The domestic U.S. flower farming market was largely stamped out by cheap import competition in the 1970s and 1980s when flying roses from Ecuador became cheaper than producing them in the States. More recently, the sustainability issues of this method have become painfully apparent. In the last five to 10 years or so, domestic flower farming in the U.S. has been making a comeback, and the movement is being led by people just like you.
Maybe you’ve been to a U-pick flower farm or heard from an acquaintance that flower farming is the most profitable cash crop. That’s true. Plus, flower farming can be done on a very small plot. Most flower farms are micro farms, meaning the farmer is using a space about an acre or smaller to produce blooms. That makes flower farming the most accessible type of farming for people who can’t afford large plots of land during a housing crisis.
Have you been thinking about testing out a flower farm yourself? Our family has been doing just that since we bought the next door property to our country house at the beginning of the pandemic. It didn’t exactly go as planned, so this might be a more cautionary article on flower farming than you would expect, but we still love every minute of our grand experiment.
With some planning and the right tools, you can make flower farming work as a side gig or retirement job, or scale up and play with the commercial growers. You could also keep this as a hobby. Flower farming is really quite equal opportunity, you just need to know a few things to get started to avoid frustration and wasted money.
First things to think about when starting a flower farm
Start small. No, really. That’s the number one advice on flower farmer social media groups for beginners. And they’re not being patronizing. Here are some reasons why.
1. Weed control
Weeds get really out of control when you all of a sudden cultivate more land than you can weed. You need to figure out if you’re going to try landscape fabric, mowable grass aisles, no-till gardening methods or automate weeding with a tractor. This might be the number one frustration besides climate change screwing up our growing seasons.
Start with a few packets of cut flower seed varieties from reputable sources and learn how to grow a few easy things well first so you don’t overwhelm yourself. It’s easy to sink thousands into a test farm and come out empty-handed.
3. Market research
You might want to start a U-pick in the country with a farmers market stand, or in larger cities you can sell to florists and wedding flower designers. Know what the options are before you start investing, because each type of flower farm needs different infrastructure. Some states require a business license or special permission to join the farmers market or local flower growers co-op.
4. Research how to grow flowers
Each flower has its own unique needs for propagation, watering, nutrition, disease and pest prevention, treatment and harvest techniques.
5. Know your climate
Please don’t move to a new climate and start a flower farm immediately. Your farm has its own micro climate, and it will take time to note which flowers love the environment and which are too much work for your growing conditions. You need to test varieties before you declare that you’re starting a rose farm, if roses don’t care for your clay soil and freezing winters.
When we started our test farm in 2021, we kept spreadsheets of costs. You can get a greenhouse subsidized by the USDA if you plan this process properly, or get farming grants if you’re a minority or building growing infrastructure in under-served communities.
As you start planning a flower farm, you need to take into account your physical abilities and the labor available to you. If you grow on a plot that doubles as your home, you might also run into deed restrictions like we did. Our township allows farming on residential plots if you don’t hire labor outside your family. But that might be a problem for your circumstances. Do your homework up front, and then start testing your ideas one at a time. It might take a couple years to figure out where you want to go.
Case in point, we went from no-till to tractor tilling because of excessive weed pressure in our field. We started out opposed to spraying anything, but changed our minds at least enough to spray neem oil when we had several pest invasions. Lastly, we discovered that while roses grow well around our wooded house plot, they freeze and burn out in the sunny fenced garden. Peonies, dahlias, zinnias, cosmos, snapdragons and many flowering herbs and filler greens grow without us half trying. Trust us, you will change your mind about which flowers you like to grow as you see how different they are.
Why is everyone starting a flower farm?
Flower farming is rising in popularity as it is the most profitable cash crop per acre for farmers to grow and because it gives livable land a dual purpose without adding cost for extra land. You can also do quite a bit of this work by hand if you want to, making it even more accessible to beginners with small budgets. Add to that a growing local farm and co-op movement with CSAs kicking off the local farming movement in vegetable growing a decade ago, now flower farms have jumped on board the local movement that already created a market for fresh produce and plants.
Flower farming has many benefits.
During the Great Resignation and the few years leading up to it, many people looked for ways to work from home. Flower farming is hard work, but it’s work from home, meaning you get a flexible schedule and can work outdoors with plants. It’s pretty much a dream job for an introvert or anyone who loves plants.
2. Flexible schedule
Flower farming has some requirements of your time, such as picking all your blooming peonies before a rainstorm destroys the blossoms, but generally it’s flexible so you can farm after work or work chores around another job. Many flower farmers have a day job or are farmers of other cash crops and branch out into flower farming as it’s less of a risk to diversify than start a flower farm from scratch with no other crops.
3. There are multiple markets
Flowers can be sold at a roadside stand informally, picked by patrons on site (you need insurance to have people on your property, so factor in that cost), harvested and sold to florists or wholesalers or sold to wedding designers. You can even turn your flower farm into a wedding destination venue, if your township allows it, and have wedding guests pay to take photos among the flowers.
Challenges to look out for with flower farming
Starting a flower farm can be a daunting task, and it’s easy to get off-track when you want it to be sustainable. If you’ve been thinking about starting a flower farm, here are the first steps to take to make sure you don’t end up a bucket of tears.
1. You can take classes or request mentorship from other flower farmers.
Watch YouTube videos from flower farmers on their common challenges like disease, drought or what to do when you have to harvest multiple varieties all at once. All of this info is available from books and videos and classes from folks like Floret Flowers, Lynn Byczynski’s “The Flower Farmer” and YouTube channels like Pepper Harrow. We also like business books about flower farming, particularly “Don’t Panic” by Sarah Adams.
You can find reputable retailers or wholesale plant sellers for larger farms online in places like Dutch Bulbs, Johnny’s Seeds, Floret and local plant sales from other farmers with excess bulbs. Please be advised that buying flower seeds at the dollar store or local hardware store can cause problems with plant disease and poor quality, and are best avoided.
You need to buy flowers in in-demand cut flower varieties for florists, which means long stems, multiple blooms and reliable colors. Call up your local florists and ask what they would like more of, and be sure to get the requested colors and varieties. My local downtown florist always needs more flowers in the local college colors for graduation bouquets. I could sell blue roses until I was dead and never stop having demand. But can I grow blue roses? Nope. Or any other color.
2. You should have a business plan, even if you hate business plans.
Some irrigation systems, types of compost, flower bulbs like peonies and dahlias and the deer fencing can be much more expensive than expected. So in addition to starting small to avoid sinking money into flower stock that won’t grow on your land, you should also do basic calculations on your upfront costs to get started, how much flowers sell for in your area in bouquets and as cut flower bunches for florists (they pay wholesale, remember, not retail costs).
Make sure you know how many flowers you can grow on your size plot and how much space and time they take up on your land. Some flowers like peonies are perennial bushes that take up space year round but only bloom for a couple weeks in June. If you can plant seed flowers like zinnias and cosmos, they are much cheaper to start and can be succession planted with other blooms, but they don’t bring in as much profit.
Numbers will change, but this step is important to set you up for success. Most flower farms are very small and gross about $25,000 to $30,000 per acre. You can spend half of that in costs and that is a best-case scenario number for flowers grown at top quality with no disease or pest damage. Life obviously isn’t that neat and tidy.
3. Expect the unexpected.
Yes, that’s irritating advice because it’s de facto impossible to do, but you should at least know up front that farmers routinely have their crops destroyed by bad seed, extreme weather events like late frost, hail or drought, and that you often can’t figure out what you did wrong. Being able to let go of a failed crop and keep going is an essential skill for a flower farmer. You will never know all the things you did wrong, but you will learn a lot along the way.
4. Your health needs to be tip top to farm.
Most flower farmers work long hours and have to do a ton of work all at once during the planting and harvesting seasons. If your lifestyle and health work for this arrangement, more power to you. But it may not, and there’s nothing wrong with doing what we have done without giving up.
We also have kept experimenting with growing different types of flowers, from lisianthus that won’t germinate if you sneeze wrong but looks gorgeous for weeks when it blooms, to dahlias that require digging and winter storage in our northern climate. Now we know that some plants are too much work, but we could totally pull off a peony farm with a little more mentorship on disease management. You can get there, too.
Flower farming is a huge topic with many rabbit trails to fall down. If you love growing things and have been thinking about a flower farm, do your homework on how much it would cost to start small with the essentials: water, seeds/bulbs, hand tools or automated tools, maybe some fencing and some good compost.
Most farmers have their soil tested every year to know which nutrients need replenishing, because they have learned the futility of trying to wring productivity out of tired soil. If you follow these steps up front and research growing and flower selling marketing conditions for your area, you will have so much fun. Despite the challenges, our family has never been closer since starting our test flower farm, and when the peonies bloomed all by themselves when I couldn’t leave the house for days after planting due to wildfire smoke, I knew we had found a winner for our changing climate. Happy planting!
Images via Pexels
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