Gardening for Cut Flowers
9 February 2005
Virginia Cooperative Extension, Charlottesville/Albemarle County Office
460 Stagecoach Road, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902
phone: 434.872.4580 fax: 434.872.4578
Do you have a rototiller and at least 1/2 acre of land? Consider cut flower production. Commercial vegetable growers, tobacco farmers, and young people interested in summer income are all potential candidates. Andy Hankins, VCE Extension Specialist for Alternative Agriculture, notes that even large-scale grain and livestock farmers have regained some profitability in their operations by adding cut flower production. For many greenhouse and nursery operations, mid-summer business is slow relative to spring. A field-grown cut flower business is a viable option to fill in the summer production and cash flow gap. Available, arable land of at least half an acre can be utilized. The term "cut flowers" includes a variety of plant material both fresh and dried or preserved. Buds, flowers, stems, branches, seed heads, and stalks-any plant parts used for floral and decorative purposes-are considered to be cut flowers. The number and diversity of available crops are virtually limitless. Many people entertain the notion of becoming cut flower growers. Though the concept seems rather romantic, the reality of the business is that it is extremely labor and time intensive.
Why Grow Cut Flowers?
The cut flower market in the U.S. has changed dramatically over the years. The Dutch dominated the flower growing market in the '80s with new varieties. Competition from Third World countries increased as they took a lion's share of the "traditional" domestic cut flower market. Rising freight costs put a damper on shipping from one coast to the other. In the U.S., the once-profitable production of standard crops like mums, carnations and roses has been supplanted by nontraditional and specialty cut flowers. The U.S. flower consumption market, though not nearly as sophisticated and well-developed as the European and Japanese markets, has incredible potential for expansion. Growing market segments exist, such as supermarket floral departments. Though large quantities of cut flowers are imported into the U.S. from Holland, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, there is still room (and profit) in the cut flower business for the savvy grower.
Some relatively high dollar-value crops do not ship well and are best produced locally. Local production usually equals longer vase life. The cut flower market is based on supply and demand, but you can often create your own demand by offering high quality and unusual product with reliable service to back it up. Crops produced in the cooler "shoulder" seasons (spring and fall in Virginia) can demand a higher price since the market is not typically flooded with product. Especially in reference to the small or starting grower, the following phrase is repeated over and over in both the research and industry literature: quality sells. Grow for quality, and do not be afraid to charge for it - price will follow quality.
Who or Where is My Market?
The profitable grower does not wait until he or she has harvest-ready flowers to decide their fate. Have a clear market plan established ahead of time. Your target market influences what you will grow, how it will be handled and packaged, and most important, your capital investment.
Cut flowers usually are sold by the bunch, in arranged bouquets, or individually. Marketing options include selling to wholesalers, florists or other retail outlets, or direct to the public. The obvious route when first starting out is to target local markets. As your volume increases, you may want to deal with wholesalers and distributors.
"Direct to the public" sales include farmer's markets, roadside stands, or cut-it-yourself arrangements. How much you wish to interact with the public can help determine if a cut-your-own business is right for you. On-site sale in the field or from a stand requires a good location in a populated area and a desire to deal with (not merely tolerate) the public. Production considerations may be altered a bit for the "cut your own" concept. If you are integrating a field cut flower business with a preexisting greenhouse or nursery that retails to the public, the additional marketing requirements would be minimal.
There are many direct-sales opportunities away from the farm as well, though transportation now becomes a cost factor. Farmer's markets offer a low-overhead market for novice growers. You can experiment with displays, mixed bouquets, dried materials, etc., and enjoy relatively autonomous pricing. There are many other retail opportunities available, such as restaurants, banks, etc. Craft shows are great sales venues for preserved and dried plant material.
Sales to retailers such as florists, garden centers, grocers, and upscale or gourmet specialty stores are other options. Industry experts suggest that for businesses other than florists, start with a few sizes of mixed bouquets, then move to quantities of single species. Offer pre-made bouquets as a labor-saving option to florists. Florists are constantly searching for new and unusual material.
Last but not least, the Internet offers a new marketing niche. You can provide product information in a website to potential customers, product availability lists updated weekly or even daily, and create interactive order forms. The Web is also useful for following price trends: the USDA publishes wholesale cut flower prices from major city markets such as Miami, New York, and San Francisco (http://www.ams.usda.gov/fv/mncs/fvwires.htm).
How Can I Learn More?
If you would like to learn more about cut flowers there will be a seminar on the topic presented on Saturday, March 5th in Petersburg, VA at the Cooperative Extension Building on the campus of Virginia State University. Topics to be covered include Getting Started in the Cut Flowers Business, Efficient Methods for Growing Cut Flowers, Wholesale Marketing of Cut Flowers, Growing Cut Flowers for Farmers Markets, Growing Peonies for Cut Flowers, and Direct Marketing of Cut Flowers. Please call Andy Hankins at (804) 524-5962 for more information.
The Piedmont Master Gardener Association is presenting their Spring Garden Lecture Series beginning on Wednesday, February 23rd. The topic will be Gardens of Italy. Please call the Albemarle/Charlottesville Extension office at 872-4580 for more information
Happy Valentine's Day!
For more information about these and other landscape topics contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. The local Virginia Cooperative Extension office numbers are Albemarle 872-4580, Fluvanna 591-1950, Greene 985-5236, Louisa 540-967-3422, and Nelson 263-4035.