Columbus region flower farms happy to delight the pandemic-weary

Amy Braunschweiger
Steve and Gretel Adams at Sunny Meadows Flower Farms.

After being stuck at home for weeks, visiting Sunny Meadows Flower Farm is sheer relief. The air smells of mud and vegetation, with undertones of floral. The sun is warm, and two dogs are lounging in front of the garage, one of whom wants to be your best friend. 

Then there are the flowers, rows and rows of them in brilliant pinks, oranges and reds. They grow inside one of the seven greenhouses and two hoop houses necessary to protect early blooms from Ohio’s finicky spring weather. It’s the week before Mother’s Day—the busiest weekend of the year for many in the flower business—and all seven of the farm’s employees are harvesting flowers like mad, while wearing masks and standing six feet apart. 

The Columbus farm, owned by Gretel and Steve Adams, grows tens of thousands of flowers across multiple fields. Right now, the star flower of the spring is in bloom—the ranunculus, whose rows of impossibly close petals lead people to mistake it for a rose. The Adams grow it in multitudes of colors, including a vampiric red-black. Already harvested are tulips with gigantic buds that resemble Venus fly traps—“it looks like it could eat you,” an employee says—but that will open to reveal delicately fringed yellow and orange petals. Poppies with crepe paper-like petals sit in buckets next to a flower that literally shimmers, its pinky-white petals reflecting the light.

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All of these flowers will be shipped out, quite possibly to someone’s mom, by the weekend, the Adamses hope.

Industry collapse

When the coronavirus pandemic unfurled in early March, Ohio’s flower farmers didn’t know what to expect. 

As local farmers started harvesting their earliest spring blooms, global flower sales, a multibillion dollar industry, were tanking due to the coronavirus. Blame closed borders, canceled weddings, shuttered florists’ shops, the list goes on. The end result: From the Netherlands to India, images emerged of heaping piles of unsold flowers, bulldozed. The waste could make you cry. 

Today’s flower industry is a feat of industrialization. Typically, 80 percent of cut flowers sold in the U.S. are grown internationally, primarily in Colombia and Ecuador, according to the Society of American Florists. Flowers harvested in South America are boxed up, loaded into refrigerated vans, driven to airports, loaded onto refrigerated jets, and flown to Miami. From there, flowers are distributed across the country to wholesalers, who sell them to local florists. And the 20 percent of flowers grown in the U.S.? More than three-fourths of them come from California. The crash in flower sales this spring devastated these large-scale flower farms serving big markets. 

But that doesn’t mean all demand for flowers disappeared, or that sales completely stopped. 

It turns out, people spending nearly every hour of every day at home really want a cheerful flower arrangement in their kitchen, or a bouquet to brighten what is now their combo dining room-office-school room. And the Central Ohio flower farmers who could quickly reach these potential buyers—either by pivoting their distribution models or by re-engaging current local customers—are seeing steady sales in this Covid-19 spring. 

Buying locally grown flowers has already been a growing trend, mirroring the burgeoning slow food movement that brought Columbus farm-to-table restaurants serving local arugula and free-range chicken. It attracts people who worry about their carbon footprint and who want to support local businesses, says Seattle-based Debra Prinzing, who founded Slow Flowers, an online directory of American and Canadian flower growers with 700 members. “People want to buy from someone they know, and these farmers know how to tell their stories on social media and put their face behind the flowers,” she says. 

Accordingly, the number of U.S. cut flower producers with sales of $100,000 or more jumped 20 percent to 532 farms in 2018 from 444 in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This, of course, excludes many smaller farms. 

Yet even with their growing popularity, operating in the face of a pandemic has been challenging for many Central Ohio flower farmers.

Internet sales blossom

Sunny Meadows entered the Covid-19 spring with dread. Weddings were canceled and wholesalers closed, which accounted for 50 percent of the southeast Franklin County farm’s 2019 annual revenue of $716,000. 

The Adamses slashed their expenses, turning off the greenhouse heaters and laying off staff. They worried they’d have to close the farm, thinking agriculture exemptions to the shut-down order pertained only to farms producing food. But after spending days on the phone with lawyers and the state Department of Agriculture, they learned Ohio had created an exemption for horticulture, under which they’d still need to keep operations to a minimum. 

The Adamses had another worry, too. Last year, Gretel developed Lyme disease, leaving her exhausted and immuno-compromised and placing her at high-risk of developing a severe case of Covid-19 should she contract it. Keeping people—and the virus—away from the farm was essential. Accordingly, they decided to keep their farm stand closed. 

In early April, “we had three guys that remained, and they were coming in seven days a week just trying to pick tulips and keep the farm afloat,” Gretel says. They had 45,000 tulips in the ground, but unfortunately tulips have a low profit margin, as they grow from more-expensive bulbs as opposed to seeds. 

The Adamses needed new ways to reach potential buyers, and fast. They already had an online store to sell dahlia tubers during winter. They decided to put all their product online. “We were lucky,” Gretel says. “We know a lot of farms that don’t have a website and were not set up for online sales. Because we had that platform, it made us more ready to make the necessary pivot to make [sales] happen.” 

Sunny Meadows already shipped to florists; they decided to spend the money and ship to retail customers as well. 

The Adamses brainstormed new ways to sell flowers online. For florists, they created a “grower’s choice box,” filled with whatever their skeleton crew could harvest, but all in the same color. They didn’t have time to give florists anything more specific. For retail customers, they created a “spring at your door” package, shipping a box of flowers a week for six weeks. They grew peonies for weddings, but as the wedding business disappeared, they created a four-week peony subscription as well. 

Their fast changes worked. “New subscriptions made up for the orders—weddings, showers, graduations— we normally have during the spring,” Gretel says. 

But it wasn’t easy. “I felt like every day was a week. Why am I so tired, it’s Wednesday?” Gretel says.

Slowly, beginning with Easter orders for churches placed by florists, and then leading into Mother’s Day, the Adamses saw their business revive.

The couple built Sunny Meadows selling flowers through farmers markets and grocery stores. And in late April, farmers markets came back into play. But so far this year, Sunny Meadows only sells through Worthington Farmers Market, which is now a drive-through. While other farmers markets are also practicing social distancing, the Adamses consider Worthington’s the safest because customers pay over the phone, and volunteers work their booth. So far, every week, all of their allotted bouquets sold out. 

Grocery store sales with Giant Eagle’s Market Districts have bounced back, too. In the early weeks of the pandemic, overwhelmed grocery stores focused on keeping basic items in stock. “They shut down the whole floral department,” Gretel says. That hurt, also because it was a two-year process of meetings and sales pitches to get their product into Giant Eagle. Now, Sunny Meadows is delivering to local Market Districts on Fridays, and they use social media to direct customers there. They recently began delivering twice weekly to the Grandview and Kingsdale stores because they “were selling out of our flowers within hours.”

On May 2, Sunny Meadows learned it had received a Paycheck Protection Program stimulus loan. The Adamses quickly rehired workers, bringing the employee count up to seven. More workers were slated to start later in the month. 

Everything came together on Mother’s Day. True, they ended up $300 below projected sales. But that’s “not bad compared to what we thought was going to happen when Covid started,” Gretel says. Especially keeping in mind the extra supplies they bought to ship flowers. 

Sunny Meadows has also been doing more direct-to-florist sales, as the wholesalers that florists depend on are closed. “It made local flowers more important in the whole scheme of things,” Gretel says.

Great time to start a business

Some cut flower farms want help with their distribution—they’d rather spend the time farming than selling. Which is why the Ohio Cut Flower Collective, based near Mansfield, was formed. Founder Connie Homerick never anticipated launching her business in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. But that’s what she did when the collective opened on April 22. 

“I didn’t know what to expect. You’re starting a business, and then this Covid-19 crap happened, and I was like, oh my god, what are you doing? I seriously considered waiting until next year.” But she didn’t. She knew one of her flower farmers specialized in weddings, and another had a small retail shop, which was closed. “These guys are counting on me. I have to at least try,” she thought. 

Here’s how the collective operates: Homerick works with four local farms, including Mohican Flower Farm, Old Slate Farm in Mount Vernon, White Walnut Flowers in Worthington, and Sunny Meadows. She plans to add more farms next year. The farmers tell her what flowers they have available to sell, and Homerick puts this information on the collective’s website. Florists then order the flowers, and the collective delivers them, taking a 30 percent commission. 

The first two weeks of business were slow. “Nobody was going to order flowers,” Homerick feared. “There’s no weddings, barely any funerals. I’d been reading that hospitals and nursing homes aren’t allowing flowers to be delivered.” 

But in their third week, heading toward Mother’s Day, that changed. She could barely keep up with orders. They sold out of nearly everything. 

Homerick fell for local flowers when she owned a flower shop. “Occasionally a farmer would stop in and want to sell sunflowers and a few dahlias, and I’d find it fascinating,” she says. International farms specialize in roses, carnations, gerbera daisies, and others bred to survive without water for a number of days after harvesting. She enjoyed the different colors and varieties local farmers grew, as well as the more sustainable farming practices many employed. 

The fallout from the pandemic could actually benefit Ohio farmers, she thinks. “The florists that wouldn’t traditionally source locally will almost be forced to start sourcing locally because they need the product,” she says. “It’ll bring more light to the cut flower industry in Ohio.” 

When it comes to making money, Homerick, who is laid off from her job as a school nurse, would be ecstatic if the collective grossed $50,000 during Ohio’s 28-week growing season. And if they hit $150,000? “I’d say, oh my god, we did it!”

Bringing spring home

When florists buy from small farms, as opposed to a wholesaler or a middleman, it doesn’t matter if the supply chain falls apart, says Mike Zawislak, who together with his wife Elizabeth owns Bluegreen Gardens, a flower farm in Lancaster. “We’re direct to consumer. And hopefully people can see us as more trustworthy and more reliable at this time because we can have direct communication with them.” 

Like other flower farms, Bluegreen Gardens, which generated $65,000 in revenue in 2019, works to differentiate what it grows from the flowers that come in from South America. “Our zinnias aren’t the normal colors or sizes that people will see typically or plant in their yards,” Mike says. 

They also grow flowers in a greater array of colors, including one of Elizabeth’s favorites, an orange-peachy colored dahlia. The farm’s dinner plate dahlias, which reach 8 to 10 inches across, are show-stoppers at weddings. Because dahlias don’t ship well—they won’t open if you harvest them in bud form, and they need to be in water—they’ve become a specialty of local growers. 

Then there’s the fragrance. Many of the flowers shipped from overseas are bred to survive, not for their smell. Elizabeth is taken with sweet peas—“They smell fresh, like spring, so delicate,” she says. “It’s a very special thing.” 

Still, Bluegreen Gardens’ sales are down this spring, mainly because weddings drove 30 percent of its 2019 revenue. They did more than just arrange the flowers. “That’s face-to-face consultations, everything is customized to their needs, and we do set-up and tear-down at the venue,” Elizabeth says. Also, unlike last year, they haven’t held any workshops on their farm.

But this past winter brought another big change for the Zawislaks—their son, James, was born, leaving Elizabeth little extra time. Accordingly, they planned to scale back this year’s wedding work, hoping to make up some of the lost revenue through their bouquet home delivery subscriptions. This year they offered two spring CSAs (the subscriptions sold directly to consumers are called CSAs, which stands for community supported agriculture) instead of one, and they doubled the number of potential members. 

Luckily, this plan also served the Zawislaks well when Covid-19 struck. 

Surprisingly, the CSAs sold out faster this year than last year, even with the extra offerings. “We thought people might be saving their money if they were out of work, or not sure about the future,” Elizabeth wrote in an email. “We have found that people are very excited about the flowers and the fact that we deliver them to their homes.” She also thinks most of her customers are still working, but just from home, and they “have the income to be able to brighten up their space.”

Solid support

Known for its annual Peony Festival, which drew 7,000 people last year, Red Twig Farms grew its businesses by establishing strong relationships with loyal customers. 

Red Twig sells almost all its flowers to people who arrange them in vases for kitchen tables—as opposed to wholesalers, florists or brides. It’s best known for its peonies, perennials that have become throwback darlings with their tight buds that explode into full, fragrant, round flowers in late May. Although the Licking County farm grows decorative branches like willow and started growing some other flowers, too, it chose to focus on peonies because “it was a craze,” says Lindsey McCullough, who owns the farm with her husband, Josh. Also, peonies are hardy and deer resistant. 

Red Twig’s loyal customer base has kept the company’s spring revenue on track with last year’s, despite the Covid disruption. But back in March, Lindsey McCullough was worried. Specifically, Red Twig’s farm store was closed because of the pandemic and they had 15,000 tulips that would soon need to be harvested and sold. 

McCullough gambled on the idea that people might donate the flowers. She put an offer up on Instagram—if people bought 10-stem bouquets for $10, the farm would donate them to local first responders. “Within an hour I had 100 orders,” she says. The farm delivered 1,011 bouquets to first responders, from hospital workers to police to grocery store employees. 

Peony sales start in January, when McCullough posts information online for pre-orders. The flowers go for between $1 and $3 a stem. Sales throughout the winter and spring were strong, she says, and most were sold by the time the stay-at-home orders hit. On Saturday, April 25, Red Twig announced its annual Peony Festival was canceled. That Sunday, they sold the last 2,000 to 3,000 available peony stems, for a total of 38,000 sold, in line with last year.

This was Red Twig’s first year offering shipping, and 25 percent of those sales will leave Columbus. “And that’s all new,” McCullough says. Fully half of the orders they made will be shipped. 

“We always say our customers are what gets us through. They’re the ones who support our farm,” McCullough says. “Without them, we’d be like many other farms, trying to figure out new avenues.” 

At the mercy of the weather

Many people who grow flowers also farm vegetables and fruits as well. 

Steve Anderson, of Anderson Orchard in Pickerington, is known around town as one of the first farmers to sell flowers, which he began growing in the 1990s. “We’re a good local farm. We grow apples, quince, blueberries, and pretty much any garden vegetable you can think of,” Anderson says. 

When he decided to plant flowers, he started with sunflowers, “because you could plant early, it wasn’t expensive, and it wasn’t a huge investment.” Every year, the farm kept selling more, says Anderson, who runs the farm with his wife and two adult children. Now, three acres of his farm are dedicated to cut flowers, while five acres go to vegetables and the rest stays fallow as an unofficial monarch sanctuary.

Over the years, Anderson tried planting different types of flowers. “I looked and saw what I could grow and what I thought would be pretty. We tried a lot of things,” he says. They grew tulips, which were too expensive, but zinnias and peonies have been very popular. 

When it comes to flowers, Anderson focuses on quality. “Florists want cheap stuff out of Washington and Oregon for everyday, but if you have a wedding you want stuff that’s really nice,” he says. And those better-quality flowers are grown locally, he contends. 

Over his years of experience, Anderson has noted various trends in selling flowers. “In good economic times, they make better money than vegetables,” he says. “This year, I’m afraid people will be looking for food more than flowers.” 

His flower-selling season begins in late May with peonies, which this year were seven to 10 days behind because of the unseasonably cold spring. He sells the flowers and his crops through farmers markets, and has just begun working with the Worthington and Clintonville farmers markets. He also plans to sell with the Dublin and Short North farmers markets when they open. 

For all flower farmers, weather is a top worry. This spring has been cold and wet, and last spring was Ohio’s wettest on record. “It’s really hurt us,” Anderson says. “We lose things every year. If you’re a small farmer, there’s never a year when you don’t lose part of your crop. And when it’s wet like that, you just lose a lot more.”

That meant last year, Anderson lost 90 percent of his sunflower crop. “We just basically did not have them,” he says. 

Anderson makes sure he can bounce back, though, by planting a variety of vegetables and flowers, and by not going far into debt when it comes to buying the seeds and other supplies. 

Not surprisingly, every farmer interviewed for this story was worried about this spring’s cold and rain. A late frost can take out peony buds, and overly wet springs bring a greater chance of disease and fungus that threaten flowers. Last spring, the repeated freezing and thawing of the ground pushed plants up and left roots exposed—and the next frost killed them. This May, farmers used fabric or plastic to cover delicate flowers not safe even inside a greenhouse. 

“We try to prevent everything we can,” says McCullough from Red Twig, “but you just don’t know. It’s Ohio weather. Is it too warm? Is there rain? We just won’t know.” 

Now, the question for many local flower farms is what happens for the rest of the summer?

Across Ohio businesses are reopening, wholesalers and florists included. Mother’s Day is past. It felt like every day this spring brought some type of change, and summer may be no different. What will a summer with the coronavirus look like? What will unemployment look like? If people continue losing their jobs, will they still buy flowers? 

Studio Artiflora, which sells floral designs from a century-old home in Granville, never closed. Its owner, Evelyn Frolking, focuses on finding flowers locally, and her main source is Sunny Meadows. Her spring revenue is higher this year than last. “Most people are saying they’re so glad I’m operating,” she says. “Not only are they sending flowers, but they’re spending more.”

“Hopefully people get flowers, realize how much joy they bring and want to have them in their houses,” Gretel Adams of Sunny Meadows says. “If you’re going to be in the house all day, you have something to brighten the space. Hopefully people will keep buying flowers for themselves.” 

And maybe they’ll keep buying local. 

Amy Braunschweiger is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.