Spring Valley farmer Leslie Garcia was busy moving the dozens of fresh-cut flowers from her farm’s cooling unit into the back of her SUV.
It was early in the morning on June 2, and she had an important delivery to make.
More than 60 bunches of fresh-cut flowers of all colors and varieties were placed in large plastic containers one by one, soon to be on their way to a local grocery chain in neighboring Montgomery County.
“I’ve been selling to the grocery since last year,” Garcia said, as she busily prepared for the drive. Her 18-acre farm, Peach Mountain Organics, is one of a growing number of Ohio “flower farms” — farms specializing in producing and selling fresh flowers.
Allen County flower farm operator Susan Studer King knows all about this explosion of Ohio flower farms across the state.
For the last two years she has organized an annual winter “Flower Farmer Meet-Up” to promote the new niche farming product flowers. The second year attendance more than doubled.
Demand for local flowers
King operates her family’s flower farm, Buckeye Blooms, in Elida in northwest Ohio. She estimates there are more than 40 flower farms scattered throughout the state.
King says this growth parallels the locally-grown food movement.
“The demand for locally-grown products is high and continues to grow among consumers. On the heels of the local food movement, there is high demand for locally grown flowers,” she said.
“There has been a corresponding renaissance of new flower farms and ‘farmer-florists’ (the term she used to describe operations that grow flowers and offer floral design services) in Ohio and across the country.”
When asked what exactly a “flower farm” is, King was quick to compare flower farmers to other types of farmers.
“Flower farmers do a lot of field production. We plant into the ground, just like other growers. Except our produce isn’t corn or soybeans or vegetables — our produce is flowers.”
King said flower farmers use the same production methods as other farmers, except there is far less “mechanization” since the amount of land needed is far less.
What types of flowers are grown at an Ohio flower farm? King explains, “Dozens, even hundreds of varieties. It is very diversified. We grow the things that grow particularly well in Ohio. The zinnias, dahlias, lilies, snapdragons and sweet peas are among the varieties.”
Flowers that don’t ship well are big sellers, because it is best to get them from local growers, she added.
The National Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers based in Oberlin, King said, has reported record numbers of new members in the last two years. “It is an exciting time to be a flower farmer,” she said.
Finding a market
Buckeye Blooms started in 2009. King previously worked in the non-profit field, and she and her husband served two years in the Peace Corps in Ecuador. When they returned, they were looking to start an agriculture business. Her mother, Kay Studer, worked for Allen County Extension, but the office was closing due to budget cuts.
“My mom wasn’t ready to retire yet, so we looked for an opportunity to utilize her skills in flowers and my interest of a viable farm business.”
Their fourth-generation family farm utilized less than an acre of land for the flower growing operation. “We wanted to grow flowers that were environmentally conscious by not using pesticides or other harsh chemicals in our production,” she said.
She said for the first few years they sold to any market they could find — farmer’s markets, florists, groceries. “Now we have evolved into a full service wedding flower business.” She said ‘Country chic’ weddings are very popular today. This is very unique, fresh, and designed right there.
“There is a lot of interest in having local flowers for weddings. It captures a moment in time,” King pointed out. “It illustrates flowers that are blooming right now… peonies and other flowers that are in season now. It it a reminder that this is a special day.”
While her flower farm is almost 100 percent weddings, she said other growers deal with farmers markets, florists, and groceries, such as Whole Food, Giant Eagle and in the case of Leslie Garcia, Dorothy Lane Markets.
This is just one part of Garcia’s business. She also sells bunches of fresh-cut flowers at the Yellow Springs Farmer’s Market, where they inevitably sell out. She also grows organic vegetables such as tomatoes, which, in her high tunnel set-up were at nearly six foot.
Garcia has been growing flowers for a number of years, but many Ohio flower farms are relatively new. For those who have been around a while, getting information about the niche business wasn’t easy, said King.
“We had to really search (in 2009) to find other flower farms. We wanted to look at how others were operating. But now, in just the last year and half, it is surprising at how many have just popped up. Just in the last couple of years we are much more connected – sharing information and resources and supporting each other,” she said.
One woman’s mission
Why has the number of flower farms in Ohio, and across the nation, exploded in the last few years?
King attributes it to one woman — Seattle-area flower farmer and designer Erin Benzakein.
Erin Benzakein is the founder of Floret Flowers and the face of the company. Considered one of the nation’s leading “farmer florists,” – a term she has helped popularize to describe those skilled at both flower farming and floral design — Erin is an accomplished photographer, author, teacher, entrepreneur and winner of the 2014 Martha Stewart American Made award for Floral and Event Design. Her exuberance for seasonal flowers has helped spark a local flower renaissance and inspire a new crop of beginner “farmer-florists.” Erin’s first book on flower growing and floral design will be published by Chronicle Books in early 2017.
“Erin Benzakein has been incredibly influential as a designer and flower farmer and has inspired a number of women to get into flower farming,” King explained.
King pointed out that many flower farmers are women. “There is a lot of romance and beauty associated with it — a hell of a lot of hard work, too. You have many variables to deal with. She has inspired a lot of people to start their own business,” King said.
There is also in the style and design world a number of A list designers who have embraced the idea of buying locally grown flowers. Per square foot, many of the flower growers can get a greater premium than with other produce.
Another reason for the boom in flower farms is the “buy local” trend.
“There are the number of floral designers who are desperate to find regional, fresh, locally-grown flowers. And if they can’t find them, they are starting to grow their own. There have been a number of nationally known designers who are starting their own little farms We are finding a few here in Ohio, in the Cincinnati and Cleveland areas who are growing for their own business.”
Gathering flower farmers
King also was inspired to gather Ohio flower farmers together.
In February, 2015 they had their first statewide “Ohio Flower Farmer Meet-Up” in Granville at Denison University, and had about 20 people, and in early 2016, they had a second “Meet-Up” in Columbus at Sonny Meadows Flower Farm in Columbus where more than 50 people attended. Ohio Flower farmer Meet Ups. “We will have another one this next year.”
After the first “Meet Up” she took all the contact information and developed an online interactive map that shows the locations in Ohio of the all the known flower farms including their their names, addresses, and contact information.
“I’m a visual person so I like to see where in the state the flower farms are located,” she said. She continually updates the map as more flower farms “pop up,” she said. To access the map, go to http://bit.do/ohioflowers
What does King see as the future of flower farming? “I see it continuing to grow. I think what will happen is more and more florists wanting locally grown fresh cut flowers. Just as there are restaurants marketing that they buy locally grown produce, I see this trend continuing to flowers,” she pointed out.
She said her group of flower farmers is also looking at applying for one of the specialty crop block grants through the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
Many of the farms such as Sonny Meadows is “gong gangbusters, she said, they can’t keep up with the demand. They are selling as far away as Cleveland.”
King said flower farming will still be a niche, but it is a growing one. “You can connect a face to the name — not just a box (of flowers). Someone in your community grew that flower: Local businesses, local families, local farms. That is why we will continue to grow.”
Gary Brock can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock4.