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Specialty Flowers: A Small-Scale Agriculture Alternative

United States Department of Agriculture
Cooperative State Research Service
Office for Small-Scale Agriculture

Flowers provide an allure that has been used by man to transcend the seasons and evoke emotion. Dried or fresh, certain specialty flowers can stimulate not only the eyes but also the sense of taste or smell, empowering new marketing opportunities for small-scale enterprisers.

Such flowers can be marketed fresh, dried, sugarcoated, in bulk, as singles, or by the pound, ounce, or sometimes gram. This exciting market, although subject to whims of designers, chefs, or fashion, continues to grow to meet demands.

For small-scale operators, recognizing unique marketing opportunities provides an entry into this competitive marketplace. Once there, an ability to provide consistent, dependable service with high quality products can provide sustainable income. Growers of specialty flowers service specific needs in the flower industry. These spin-offs include rare cut flowers, edible flowers for garnishes or salads, potpourri mixes, and medicinals.

All must meet consumer expectations that are often reflected in production, packaging, and presentation. Examples of new products can be suggested by articles in national magazines such as Gourmet, Bon Appetit, or Food and Wine. Small-scale entrepreneurs should become acquainted with members of the local chefs' association or state restaurant association.

Read Trade Journals

One management tool taught at the Small-Scale Agriculture Program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (Princess Anne, MD 21853) is that the grower must become aware of the customers' competitive environment. Products may be anticipated by reading the customers' trade journals. Specialty products, such as flower garnishes, mixes, or specialty packaging, focus attention on customers' operations and expand and strengthen a market base. Stan and Susan Devoto of Sebastopol, California, learned at a local farmers' market how specialty flowers could be a marketing aid. In The Furrow (John Deere, 1400 13th Street, East Moline, IL 61244-1493), they explain how 15 different varieties of edible flowers were mixed in ready-to-eat salads. "You need something different to get noticed, " Susan said.

Susan used the edible flowers to catch eyes and open the way for their other produce at the local farmers' market.

Gourmet Chefs Pay Heed

The many flowers that can be packaged for gourmet chefs and discerning grocery shoppers include old favorites like calendula, chrysanthemum, dianthus, dandelion, geranium, hibiscus, lily, nasturtium, pansy, rose and blue violets. Others include certain herb flowers like mint, sage, basil, and bergamot and even vegetable flowers such as pumpkin, okra, and squash. Many are outlined in Claire Clifton's "Edible Flowers," 1984. (McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., P.O. Box 400, Highstown, NJ 08520/$10.95) Flowers are harvested early in the day and kept moist at refrigeration temperatures.

Wholesale packs of pansy blossoms protected with shrink-wrap plastics retailed for $17 per hundred at the 1988 Mid-Atlantic Food Exhibition. Other presentations are discussed in " Specialty Food Packaging Design," Association for the Specialty Food Trade, 1989. (PBC International Inc., 1 School Street., Glen cove, NY 11542/$59).

Production techniques found in James Crockett's "Crockett's Flower Garden," 1981 (out of print but may be found in some libraries), are restricted to organic practices, without pesticides. Production and variety selection are affected by planting schedules, species selection and chefs' tastes.

Farmer David Aydelotte of Salisbury, Maryland, explains, "Chefs using my field-grown mint flowers and herb flowers are constantly looking for new garnishes. That is the real challenge, to keep them interested in what I'm producing.

"Many chefs are looking for a social event, a story that goes with the food," Aydelotte says. "Sequence plantings every two to four weeks are used to maintain production of annual flowers. Many are affected by day length and temperature but growers use fertilization and watering to lengthen the flowering periods."

Presentations can be developed from books such as:

  • [BH1]
    "Cooking with Flowers," by Jenny Leggatt, 1987. (Out of print; consult your local library.)
  • "Cooking from the Garden," by Rosalind Creasy, 1988. (Sierra Club Books. 730 Polk St., San Francisco, CA 94109/$35)
  • "The Forgotten Art of Flower Cookery." by Leona Smith, 1985. (Pelican Publishing Co., Inc., 1101 Monroe St., Gretna, LA 70053 /$14.95)
  • "Gourmet Bouquet," by Julia Weinberg. 1977. (New Win Publishing, Inc., P.O. Box 5159, Clinton, NJ 08809/$10.95)

Candied Flowers

Reviving the Victorian technique of candying flowers generated a marketing opportunity for Jo and Rob Pendergraph of Midlothian, Virginia. As Jo explained the Delmarva Farmer newspaper, each petal is painted with egg white and sprinkled with granulated sugar. After the sugar has crystallized, flowers are stored in air-tight containers. The candied flowers sell for $45 per hundred at a major department store in New York City.

Edible flowers to brighten up custom salad mixes include chives, nasturtiums, pansies, and bergamot. "Most chefs are paying $9 per dozen for edible flowers flown in from California," Pendergraph adds.

Competition Fierce

The competition is even fiercer in the dried flower market. This is where volume growers can stockpile quantities and provide a stiff marketing challenge. Producers listed in the "1990 Organic Wholesalers Directory/yearbook," published by California Action Network (P.O. Box 464, Davis, CA 95617;$25), can often suggest trends for your area.

Carol Kopolow, reference librarian at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Library (NAL), has prepared listings of journal articles, books, and associations providing information on "Marketing of Floricultural Products in the United States," "Agri-Topics on Dried Flowers," and "Agri-Topics on Cut Flowers; Production and Marketing." To request copies, write to USDA/NAL, Reference Branch, Room 111, Beltsville, MD 20705 and enclose a self-addressed gummed label.

Current production practices of both wild-gathered and commercially grown flowers are discussed in the 207 page proceedings of the "Commercial Field Production of Cut and Dried Flowers Symposium," hosted by the American Society for Horticultural Science and the Center for Alternative Crops and Products. Presentations covered marketing, economics, production, and handling of dried and fresh cut flowers and decorative plants. (The book costs $20 per copy, from Nancy Breneman, Extension Special Programs, 405 Coffey Hall, 1420 Eckles Ave, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108).

In The Business of Herbs, Paula Oliver (Ed.) focuses on the potpourri market blends and supplies. Including both herbs and flowers, this publication provides classified ads for both buyers and sellers. (Northwind Farm Publications, Route 2, Box 246, Shevlin, MN 56676/ six issues per year/ $20). Sample ingredients are outlined in Clarence Meyer's "Potpourri and Incense Recipes, " 1986. (Meyerbooks, P.O.Box 427, Glenwood, IL 60425/$3.95).

Information on producing dried flowers can be found in Hiller, Malcolm, and Hilton's "The Complete Book of Dried Flowers," 1987 (Simon and Schuster, Inc., 200 Old Tappan Road, Old Tappan, NJ 07675/$22.95 plus state sales tax); and similar books found in regional libraries.

"Spend about a year doing research. I think that is very important for anyone getting into any type of business, including specialty cut flowers and bedding plants," grower Brian McCreight explained at a Delaware horticultural exposition. "Experimentation is part of the learning process, and we usually try 10 to 15 new varieties of flowers every year. There are two 'musts' if you grow flowers outdoors. Facilities for cooling are essential and so is irrigation."

The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (ASCFG, 155 Elm St., Oberlin, OH 44074; annual membership; $55) was recently established by growers and educators across the country to improve the industry through conferences, information, research, and education. Judy Laushman, executive director, distributes "Gatherings- The Cut Flower Quarterly, " the association's newsletter. Regional directors, such as Leonard Perry for the Northeast Region (University of Vermont, Plant and Soil Science Department, Hills Building, Burlington, VT 05405-0082), help coordinate Extension and research information.

Another Major Problem

One major problem domestic growers face is importation of floral products. Despite such intense competition, some established growers, such as Kitayama Brothers (Watsonville, California), have not only survived but thrived. Kitayama Brothers expanded over 50 percent with new production greenhouses from 1986 to 1989.

Desmand is a good mainstream cut flower species such as snapdragons, lilies, alstroemeria, irises, and delphiniums, but any new production volume can depress prices.

In The Furrow magazine (June 1989), Kee Kitayama adds, "A few acres of any cut-flower crop can flood the market. We try to grow not only ones that we hope will be in short supply but ones that also will be profitable."

Recognizing trends and gaining production experience become necessary tools in this industry. Information appears in marketing publications, such as:

  • "Floral Marketing Directory and Buyer's Guide, "Floral Marketing Division, Produce Marketing Association, P.O.Box 6036, Newark, DE 19714-6036 ($25 a copy for members, $50 for nonmembers)
  • Florist (12 issues a year/$24), Trends (once a year $7.50) and "Florist Buyer's Directory" ($4.00 a copy), Florist Transworld Delivery Association, P.O. Box 2227, Southfield, MI 48037.
  • Flowers &, Teleflora Inc., Teleflora Plaza, Suite 260, 12233 West Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90064 (12 issues a year/$28)

Growing expertise, innovative technologies, and production supplies can be found in industry publications such as:

  • The Flower Market, Going to 20,000 floral-related businesses (growers, grocery chains, wholesalers, retailers, and trade suppliers), 780 North Fourth St., San Jose, CA 95112 (12 issues per year/$15)
  • Nursery Manager or Greenhouse Manager, Branch-Smith Publishing, 120 St. Louis Avenue, Fort Worth, TX 76104 (each: 12 issues per year/$24)
  • Greenhouse Grower, Meister Publishing Co., 37733 Euclid Ave., Willoughby, OH 44094 (14 issues per year/$25).

Other information sources can also be found in the "Directory of Small-Scale Agriculture." (Order No. 001-000-04539-3, Superintendent of Documents, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402/$5.50 per copy)


by Thomas S. Handwerker, Small Farms Research Leader at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, and George B. Holcomb of the Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of Agriculture, for USDA's office for Small-Scale Agriculture (OSSA); Howard W. "Bud" Kerr, Jr., Program director, Office of Small Scale Agriculture.

Mention of commercial enterprises or brand names does not constitute endorsement or imply preference by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Published June 1990

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