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Conference Sneak-Peek: Q&A with Jeanie McKewan on Cut Flowers

Jeanie McKewan

Jeanie McKewan of Brightflower Farm

Interest in locally raised cut flowers is a growing trend nationally, and within Iowa. More PFI farmers have started expressing interest in learning how to grow flowers to tap into this market (and for other reasons), and we’re pleased to be able to bring experienced cut flower farmer Jeanie McKewan to our 2017 annual conference this year (“Pass It On,” Jan. 20-21, in Ames).

Jeanie has been raising cut flowers at Brightflower Farm near Stockton, Illinois, since 2006. She grows cut flowers on about 2 acres on her farm, as well as on some rented land just over the Wisconsin border. Flowers are grown in an open field, in high tunnels and in raised-bed containers. Jeanie’s farm is located in zone 5 (of the USDA plant hardiness rating scale). Thus, her production starts in minimally heated houses over the winter in order to begin sales in late March, and sales last into November with decorative branches and succulents.

I chatted with Jeanie to learn a bit more about growing cut flowers, their challenges and how they might differ from vegetable production.

(Note: Jeanie is teaching two sessions on cut flower production — one geared specifically to those just starting out with cut flowers, and another for experienced flower growers — at this year’s conference, so be sure to attend if you want to learn more! Get full details in our conference brochure, or register for the conference here.)

I imagine that many people considering getting into the cut flower business are vegetable growers. How does growing cut flowers compare to raising vegetables, in terms of management, marketing, etc.? Are flowers more challenging – or more forgiving?

There is a different set of challenges to growing flowers. Flower seeds are very tiny, and the [growing] systems are different. Whatever kind of seeding systems farmers have, they’ll have to implement some changes because flower seeds are so much smaller than vegetable seeds.

Flowers also have different sequencing. Most vegetable growers get started in February-March, depending on their location. Generally, they can’t plant much of anything out – unless they have high tunnels – before March. But flower sequencing and timing is different. There are certain flowers that are completely programmable, but I don’t know of any veggies that you can grow all year long, every 50 days and harvest.

So there are some new techniques and information about growing flowers, and different flower crops. Marketing and storing of flowers are also completely different to vegetables.

How does storage of flowers differ?

Flowers are very ethylene-sensitive, so you can’t store them in with some fruits and vegetables. Melons, for instance, are lethal to flowers. All the plants we’re talking about, veggies and flowers, their purpose is to produce a seed. In order to do that, one of the compounds they produce is ethylene gas, a ripening hormone. That’s normal; that’s a good thing.

The problem is that when you put your stored vegetables in the same cooler as your stored flowers, that ethylene will ruin your flowers, so they need different storage.

We’re doing two sessions on cut flowers at the conference, one for beginners and one for advanced cut flower producers. Are there different issues to consider at each level?

How experienced the grower is – at starting seeds or knowing how to harvest, store and market – would be one way of looking at [that difference in skill level]. Varieties would be another difference.

For first-time flower growers, I might suggest starting with flowers that are no-brainers – you “plant them, they will come,” like zinnia or celosia. Then there are other flowers that are a bit fussier – like stock, lisianthus and dahlias. Fussier flowers might require different temperature regimes and can only be grown early or late in the season. Some are more sensitive to the elements.

The perceived value of a cut flower is its stem length, and wind is the worst. It makes the flower stems shorter and stronger. Some flowers are damaged by the rain, so you really need high tunnels to grow them. I’m making the assumption that an inexperienced grower might not have high tunnels, as they’re pretty expensive real estate.

A lot of the difference, too, is that the more experienced the grower, the more she or he will have an idea of where in his system he or she will be able to fit more plants in.

So some of the differences between beginning and experienced cut flower production are about understanding flowers as a crop – but also about a farmer’s broader experience managing their specific farm business.

Flowers are a very different crop [than vegetables] and very different to harvest. For instance, Godetia is another very fussy flower. Some of these flowers, you think they’re ready to open and you need to cut them at a particular time.

But if you don’t have time to do it today because you’re harvesting all your cucumbers at a particular time, you’ve lost them [the flowers]. The experienced grower I’m assuming really knows how to program his infrastructure and his manpower.

You mentioned that marketing of flowers is different from vegetables. What is the market outlook for locally raised flowers? Is this a growing niche opportunity?

There is a niche with florists now, and the Slow Flowers movement (https://slowflowers.com/). Look up Debra Prinzing (http://www.debraprinzing.com/). There’s a lot of interest in American-grown, locally grown flowers. They are fresher, they are more fragrant. They last longer, and they’re not full of pesticides. They’re also using American labor.

The footprint to grow them is smaller. The footprint for the competition from Mexico and Ecuador is huge. The challenge is that the bride who’s getting married in February and wants a particular flower doesn’t – in most cases – give a hoot where it comes from. So it’s really up to the integrity of the florist to find out if [that bride] cares if it’s from Chile, or elsewhere.

That whole issue is very near and dear to me – and many local farmers, veggie and otherwise – but it’s really up to the consumer. But there is a lot of education going on right now about local flowers, and you’ll find out quite a lot from the Slow Flowers group.

Like everything, however, you can’t just grow it and they will come. You really do need to work on finding your market. If you’re only looking to color up your farm stand, you’re not going to need that many row-feet of flowers. If you’re looking to add some money, you should do some research before you start.

The thing is, flowers don’t last like a cucumber or a green bean. Once you take them out to a farmers market and they’ve been out in the elements – the wind and the heat – they’re compost. You can’t take flowers and put them back in the cooler to sell at the next market. They’re a little more unforgiving in that regard.

If you’re next to a large city, you’ll probably have a market. Find out if there’s a niche for you. Is there a florist who’s really, really busy and wants to buy a lot of flowers from you?

Any idea what that market for locally grown flowers looks like in Iowa?

I’m in western Illinois and my main audience is Chicago, and my second largest is Milwaukee and Madison. I would think that Des Moines – and Ames, for sure, since it’s a big college town – would have a market. Any larger urban area, there’s going to be more of a desire for local flowers.

In a smaller rural area, not necessarily. The thing with rural Iowa, like [the rural area where I live], is that a lot of people grow their own stuff – their own zinnias and gladiolas. So I think it would be very important for someone who wants to grow flowers in rural Iowa to have someplace where they can sell their flowers.

CSAs are one of the marketing avenues you’ll be talking about at the conference. I wonder if that could be a good place for rural farmers to market flowers?

CSA is a great way to market, because it’s already sold – you already have your market there. You wouldn’t have the issue with ethylene because you’d need to package the flowers separately. They would need to be in water.

Some people may not want the flowers, though, because you have to charge more for . The customer might say he can’t afford, or only wants one a month or week. It’s an additional expense. So the farmer would still have to figure out what would work for their customers, and the price point their customers would pay.

The price points for the grocery store bouquets are completely different from the price point for the bouquets you’re growing and making. I pay my employees anywhere from $10-$15 an hour, and those workers in Ecuador get $10-$15 a day.

So that bouquet that the customer can get in the grocery store for $6 is really going to be $12-$14 – and can the farmer convince customers to pay that? That’s a challenge. Another difference between the beginning and more experienced grower will be knowing how to price their product properly.

One step further than being profitable is paying yourself – because the owner is the last one to get paid. My company is very profitable, but I’m just beginning to pay myself after 10 years.