Jane Kuhn - Feb 27, 2017

Flower CSA: High Value Crops in Reliable Revenue Stream

Photos credits to Eliza Milio at University of California, Santa Cruz, Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems

For a special occasion, a special someone, or simply just “because,” flowers are a luxurious staple in our traditions of gift giving and nesting. Although not the center of attention amidst the local food movement, the toxic cut flower industry is getting more press and conjuring a rising interest in “local” and “organic” bouquets. If done right, flowers can be as lucrative as berries and tree fruit in compliment to a diversified crop production. From Oregon, to Indiana, to North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, Flower CSAs are popping up as both independent enterprises and as complements to existing production farms. To learn about growing & marketing flowers in a CSA model, I spoke with Molly Bullock, the Cut Flower Program Manager at Red Fire Farm in western Massachusetts. Red Fire has over 100 acres in diversified produce production, and runs an established flower CSA off of 1.5 of those acres. This supports a 150 member flower share with additional bouquets going to farmer's markets, the farm stand, and appearing on their wholesale availability list weekly.

(This interview is summarized and edited for brevity and cohesion)

How are flowers incorporated into a diversified vegetable crop plan?

We have separate crop plans. We have our own field for flowers and the process for constructing a flower crop plan is identical to that of veggies; I wouldn’t recommend trying to do them together.  It’s really, really important to not over plant. One thing I’ve learned this past year is to have many successions and smaller plant outs to avoid waste and maintain quality product. It really is painful to watch flowers turn in the field and not be able to get to them in time.

Who are your customers and how do you market to them?

Most of our customers are existing veggie CSA members that “add on” flowers to their share, but we also have a number of members who only pick up flowers. A lot of the flower CSA members have received their share as a gift. The veggie CSA at Red Fire is over 1000 members; when those members come to pick up their share they see the bouquets, and I think a lot of them like what they see and want to join. So in a way, since we already have a lot of CSA traffic, the flowers market themselves. Most advertising is word of mouth, in addition to a radio ad and information on our website.

What are the greatest overhead costs and expenses associated with flower production?

The time of the flower grower is the most expensive. It’s time consuming. Harvesting stems takes a long time, so harvesting crews should be a calculated cost as well. Additionally, if you plan to have wholesale or wedding clientele, it’s especially important to hire someone with design experience. Outside of labor, cooler space is integral to flower production in addition to lots of trellising- most flowers need this. Fortunately, the cultivation and transplant equipment are all virtually the same that you’d be using in your veg beds.

Advice to heed…

Farmers hear all the time about how much you can profit from having flowers on your farm-but, often don't realize how specialized it is and how much work it takes. At Red Fire Farm, we are harvesting Sunday-Friday (although really you need to be out there everyday); we harvest from 5:30-10:30 AM and then spend the afternoon making the bouquets. I think you really need to invest in people who have had some training in this- efficiency is crucial, and it takes a trained eye to put something together that looks beautiful and can be marketed at high dollar value.

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Jane works as a Field Production Specialist at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, where her days are filled with tractor work, irrigation coordination, orchard care, and educating apprentices and interns. Her favorite way to end a long day's work in the sun, is running down the hill to Mitchell's Cove and jumping in the Pacific.


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