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.

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.

germination

Last week I started my first round of seeds for the year and everything is germinating beautifully. Stock, snap, eucalyptus, sweet peas, poppies, bells are all looking good. Stock always germinates so quickly, I think it was only a couple of days in the germination chamber and then under lights.

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And then almost a week later it is actually looking like a tray full of baby plants! These will go into the hoop house, I am hoping in about 5 weeks. We’ll see how much snow is still piled up in front of the doors.

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Also last week I planted my ranunculus tubers after a week and half of cold treatment. This will be the second time I have tried ranunculus and I am hoping for better results than last year. They require a long growing period before they flower but when it gets too hot (like June) they start to shut down. So the hoop house is really going to help me out with this one. I hope.  Again I am shooting for about four or five weeks and these guys will be headed out into the hoop as well. They have already started to lift the soil that they are planted in, which means there are glorious green shoots under there and they are about to emerge.

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Now that my germination chamber is nearly empty (still a couple of pokey guys in there) I have room to start some more. On the schedule for this week godetia, nigella, and scabiosa.  In a couple of days I am going to have to buy more lights for this operation since I am running out of room. In the past I have never had a need to start so many plants this early in the year but the addition of those hoop houses has has me thinking spring. Have I mentioned my excitement about the hoop houses….

the deal is off

I had officially come to the decision (along with the help of my husband and homebuilder of a father) that it was absolutely most cost efficient for us to buy vacant land and build a house. A small energy efficient house. All of the places that we looked at needed new roofs, new windows, new furnace, etc. We figured it was less expensive to put these on a new house. So when I finally heard back from the loan officer at the FSA that they would not approve funds for the building of a house it took the wind out of my sails. I called around and to see if there was some way that this could still work and it seems like there is not, at least not on  my budget.

I spent the better part of the day yesterday freaking out and looking through real estate listings. Someone seriously needs to stop me from looking through these listings. We simply cannot afford what it is that we want and spending hours combing through these listings is not going to change that. We have been over this so many times and revised where we are willing to make compromises. In the end it turns out that I am still financially uncomfortable moving an hour away from the city and living in a drafty old house that needs a lot of work. The dollars just are not there. They might be some day, maybe even someday soon, but right now they are not so the deal is off. We are not buying land this year. I am hoping to work something out with Grandpa. He has really been resistant to change but there has to be a way to do something that will help a little. I have decided that there are three things that I really need to make this farming operation profitable:

1. More land.

2. Some really great plants. You know the type that are a little pricey up front and take a few years to get established.

3. Infrastructure. Like a well, a greenhouse, a shade tent.

I can really only afford  two of the three, so I am hoping that a little more land will materialize in the form of a long term lease. Again, cross your fingers for me.

the ball is rolling…

The last couple weeks I have been contemplating this question:

Is it better to make the wrong decision or no decision at all?

I am not sure, is the answer but I am tired of waiting around for the right opportunity so we are going to make an offer on a nice 7 acre property a couple of miles from where I grew up. Which I have some mixed feelings about but again, I am tired of waiting around. Vacant lots in our price range are starting to sell.

It is a lot that is hilly and gravelly in parts. And I am already thinking of all the great stuff I can plant there. I am not sure where we will live or if the farm service agency will actually lend us the money or if our conditional use permit will be approved so that we can put up a shed or hoophouses. So many ways in which this could go wrong and cost us a lot of money. Also so many ways it could go right. Cross your fingers for me.

i wish the fsa was more helpful

Wow, do I wish they were more helpful. I have talked to a number of loan officers in different counties and gotten different responses from all of them. Unless you plan to milk cows or plant hundreds of acres in corn, they don’t know what to do.  One guy was flat out no help at all. He told me that he didn’t really know how to help me and implied that he didn’t really want to learn. Also he gave me the wrong loan information. It turns out that there is more than one loan out there for people like me: wanting a farm but having no money. Good thing I decided not to farm in his county.

Then I talked to some other guy and he also told me that he was not really sure how to help me but he seemed willing to try if I would have pressed him. Which I didn’t because I was still working on coming up with that down payment.

I came up with that down payment, well most of it, and called to find out who would help me fill out this ridiculous application. I had to drive to Madison, seems silly but OK. And I met with a loan officer who was actually helpful. Turns out I didn’t need a down payment at all. Fine, now I have some operating money saved. But the downside is that a few of the properties that would have been a great fit for me are sold. Alright, that’s OK, we’ve moved on. We’re getting ready to make an offer and I have just a few more questions about this application. Now the once helpful loan officer is not returning my calls.

This application is so redundant and so not applicable to my operation, see above comment about cows and corn. But I have it mostly done after months coming up with theoretical numbers and figuring out how to convert bouquets to bushels. Now I am just wondering if they will actually loan me the money or not. They don’t have any to give out as we speak so I just have to get in line, for potentially six months. That seems like a tough sell when negotiating a price for a piece of land.