Roughly 80 percent of all cut flowers sold in the U.S. are imported and 45 percent of what is grown for sale is discarded before it ever hits the market, statistics that have inspired some Colorado growers to venture into selling local blooms.
The bulk of cut blooms originate in South America. But on a recent day Kristy Anderson stood amid sprays of multi-colored blossoms and talked about how she and her husband Chet got into growing exotic and decorative plants before local was the next big thing.
The Fresh Herb Company, the Longmont business they started in 1983, has gone through multiple reinventions in response to market trends.
“We started out growing culinary herbs because you couldn’t find them anywhere,” she said amid the bustle of the Union Station Farmers Market in downtown Denver earlier this summer. “Then we expanded into growing baby vegetables that went in the back door of all of the high-end restaurants. And then we got into organic salad green mixes. We were one of the first to grow them.”
By the mid-90s, however, that niche was being crowded by large farms from California and Arizona.
“We could see the tsunami coming,” Anderson explained. “Organic salad greens are ubiquitous in stores now, and we’re just a small grower. So we sold that business and got into ornamental plants.”
During the spring, they sell bedding plants, mostly herbs and floral hanging baskets. In summer, they move into cut flowers, bundling together lilies grown in a greenhouse with perennials from one field and annuals from another. More recently, they’ve added succulents to the mix.
Ornamentals add a “wow” factor to market stands and introduce diversity into growing spaces. But the Andersons’ reasoning was more elemental.
“I think we started the flowers because Chet loves to grow flowers,” Anderson said with a smile. “The impetus for a local flower movement — the Certified American Grown Flowers Association and ‘slow flowers’ (an off-shoot of the ‘slow food’ movement) — all came about more recently.”
The Andersons ended up getting in on the ground floor. At a workshop at the Denver Botanical Garden, they met Debra Prinzing, author of The 50 Mile Bouquet and an early enthusiast of seasonal, locally sourced, sustainably grown flowers.
“We opened her eyes to the fact that there were farmers growing flowers in this region. She’s in Seattle, which is a whole different environment, with a long tradition of flowers and flower growing,” Anderson said.
Now interest in local flowers is spreading nationwide. The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers is “growing by leaps and bounds,” Anderson noted, with new farms popping up everywhere. The Andersons were one of the first to host a field-to-vase dinner tour on behalf of American Grown Flowers, but the event has since migrated to farms all across the country, including Alaska.
While flowers might look like a beautiful business, behind every bouquet is a labor-intensive process.
“Chet is meticulous about post-harvest handling,” Anderson said. “The flowers get out of the field early and into the barn, which is shaded, then they get processed by hand, which means cleaned and finished and put into water with a flower preservative, and then they get put into a cooler overnight, and I bring them to the market the next morning.”
“There’s also a lot of education and research,” she added, pointing to a new variety of snapdragon with especially fluffy blossoms and something called a red-hot poker that blooms from the bottom up in the shape of a flaming orange cone.
“Chet’s constantly combing seed catalogues and trade journals and looking for things that will do well here,” she said.
“It’s rewarding, and it’s absolutely exhausting,” she added. “It’s all hand labor: hand weeding, hand harvesting, hand processing. And there’s so much education to be done, to spark awareness about buying local.”
Success with flowers typically requires being close to a sizeable market, she added.
“Our biggest customer is Whole Foods Market,” she said. “Without Whole Foods we wouldn’t be in business. We service this entire region, and they’ve been a fabulous business partner for us.”
Cultivating fresh flower sales beyond large urban centers can be challenging, as small farmers in Southern Colorado have found.
Ellen Kerchner, co-owner of New Roots Farm at Canon City, has dabbled with selling cut flowers at the Colorado Farm and Art Market in Colorado Springs.
“I planted them to attract pollinators but then I thought maybe I should try to sell them,” she said.
She established a more consistent outlet by supplying fresh flowers, along with vegetables, to A Grazing Life, a company that organizes summer farm dinners at the Kiowa Creek Ranch and Sanctuary near Black Forest. The dinners, each featuring a local chef, sell out quickly.
Katie Miller, owner of Heritage Belle Farms south of Calhan, another vendor at the Colorado Farm and Art Market, secured a cost-share from NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (commonly referred to as EQUIP) to put up a large hoop house and plans to add another next year. Protective structures are a necessity for growing flowers on the windswept plains, she said.
In addition to cut flowers, she now grows small edible blooms, such as nasturtiums and pansies, which can be used to dress up summer salads, relish trays or cakes.
“I wanted to try something different,” she said. “I thought it might be cool at a market like this to have a build-your-own-bouquet bar.”
She also offers a weekly flower subscription to local businesses.
Known for her work with the American Grass-fed Association, Holistic Management International and the Savory Institute, Miller’s main gig is still raising and selling meat from heritage cattle, lambs and hogs. But the pitch behind her “field-to-vase” flower model is buying local supports a strong, resilient community, provides a connection with how and where plants are grown and reduces the waste associated with the modern wholesale floral industry.
In some parts of the country, flower growers have come together to boost sales by establishing cooperative wholesale markets. In other cases, growers have figured out how to keep their businesses going in the off-season by drying flowers and making wreaths, centerpieces and other decorative items during the winter.
The Andersons recently started designing and building flower gardens, adding yet another dimension to their business.
A chance to learn more about all things floral is coming up in September, when Debra Prinzing returns to Denver to teach another course at the botanical garden. The Andersons will host a tour of their farm in conjunction with the workshop on September 13.
“For small farmers like us, doing this at a scale where we can make it financially, that’s the issue,” Anderson said. “The good news is American Grown Flowers is doing a great job with promotion. In fact, they won marketer of the year last year in the floral industry. So good things are happening.”