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.

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.

right now

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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

 

reconsidering my plan

So remember that seeding plan that I worked so hard on, it took me weeks to complete. It’s not really going to work out…. I did take quite a few liberties with the weather in order to accommodate my desired flowering schedule. The biggest gamble was that I had planned on the soil being workable by mid March, I could have even handled late March. That clearly is not going to happen.

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Why is this relevant right now? Because this week my schedule had me starting an entire bed of snaps and stock to be field planted. It’s not so much the cold in March that I worry about. These guys actually like it a little cold and I have frost blankets for just in case situations. It’s the fact that there is still three feet of snow on the field with more coming and no signs of a warm up to melt any of it. Even if it does start to melt by the end of the month it is going to be a while before the sun gets to the soil to warm up that muddy mess that will be waiting for me. For now I will continue with the seeding schedule for anything that goes in the hoop house (calendula, dusty miller, and nasturtiums this week.) Anything scheduled to go outside I am going to reconsider. As of right now I will put off those snaps and stock for two weeks, surely by the middle of April I should be able to get in the ground.

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.

goodbye 2013

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2013 was sort of a crazy year and I am sort of happy it is over. I had started this blog because I wanted to keep a record of my growing business but things got really out of control and it just didn’t happen. I felt like I was behind form the beginning. Partly due to the weather, partly due to my own lack of planning, and partly due to some personal things. Ah yes, those personal matters. One of the joys of being self employed, shit happens and you still have to show up for work.

Last year was by far my best year, as far as sales go. I can actually see that there is a possibility to make this a career. BUT it was a lot of work, and I mean a lot! We are talking 12-15 hour days for most of the summer. Sundays were usually only a half a day. Maybe only five actual days off from May through October. It was long and exhausting. No, that was not all spent in the field, probably less than half of it. Most of it was in answering emails, sending out quotes and invoices, meeting with clients, making bouquets, delivering those bouquets, ordering plants, paying bills…. The list goes on.

I learned a lot about myself and my business last year and I am going to attempt to recover some of that over the next month or so, before it has all become too distant of a memory.