PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock
Moira McGhee
February 22, 2017

Watching flowers grow could be big business. If you love being in the garden and cultivating a variety of beautiful blossoms, becoming a flower farmer might be a great way to supplement your income. Flowers are becoming an ideal seasonal cash crop because many varieties are generally easy to grow and produce quickly.

Whether you’ve grown them for years or just started recently, you could transform your flower-growing hobby into a profitable venture. Plus, it doesn’t take a lot of room or big investment to get started. While a large portion of common flower varieties in supermarkets are imported, many consumers desire unique, local offerings to celebrate their special moments. Growing specialty cut flowers that transcend the standard floral fare basically involves figuring out what to grow and learning how to successfully market your product.

Economic Viability

Cut-flower importation began overtaking U.S. production in the early 1980s, especially in roses, carnations and chrysanthemums. To survive, local growers began developing a niche market that focused on flower varieties that didn’t ship well or had a short vase life.

Despite the USDA estimate that nearly two-thirds of domestic cut flowers come from growers outside the country, the consumer shift toward nontraditional varieties prompted an emergence of domestic production in specialty cut flowers. When combined with an increased awareness of the importance of buying local, the result is a high profit return for the producer.

A 2014 University of Wyoming Extension publication indicated specialty cut flowers were some of the most profitable crops growers can produce, with yields as high as $25,000 or $30,000 per acre!

Getting Started

Cut-flower production takes place throughout the U.S., either in open fields or protective structures, so you can enjoy fresh flowers no matter where you farm.

A fairly small investment rewards you with an abundance of flowers in a few short months. Startup costs include basic gardening tools, a good source for seeds and a little research. Although flower farming isn’t too labor-intensive, you’ll also invest a steady supply of sweat equity.

Equipment needed to start producing flowers is similar to what you’d need for a small, direct-market vegetable operation, but unlike commodity crops and vegetable production, flowers are mostly planted and harvested by hand. Beyond preparing the field for planting, there’s very little mechanization involved.

“It really doesn’t take any fancy farming equipment,” says Trina Baumsteiger of Templeton Valley Farms, a 5-acre Certified Organic farm in Templeton, California. “All you need are good shears, buckets and rubber bands.”

Baumsteiger and her husband, Edwin Rambuski, wholeheartedly say that flower farming is economically feasible for small farmers. They grow a variety of cut flowers for market, as well as a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Like many flower farmers, Baumsteiger uses a drip-irrigation system to maximize water efficiency. Drip systems deliver water directly to the roots, which keeps water off the flowers and leaves, helping improve the overall quality and often preventing disease. It also provides a steady supply of water to aid in the production of longer stems.

Pick Your Flowers

The best flower choices have a minimum vase life of five to six days and abundant blooms with long growing cycles and multiple stems for weekly cuttings. Choosing a wide assortment of colors and shapes also adds variety to your bouquets.

While several varieties suit the novice grower, start with tried-and-true flower types for your first growing season and then branch out from there. Some of these proven varieties include ageratum, larkspur, peony, salvia, scabiosa, snapdragon, sunflowers, verbena, yarrow and zinnias. However, even these species may not grow well in your climate, so cull the best choices based on each variety’s ideal growing conditions.

“Color, stem strength and longevity directly affect my decision on what flowers to grow,” Baumsteiger says. She recommends bachelor buttons, blanket flower, calendula, coreopsis, dahlias, geraniums, iris, larkspur, lavender, marigolds, poppies, statice, sunflowers and zinnias, which she believes are all easy for beginning farmers to cultivate.

Because she lives in California’s warmer climate, Baumsteiger leans toward perennials that don’t need replanting every year and also enjoys her self-seeding sunflowers. She also tends to choose bee-loving flowers, because she keeps bees for honey sales in addition to her flowers.

However, you don’t have to only include flowers to create truly unique bouquets. “If I see something I think will look nice in a bouquet, I just add it,” Baumsteiger says. She often uses herbs, corn stalks in the fall, wildflowers, red clover for filler and anything that has gone to seed that has a nice color, such as the tops of beets, radishes, lettuce, cilantro or Italian parsley.

Flower Markets

Before you plant anything, know what you plan to do with your harvested flowers. Plan your garden with specific types of sales in mind, which can include a variety of basic options. You should consider weddings and other special events, wholesale floral markets, farmers markets, roadside and farm stands, direct sales to florists, supermarket sales, U-pick operations, restaurant and hotel sales, and subscription programs, such as CSAs. Freshly cut flowers are typically sold individually, by the bunch or in premade bouquets. Some producers also sell by the pound to allow shoppers to choose their own bunch of flowers.

Baumsteiger has found the most success with her farm stand, website and Facebook page. She also has a large number of repeat clientele for her Farmer’s Market Box, which is similar to a CSA box, but buyers don’t get “shares” in her farm: Instead, participants order a weekly, biweekly or one-time box, which includes 15 seasonal, organic items sourced directly from her farm. They can also order a premade bouquet or choose a bouquet during pickup.

The strong demand for all types of flowers, especially unique varieties and enduring favorites can make flower production a highly profitable venture. Always attempt to time your plantings to coincide with flower-heavy holidays, including Easter, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Christmas and popular wedding months in your area. Remember: You aren’t just a flower farmer; you’re a florist. And the best way to be profitable is to listen to your customers. If you’re capable of growing what they want, they’ll keep coming back for more.

Flower Pests & Diseases

Freshly cut flowers represent a wide assortment of plant families, so you’ll see a significant difference in pest and disease problems that affect each species. Some of the most common disease and pest problems, include the following:

Powdery Mildew

This presents as a white, powdery coating on the surface of leaves, which could also show on stems and flowers. Leaves turn yellow and brown, making foliage unattractive. Susceptible annuals include snapdragons, verbena and zinnias; susceptible perennials include bee balm, delphiniums, garden phlox and lungwort.

Treat with horticultural oil, insecticidal soap, neem oil, garden sprays containing beneficial bacteria or home remedies with baking soda. Maintain good airflow and avoid wetting foliage to help prevent this disease.

Botrytis

This presents as a gray mold or fuzzy coating, primarily on dying leaves and flowers. Periods of high rainfall often make this disease more problematic.

Remove diseased leaves and flowers immediately. Treat with garden sprays containing beneficial bacteria. Maintain good airflow and avoid wetting foliage to help prevent this disease.

Black Fungus

This begins as black spots on the foliage, most prevalent on the surface of upper leaves. These leaves turn yellow, then eventually fall off. Roses are highly susceptible.

Insects

Aphids and thrips most commonly cause monetary losses. Pests can be controlled naturally with beneficial parasites and predators, such as lacewings. To maintain your beneficial insect population, avoid cover sprays of broad-spectrum insecticides. Biorational or biopesticide controls could include neem oil, insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils, which impact beneficial insects minimally. Use synthetic chemicals in moderation, and choose ones with the lowest toxicity to bees.

While many fungal diseases won’t kill the flowers, they often drastically reduce the marketability of your product. Some flowers are more tolerant to specific pests and disease. As a new grower, carefully research the wide range of available pest- and disease-management options.

This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Hobby Farms.

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