Blooming business

Local growers of specialty cut flowers a growing niche in the trade of fresh flowers

By
  • Jabin Botsford | DISPATCH
    Karen McVay cuts flowers for custom orders on her 2-acre Cat Run Ranch Flower Farm near Newark.
  • Jabin Botsford | DISPATCH
    Mark McVay gathers flowers for an order on his flower farm. The McVays sell their flowers at farmers markets and to a florist shop.

September 6, 2013

More than a decade ago, Mark and Karen McVay started cutting bouquets of sunflowers and zinnias from plants around their home to sell at the farmers market in Granville.

Today, the McVays grow 2 acres of specialty cut flowers, especially dahlias, lilies and celosia, at their Cat Run Ranch Flower Farm north of the Licking County village.

They are examples of a branch of the growing-local movement: local flowers. And like others in the movement, they love to share their flowers and expertise.

Specialty flower growers “share their knowledge so freely,” said Mark McVay, whose farm uses mostly organic means for growing flowers. “I think it’s because flower growing is just difficult."

Not only do growers battle diseases and bugs, but they have to handle, store and transport the cut flowers so that each one looks perfect by the time it gets to market, McVay said.

The U.S. cut-flower industry accounts for sales of between $7 billion and $8 billion a year, according to the Society of American Florists.

But specialty cut flowers — mostly garden and wild flowers, plants and shrubs — represent a small but growing fraction of that industry, said Judy Laushman, executive director of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers in Oberlin.

“Our little corner of the industry is doing really well,” said Laushman, who helped start the association 25 years ago.

At that time, growers didn’t have hoop houses to extend growing seasons or farmers markets at which to sell their flowers, she said.

The growers also didn’t have an association to “unite them across the country,” said Steve Adams, who with wife, Gretel Adams, owns Sunny Meadows Flower Farm on the East Side.

Like the McVays, the Adamses started seven years ago by growing sunflowers; theirs were for the Bexley Farmers Market.

These days, the couple and their nine workers send a box truck loaded with flowers to farmers markets, florists and grocery stores from Columbus to Zanesville twice a week.

Yesterday, Steve Adams left for a long day of deliveries with a truck full of white and purple lisianthus, white tuberose, scarlet spined celosia, blushing Cafe au Lait dahlias and other specialty flowers.

Many of the benefits of local, sustainable food production apply to local, sustainably grown flowers, said Lauren Ketcham, communications coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, in an email.

“Conventionally grown flowers can contain chemical pesticides and fungicides, unlike sustainably grown flowers,” Ketcham said.

In addition, locally grown flowers are not shipped long distances. According to Laushman’s association, nearly 80 percent of fresh flowers sold in the United States are grown outside of North America.

That means local flowers are fresher, and local growers can offer varieties that aren’t widely available because they don’t hold up to long-distance shipping.

“Buying flowers from local growers also helps support the local economy and create local jobs,” Ketcham said.

The Adamses have been providing bouquets and arrangements for an increasing number of weddings and other events. Last weekend, the couple and their crew delivered flowers to four weddings.

Yesterday, employee Kumiko Matsuura carefully twisted dainty lisianthus flowers with dusty miller and succulent foliage to make wedding boutonnieres.

Nostalgia is one of the forces driving brides, grooms and others to buy local flowers. “Oh, my grandmother used to grow those flowers,” Gretel Adams hears from some customers.

But the challenges of weather, pests and finding seasonal laborers have been constant for growers.

The Adamses lost most of their sunflowers to a fungus called downy mildew this year. The McVays use biological oils to protect their greenhouse and field flowers from pests.

Jason England uses beneficial insects, such as parasitic wasps, to manage aphids. England and his wife, Sheryl Broz-England, started growing specialty cut flowers on 4 acres borrowed from a friend 16 years ago while they were unmarried college students.

Today, England grows mostly annual and perennial flower and vegetable plants in greenhouses at NightCrawler Gardens in Pleasantville. He also grows pumpkins, fall squash and ornamental gourds in fields.

For the Adamses, success means making a living off their land in an efficient manner and delighting customers. The McVays covet the independence of running a self-sustaining flower farm.

For Joseph P. Schmitt, a specialty flower grower in Madison, Wis., and a member of the specialty cut flower association, success is a way of life.

“Success is having the bills paid, the customers happy and time left over to spend with friends and family,” Schmitt said in answer to an online query by the association.

“Just when endless bad weather, or a cranky old machine or spine begins to drag you down, a crushing hug from a happy bride or applause when you enter a shop slaps you back into shape,” Schmitt said. “At the end of the season, your thoughts are not of quitting but, ‘Will those new seed catalogs ever get here?’  ”

mvanac@dispatch.com

@maryvanac