cement is probably easier. We don’t have a tractor with an auger, and there is already stuff planted here so a tractor would not fit without crushing my plants. So manual labor it was for us (and I keep saying us but it was mostly Nich.)

All six posts were secured in this way. We used 30″ long auger style earth anchors to secure the cables. We get a lot of wind out there so we wanted to make sure that these things wouldn’t pull out of the ground. The anchors came from Growers Supply, they are heavy but we’re only about a four hour drive so shipping was not prohibitive. All of the rest of the hardware and cable came from e-rigging.com, we chose the coated cable since it’s a little nicer on your fingers.

We ran cable around the perimeter for clipping the fabric on, as well as zig-zagging from post to post to hold up the shade cloth and keep it from sagging. I choose those plastic clips to make it easy enough for me to get this cloth on and off every year, it’s easier with two people but can be done by myself. You can see that the sun does come in on that south bed, the degree will change throughout the season. Likewise there is shade on the bed that is not covered to the north. I planted shade lovers in the middle bed which always gets shade and plants that like the shade but don’t need it in the beds on either side.

We chose the aluminet since it is physically lighter and it allegedly keeps things cooler, it is more expensive. These concerns were really more related to the choice for covering the hoophouse, but since this is what I was buying I bought a couple extras for the shade structure. And it really is light, I can easily handle that big piece of cloth by myself… if it’s not too windy.

We built two of these structures, which are 80 ft x 14 ft, which was decided by the fact that I had two extra pieces of shade cloth in that size, which were taped with grommets every 2 feet. So here is the cost breakdown:

  • 2 shade panels: The invoice is too hard to find but I think it was about $800-1000 for both with shipping, we used a local supplier but it wasn’t a stock item so they were shipped anyway.
  • 12 posts and eye bolts/hardware for the top of the posts $250 at Home Depot and a local hardware store.
  • 12 ground anchors and those plastic clips $170 (including shipping) from Growers Supply.
  • A big spool of coated cable and all of the rigging hardware $215 from e-rigging.com, we might have cheated a little on this one since we still had a some of these things leftover from the hops trellis project.

So about $800 for each structure and it took two of us a little over two days to complete.

building a cooler

Last year we bought a house, really it was 2013 but right at the end of the year. So we had the task of building a new cooler last spring and someone suggested I write a blog post about. Well here it is and I am going to apologize for the fact that it is not a very riveting story.

Here is why I love my Coolbot cooler and intend to build another one… it’s way cheaper than a regular walk in. A friend of mine is a florist and she just had a new walk in cooler installed. She went with the typical rooftop unit type, the electrical work and cooling unit alone cost her somewhere in the neighborhood of $7-8000. A Coolbot and a window air conditioner cost about $700-1200 depending on your taste in air conditioners. I know there are people out there who say that these things are not the correct humidity for flowers. Perhaps that is true. I have been using this type of cooler for 5 years and haven’t had any issues. I usually keep a bucket of water in there and if I am concerned about a particular item getting a little dry I cover it loosely with a plastic bag.

Her are my instructions for how to build a Coolbot cooler:

  1. Go to the website http://www.storeitcold.com/coolerconstruction.html
  2. Read the info on their website regarding what type of AC unit to buy.
  3. Read through their info on how to insulate properly.
  4. Follow their plans and instructions to build your own cooler. Seriously they have thought of everything. If you run into problems go back to the website, I’m sure the answer is there. If not, give them a call and they will help you!
  5. Gather all of your supplies, find a handy person, and get to work. Someone who is familiar with a hammer and 2×4’s is necessary for this step.

A couple other bits of advice: Make it the right size for your situation. Bigger is usually better, unless you want to fit your car into the garage… in which case measure your car before you start to build. Also don’t leave untreated/unpainted wood in there for shelves and what not. It will absorb moisture and get a little moldy. Also cover the floor with something you can mop. Happy building!

Project total about $1000 for 4×8 cooler box (not including the ac unit and coolbot):

  • $550 for the double layer of 2in pink board
  • $150 for lumber
  • $200 for the door
  • $100 for hardware and spray foam

welcome 2015

It sure has been a while since I updated this blog. Last year was a long and busy one, I had little time for reflecting until about September by which time I was unhappy with a whole lot of things which I was reflecting about. I did very nearly decide to quit growing flowers as a profession. I have been sorting it all out over the last few months and I will be making some big changes to my business, and thus my life, this coming year.

In short I did not decide to quit growing flowers but I did decide to scale it back a little. And by scale it back I mean that I will be growing more this year than I did last year. You see I still have some more sorting to do. Or maybe I am just slow to learn my lessons. My plan is to hire some help and get my personal life back to some degree. So here is what is currently happening:

I have got lots of baby plants growing in my basement getting ready for the spring. Hopefully spring will arrive in a timely fashion this year. These are all about three weeks old, some are so small and slow, I should just order plugs and save myself the trouble. Things like eucalyptus, poppies, campanula. But then I look at the price of the plugs and say I can do it myself. Well now my grow room is nearly full and I need to start another 15 flats next week.

april madness

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. ImageIMG_0363

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.

ImageImage

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.

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.

ImageImage

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.

ImageImage

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 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.