Cut flower farming: Is it right for you?
Considerations and resources for aspiring cut flower farmers in Michigan.
Owning a successful business can provide a tremendous sense of satisfaction and some potential extra income. For those with an entrepreneurial spirit and an affinity for plants, the idea of starting a flower farm may seem like a no-brainer. After all, there are few sights more captivating than a flower field in full bloom. Although our imaginations may conjure up spectacular panorama and idyllic visions of color and texture, the reality of owning an agricultural operation isn’t always one of pastoral perfection. Starting a business requires a lot of work and it isn’t always pretty. All the same, it's easy to understand how one can get caught up in the botanical menagerie and jump headfirst into a cut flower business.
You won't get an argument from us.
In fact, let us be the first to encourage you. Michigan ranks seventh in the nation in cut flower production and is second only to California in crop diversity—a fact due, in no small part, to our favorable climate, abundant natural resources and easy access to local and regional markets. If you have your heart set on growing cut flowers, Michigan is a great place to do it.
Growing plants is only one part of running a successful flower business. Because the flowers themselves capture so much attention, it's easy to overlook two other components of any successful floriculture operation: business administration and marketing the crop. If you're in the beginning phases of pursuing your dream, here are a few suggestions for consideration.
Make a plan
Every successful business venture starts with a plan. For many people, this is the least engaging part of the process. We can't understate its importance. If you don't have a plan, then you're just fooling around. There are four major components to include.
Marketing and sales
Identify your markets and your customers:
- Where are you going to sell your flowers?
- Who is going to buy them?
- How will you reach potential customers?
Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how agricultural products are being sold. The following list is a mixture of traditional and emerging marketing avenues for cut flower growers:
Farmers markets and roadside stands – These are great places to get started. It’s a low-pressure sales environment, overhead costs are usually low, and growers can often command a premium price.
Florists and event designers – One of the dominant markets for specialty cut flowers. Florists love local flowers! They are especially pleased with the varieties they can’t get anywhere else. Weddings and events will bring you the highest price point for your beautiful blooms.
On-farm sales – Strong agritourism elements. This can include roadside stands, farm share subscriptions and U-pick offerings. Agritourism is becoming an important source of income to the small farm community, but it does require forethought and additional planning. A centralized location is very helpful.
Online and pre-order sales – Accelerated in no small way by the current pandemic, online and pre-order sales are emerging markets for specialty crops in Michigan. Your website and online sales platform should be clean and simple. A strong social media presence can be a major driver for online sales.
Wholesale –This can be a steady source of income, but growers should determine whether it’s feasible to supply wholesalers with the volume and consistency they desire. Consider whether it is worth the effort to swap volume for price.
Other – You are likely to find market demand from grocery stores, department stores and other local businesses. These markets can also be a steady source of income and the prices are often better than wholesale.
- What are you going to grow?
- When are you going to grow it?
- How are you going to grow it?
Entire books have written on this topic, so we won’t go into detail. Here are three areas that should be made a priority:
- Soil testing – Ideally, this is performed every year in the fall. Getting your soil analyzed allows you to make informed management decisions. You can purchase a soil test kit through your local extension office or send it directly to the MSU Soil and Plant Nutrient Laboratory.
- Irrigation – Consider drip irrigation. Overhead irrigation will do the job, but it also creates a favorable environmental for plant pathogens and droplets have the potential to damage those precious blooms.
- Weed management – Invest in a high-quality weed barrier. You’ll thank yourself in July and August.
Post-harvest handling, storage and transportation
- What is your harvesting process?
- Where are you going to store harvested flowers?
- How will you transport your flowers to the market?
It can be immensely frustrating to spend a lot of time and energy on your flowers only to watch them fade before delivery. There are well-established strategies and techniques for harvesting, handling and storing cut flowers that help maintain freshness and prolong vase life. Oklahoma Cooperative Extension has a handy bulletin, “The Care and Handling of Cut Flowers,” that specifies the optimal stage of development for over 100 cut flower species.
- Do you have the perseverance to own and operate a business?
- Do you know how much time and effort this will consume?
- Are you ready to make mistakes?
- Are you flexible enough to make necessary changes?
Make a list of your strengths and weaknesses. Be truthful with yourself.
- Do you thrive on interpersonal interactions? (If so, then sales and marketing might be right up your alley.)
- Are you great with plants? (It’s OK if you’re not the plant whisperer. Few of us truly are.)
- How do you feel about managing people?
- How adept are you at using social media?
- Are you comfortable handling customer complaints?
- Does the thought of a financial spreadsheet give you hives?
This part of the process can be difficult because we’re forced to confront our personal limitations. You may have to hire people who excel at some of the things you find troublesome. In the meantime, is there anyone among your close friends and immediate family that can help you with some of the weaker parts of your game?
Start small, start slow
You don't need a lot of land to start a cut flower business. There are plenty of successful operations that started in a backyard with a tiny growing area (1,500-2,000 square feet). People are often surprised by how many flowers they can grow in a small amount of space. Make the most of what you currently have before buying or renting more property.
Limit the diversity of what you grow during the first few seasons. This can be difficult, especially for those us with an irrepressible enthusiasm for floriculture. One way to accomplish this is to select a handful of species and grow several varieties of each one. You'll be pleased at how many combinations of color and texture you can create with this simple approach.
Don't quit your day job...yet. Make flower farming your side gig for a few seasons. Keeping your current job helps maintain financial stability and allows you to make a bunch of mistakes while learning new skills. This is especially important for those who do not have a lot of experience growing plants or running a business.
Starting slow and small is about minimizing risk and preventing unnecessarily stressful moments. When you start small, you give yourself the time to:
- Learn the nuances of growing specific varieties.
- Develop and maintain relationships with customers.
- Improve your business administration skills.
Not only that, but it will give you the time to decide if this is the right path for you.
Locate helpful resources
There are a number of local, regional and national associations that host events and publish helpful online content. Consider attending some of their events. Cut flower growers are a passionate bunch of contagiously positive people. As a group, they're also very generous with their knowledge and readily share tips and tricks with other growers. Time spent chatting with other cut flower growers is almost always a worthwhile investment.
A couple good places to start:
Michigan State University Extension provides educational programming, online resources and one-on-one consultations for the agricultural community:
- MSU Extension Beginning Farmer Website is loaded with free resources for new and aspiring farmers. Here are a couple of suggestions:
- A webinar on Specialty Cut Flower Production and Handling
- Map of Beginning Farmer Resources in Michigan
- Greenhouse and Floriculture Team: Experts specializing in commercial floriculture and greenhouse production.
- Community Food Systems Team: Local farm network and agricultural marketing development.
- Farm Management Team: Farm business management, labor management, financial planning.
- Michigan Food and Farming Systems is an organization that supports entrepreneurial farm business development with a focus on beginning and underserved farmers.
This article was original published in Michigan Farmer Magazine.