Why We Choose Flowers Over Vegetables with Loblolly Farm (FSFS123)

 

Today we’re going to talk about a crop we haven’t talked about before. It’s a crop that’s sure to rope in more traffic to your farmer’s market stall—flowers!

We have Benny and Courtney Pino, farmers who transitioned from vegetables to flowers, to talk about the how’s and why’s of small-scale flower farming.


Were you both farmers before you became a couple of did you start farming after you became a couple? (2:00)

(Benny) I was a surgical nurse at a hospital, and I’ve noticed that people weren’t getting the proper nutrition in their diets and that our current health care system isn’t doing a very good job of addressing it. I went and suggested solutions for that, but no one really heard me out. I wanted to make changes quicker than getting a Ph.D., so I talked to a friend and we figured that we could start a community garden, Heartland Gardens.

(Courtney) At the time Benny started the community garden, I was working at the local Folk Art Guild. And by the time I had to move back home, I decided I wanted to go somewhere I could grow, which was when I stumbled upon Heartland Gardens. I then started working as an intern there.


How did Heartland Gardens turn into what it is now? (5:50)

(Courtney) We did go our separate ways for a while. Benny went in as an apprentice in a farm in New York, while I was working as an apprentice somewhere in Maine at the same time. We kept in touch, and that’s when our romance started, I guess—haha! From there, we wanted to move forward with starting our own farm. At the time, the Folk Art Guild where my sister is needed farm managers, and we applied and got accepted for the job. We managed a 2-3acre vegetable farm until we eventually bought our own land to farm on.


For Benny, as a nurse disenfranchised with the current hospital system, in terms of ideology, what would you tell someone who is new to farming and is in the same position you were before? (13:30)

I would share a quote from Curtis Stone quote, “Keep it [your ideologies] in your back pocket.” From the Heartland Gardens to the Folk Arts Guild, I’ve worked with a lot of very ideological people, and we ended up debating about how we were going to do things.

We weren’t thinking like businesspeople, we weren’t thinking about how we could keep the farm itself alive. But after hearing you and Curtis talk on the podcast about how we needed to be a business and how we needed to get into the nuts and bolts of how to run the farm, it honed me into all the things in the farm that worked and didn’t work. And that’s why we’re still farming today, not just because I was chasing ideology.


I don’t think this has ever come up in the podcast, and I don’t hear a lot of successful non-profit farms. Knowing what you know now, how do you think a non-profit could be run successfully? (15:50)

(Benny) My father has worked in the non-profit world for a long time. He was the president of the Red Cross in Louisiana and then Miami. One thing that he always, always told me is that a non-profit is a for-profit company just using not-for-profit donations to run some parts of the company. The reality is that at the end of the day, you’re going to have to answer all the questions that a for-profit company has to. So, I would tell myself and anyone else who wants to start a non-profit is to put that non-profit status in your back pocket. Have a board, advisers, and think about donations as an important part of your mission, but everything else needs to streamlined to run as a business.


Backtracking a bit, what was it like managing a commercial farm as a couple? (21:45)

(Benny) Since we went and learned at different farms, we struggled a fair bit. We were bringing in helpers at the same time we were trying to figure out exactly how we wanted to farm. We realized that there’s as many different ways to farm as there are farmers. When we found this podcast, we learned about very systematized ways of farming that we could both listen to and talk about together. It helped us out a lot not just in managing a farm but also strengthened us as a couple.

(Courtney) I think hearing about how others farm was what got us through those years. The first year was basically laying down the groundwork for the farm. The following year got us talking about how we wanted to move forward from there and the changes we could make. Between the first and second years, we focused on the positives of moving forward instead of focusing on the differences and what wasn’t working, and I think that really helped us mature as farmers.


For Courtney, you mentioned earlier that you have some experience with floral design. When you settled on this property, was growing flowers part of the plan? (28:00)

It was absolutely part of the plan. I fell into wedding floral design, and I knew that was where I wanted to be professionally. We had a larger scale in mind, and currently we’re growing a little more for market versus for weddings. In the days we harvest flowers, I’ll be in the studio making bouquets while Benny would be harvesting and processing the vegetables.


For people interested in selling flowers at farmer’s markets, can you give some tips for people considering integrating this into their operation? (33:55)

(Courtney) I would say to start with flowers that are popular, grow easily, and are less expensive in terms of seed vs. value. Of course, you also have to get the most vibrant colors. Some examples are zinnias, celosias, sunflowers, marigolds, as well as statice since they also make pretty good fillers.

We also learned to offer two sizes. We do a small, $10 mason jar filled with about 5-10 stems, and we have larger bouquets at $15 with about 20-25 stems of the flowers I mentioned before.

As for wedding designs, we work with flowers that are more difficult to grow, and the prices are a little bit higher.


Do you have suggestions for people who want to learn more about flower arranging? (42:25)

(Courtney) I would first look into taking classes. I went to Floret Farm to learn about arranging flowers, but there are sure to be classes about flower arranging in your local area as well. If you follow a wedding florist or a farmer florist in your area, a lot of them hold flower arranging classes during the off-season. They usually offer centerpiece arranging, flower crown arranging, and bouquet arranging.


With regards to how you present your flowers and how you price them, do you position yourself as premium suppliers? (44:05)

(Benny) At the start, we really positioned ourselves as premium flower sellers, though we think you need to have a bigger market and a neighborhood with quite some expendable income to be able to really command the prices.

Based on our experience, we had to bring our prices down in order to meet the customers. We even had a moment when we’d get frustrated when people would walk over, look at our display, and say, “oh wow this looks beautiful!” But after that, they’d walk over to the other flower sellers and buy flowers for half the price. So, I think you have to match your market for that price point.


Let’s go back the beginning of the year when you first started to grow flowers for production. How did growing flowers turn out to be? (01:00:40)

Flower production is entirely different from vegetable production. The time it takes for a seed to bloom into a flower is double, if not triple, the time that some vegetables need to grow. So, we had to learn the nitty gritty of growing seeds because a lot of them won’t germinate unless you give them the right conditions like light exposure and temperature. There’s definitely a learning curve there. But once that’s been established, you won’t have to worry about too many pests, and you’ll only need to pinch or trellis them, and you just basically come back when they’re blooming. Once all that’s settled out, you’ve got a great product that will produce for you for a longer cycle.


Can you give examples of variations between the different flowers? (1:03:30)

(Courtney) It really varies from each variety and species. For some flowers, you can just pinch them, and they would produce heavy side shoots that you can harvest. Other ones like celosia need to be transplanted, but you’ll get a pretty generous yield from one plant. Cosmos, on the other hand, you can pinch, and they’ll bifurcate and they’ll just keep producing.

There are also one-hit wonders that have one stem with just one bloom. You cut from them, and that’s it. Some sunflowers are like that. Those one-hit wonders aren’t necessarily higher value. The higher value ones are the perennials like peonies and garden roses.


How would you advise someone to start adding flowers to their existing vegetable operation? (1:14:20)

(Benny) I’m gonna say they could start with sunflowers—they’re very attention-grabbing and very easy to grow. They’re about 60-70 days to maturity, and they’re very robust. They don’t require a lot of the nuances of germination. You can take about 6-8 stems of sunflowers and arrange them very quick and easy. People respond to them immediately, and you can sell a bouquet for about $8.  

(Courtney) I agree with that. We did sunflower bouquets for a short time, and they always sold out. On top of the sunflowers, you can add zinnia, celosia, cosmos. You really don’t need to grow more than that, and you can arrange them in bouquets and in small mason jars.


Any additional resources you can share? (1:19:30)

There’s a couple of good books we found recently called Cool Flowers (Lisa Mason Zeigler), and The Flower Farmer (Lynn Byczynki). We like them because they don’t just talk about the gardening side of flower farming, they also talk about the nuance knowledge about varieties, how they grow, and what they want.

(Benny) That said, I would almost take a vegetable standpoint when it comes to the production model. And look to vegetable production books for a growing system.


What does the future hold for the farm? (1:23:15)

(Benny) I feel like we’re going to be experimenting with this model of selling directly to designers. We’ll need to understand what the demand and price points are going to be like. Once we get those down, I feel like we’re going to pivot quickly and grow more for wholesale, and maybe go back to farmer’s markets. Hoping that Courtney’s wedding design business would be successful, we might have to hire employees to focus on the production.

 

Conclusion

Got you curious about adding flowers to your repertoire? Got any questions for Benny and Courtney? Check out their website and their Instagram!

 

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