How to Start a Flower Farm
Posted by Erin Howe on
I’ve noticed a trend among flower farmers: they’ll start a farm, work hard at it for several years, and then write a book. The book will be full of gorgeous photos of their farm and instructions for beginners on how to start their own flower farms. Because the best teacher is often not the seasoned expert, for whom whatever’s being taught is second nature, but the enthusiastic intermediate. A little experience, a fresh memory of the beginner’s pitfalls, and wonder not yet worn into habit can make for a good hand to hold.And so I began to wonder, as I cleaned up from this year’s peony frenzy, scythed cover crops, stacked buckets, how do you know when it’s time to write your book?
That question quickly spawned another: what kind of book would you write? I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t write a beginner’s guide. My farm is too unique for my advice to apply everywhere, my ideas on how to grow peonies changing too quickly to canonize them at any moment as gospel. Peonies themselves are chameleons, not even the same color or blooming in the same order here as elsewhere. Also, I’m constantly being humbled by my farm, being shown that what I thought I knew is not as stable as I’d thought it was. You do not know, it tells me. It’s when you think you do that you make mistakes.
I think if I wrote a book about farming, it would be less instructional and more philosophical, more dramatic and overthought and studded with quotes from books whose authors seemed inexplicably to be describing my farming life right now. More storytelling and less how-to. More, well, like me.
Actually, I can write that book for you. Here goes:
How to Start a Flower Farm
By Erin Howe
Buy a sun hat. Sun protection is no joke, and besides, you’ll need it to cultivate the Instagram look you’re going for.
Now plant some things. Everything, probably. Realize almost immediately that growing also means killing, through neglect, or selection, or seed-catalog overenthusiasm correction. Yes, you have one green thumb, but the other one is black. Try not to think of the ratio of dead plants to each flower that makes it. It’s ok, you only have to show what lives. Become philosophical about plant death. You must develop a philosophy that keeps you from being miserable about every runty plant that didn’t get a chance, or every tray of seedlings you forgot to water that turned crispy while still reaching for the shop lights above them. Plant death is not people death, nor even animal death. Repeat this until it sticks.
Learn through experience what grows for you, what wants more care than you’re willing to give, what gets decimated by the bugs that live where you live. Realize that this is a race where many start but few finish. You cannot have globe thistle and Russian sage if they want the desert and you live inside a sauna. They’ll die on the side of the racetrack long before you’re making up your cute bouquets. Learn to respect your environmental limitations. Or don’t. The outcome is the same. Only your amount of anguish over it varies.
When you’ve brought your first flowers to bloom, hurrah! You can do it. Now find your market. Everyone says find your market first, but I haven’t figured out how this is possible in the absence of actual flowers to show your potential market. “You’ll have flowers?” they ask. “Come back when you can show me.” The blooming and the selling happen at the same time at first and this is nerve-racking. Get used to nerve-racking, dealing with a ticking clock on a perishable product. What you don’t realize now is that later, when you sell your flowers before they’re cut, it’s this precise moment that makes that feeling so sweet.
Now you begin to look around and see what other flower farmers are doing. Chances are they grow the same thing you do and have already courted the markets you’ve thought of. I’m not being cynical or discouraging. Learn to reframe failure. I mean this. LEARN TO REFRAME FAILURE. This will be one of your most important skills. So you found that every florist in town already bought superior ranunculus grown by another local farmer and you have a whole crop blooming. Think about what you've learned, and try something else. Again, I mean this. Don’t sit down and cry. Always try something else.
Find the other farmers. This may sound counterintuitive, since that other farmer just stole your florists, but this is more important than that. They are the only other people who know what it is to water your field with your sweat. You'll need them more than you need the money. You’ll need their ideas, and their encouragement, and their incredulous laughter over your mistakes. You’ll need, desperately, to laugh about theirs. It’ll be one of the most humanity-affirming moments of your life to find that, incredibly, they want you to succeed. It’ll be another to find that you want them to, too. This, as I said, is bigger than money. This is about building your life and the world you want to live in. Wonder: how has farming brought you these riches?
Use the winters to reevaluate and plan your attack again. A few years in, when the novelty’s worn off a bit, have a full-blown, farm-style existential crisis: who am I? What do I offer? How am I special? Do I really want to work this hard for Colombian-flowers prices? What do I want from farming? Do I want to work for this farm, or have it work for me? Readjust your priorities, readjust your plan. This is your life, and your farm is only a part of it. Don't get angry at yourself for not knowing what this was before getting into it. Nobody ever knows what they're getting into but we all hold our breath and jump anyway. Put your big girl panties on and forge onward. Or don’t. There’s no shame in saying that something you’ve tried isn’t for you. There’s no shame in cutting it back to a cutting garden now that you know.
Have a crisis when you realize that the people who wrote those beautiful books and blogs live far away from you and don’t understand your climate, your farm, or your market, and you’ve spent more time and money than you care to count following them down the wrong path. Spend the weekend depressed over it, knowing that on Monday morning you’re going to have to go out there and start ripping things out, backing up. Find solace from your misery by this epiphany: if you finally know enough to know where they’ve led you wrong, that also means you're beginning to know how to do it right. This is comforting, but the trips to the dump still hurt.
If you decide to continue, use everything you’ve learned up to this point, cross all your fingers and toes, pray if you pray, and get out in the field. Ultimately, you just have to get out there and put in the work. The weather will knock you back. The economy will knock you back. But two really strange things will begin to happen. You’ll find that while you were hoeing and cutting and weeding and sweating, while you were planning and hauling bouquets to the farmer’s market and selling both to people who couldn’t understand the price of your flowers and those who would pay any price for them, your farm has changed. It’s become a place that you know. You know where the cold pockets are, you know what will bloom first, you know the soil, the slopes, the low places where the water puddles after a rain. You know what it will do, when it’ll do it, what it’s capable of and what’s asking too much. It’s become an extension of you and you know it like only someone who’s worked with and loved a farm can know it. And because you know it, you both have more control over it and understand that you have less. And this makes sense.
And, of course, you’ve changed, and there’s the magic. You’ve become a person more durable against what you used to think of as failure. You’ve become more resilient to and welcoming of criticism. You’ve had people complain about and gush over the same flowers, and you and your anxiety have had to contemplate that. You’ve become more accepting of what you can’t control, and more gentle with yourself over what you could have controlled but were too tired or overwhelmed to. You know now that the weather and the economy will knock you back, but now you also know that you are not an annual. You’re a perennial, with courage and resilience and calluses in your roots for the years to come. You’ll get cut back, but then you’ll grow back. You see people differently now, not as competitors or customers, but as friends, along on this journey in whatever role they may be. The idea of "cultivating" applies to much more than it used to.
Realize that while you thought you were growing a farm, growing some pretty flowers, you’ve grown into something pretty amazing too.
Maybe, when you find that farming has changed you, that’s when you write your book.
Today is the day I shipped my last cut peonies for the 2022 season. After the rush and tumble of peony season comes a season of cleaning up, of setting the farm up for summer, and of turning to other things I enjoy. This year that includes forays into dye, medicinal, and cutting gardens, growing basket willows and trying my hand at basketry, learning Latin, sewing a log cabin quilt, and always the endless stream of books. It includes setting up for my first plant sale this fall, too, which is exciting.
If you’d like to continue on through the year with me, now that my peony season is over, meet me here every so often, won’t you? I’ll put my rambles here, and you can stop by and say hello.
So glad that you're here with me,
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