Enhancing Cut Flower Production and Marketing for Produce Growers: Methods of Diversification Into Proven Niches

Final Report for LNE04-195

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2004: $73,241.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $17,052.00
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Steve Bogash
Penn State Cooperative Extension
Expand All

Project Information

Summary:

This program built on the structure of the Penn State Sunflower cut flower trials program that had been in existence since 1999. During that program a new cut flower grower series was held at the Rock Springs, PA trial grounds and thousands of growers visited the trial plots during the annual summer Ag Progress Days program. It became clear from hundreds of grower inquiries that there was a substantial need for additional information and education for growers to readily begin sustainable cut flower enterprises.

The NE SARE program greatly expanded the cultivar trials program from one site to as many as seven during the 3 growing seasons of the program. During the first year, few growers seemed interested in the program. This changed dramatically in years 2 & 3 as word got out and a partnership with the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (ASCFG) developed. A combination of field trials, publications and educational seminars supported new growers and those enhancing their existing businesses. Well over 200 growers have attended the 3 project connected new cut flower grower sessions with many starting enterprises.

This initial round of funding created the groundwork and grower interest for the second round that began in mid-2007. While variety demonstration and review is still a cornerstone of the program, growers have clearly demonstrated an interest in biorational insect, weed, and disease management. A regular column “Crushed Under My Boot” on weed control now appears in the ASCFG quarterly journal.

Introduction:

This project has three primary areas of research and demonstration; 1) Evaluating new cut flower cultivars against those cultivars considered the industry standards. These cultivars were evaluated by both grower / marketers for marketability and cultural compatibility as well as PSU Cooperative Extension staff for vase life comparisons. 2) All flower cultivars in the trials were harvested for saleable yield data. This yield data has been used to develop economic analysis’s that can be used by growers to create detailed business plans. And, 3) Growers have long expressed a desire for instructions on succession planting a number of popular annual cut flowers. To this end, this project selected a number of the most popular cut flowers for a battery of succession planting trials.

The first and most important question that drives this project as well as many Northeast U.S. niche crop oriented projects is “What makes this crop or marketing opportunity worth investing precious grant monies?” Two simultaneous trends have mushroomed in the last ten years: growth in the demand for local products of all kinds and environmental concerns as they relate to agricultural production practices. In a related but separately funded project, a representative sample of florists were interviewed and surveyed from the Mid-Atlantic marketing area. Roughly defined, this area runs from Richmond, VA to Boston, MA to Columbus, OH. Overwhelmingly, they expressed a desire for more locally produced cut flowers and were very specific about individual flowers. Taken as a whole, there is considerable consumer demand for food and flowers that are both fresh and local.

The principal investigator on this project, Steve Bogash, Penn State Cooperative Extension, Regional Horticulture Educator, had longed fielded information and support requests from growers seeking diversification, new growers with small tracts seeking to run some kind of sustainable agricultural business and plain-folk (Amish, Mennonite and German Baptist) farm wives and daughters exploring a farm-based enterprise that they could run parallel to the primary farm business. This group always begins with the same questions: 1) What are the best varieties to grow? And, 2) Can you make any money growing cut flowers? This project working cooperatively with participating farmers provided a great deal of information towards providing answers to these questions.

Performance Target:

Of the more than 250 cut flower growers that attend the annual Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable conference and hundreds more that attend the cut flower field trials on 5 sites around PA, at least 50% of those attending project activities will utilize the flower cultivars identified in the trials program as superior and increase marketable materials per production area.

Comments: The Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference continues to be an important educational venue for primarily new cut flower growers. The cut flower portion of the conference typically devotes a full day of programming specifically to cut flower production and marketing. Since the inception of this grant, the cut flower program has evolved to two field sites, the PSU Southeast Research and Extension Center and the Franklin County Horticulture Center. In addition, a working relationship with the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (ASCFG) that did not exist before the grant, works to continue the education and enhance the networking for growers once they get started. Closer to 100% of those growers attending this array of programs use the information to select varieties, production practices and marketing avenues.

The same group as identified above will have access to yield data and succession planting protocols which will enable them to develop specific crop budgets in order to improve their management skills and business planning.

Comments: The creation of crop budgets and yield data has presented the greatest challenge in this program since unlike most commodity-like crops, there are few standard practices among cut flower growers. The single greatest variable that has delayed the budgets is plant spacing, but pinching practices also vary widely. The first crop budgets coupled with yield data and cost sensitivity tables are due out in a new Penn State Agricultural Alternatives publication in mid-2008. This publication will be devoted to cut flower production and marketing. While far behind schedule, this has not in any slowed the development of new cut flower enterprises. A combination of information garnered from interviewing growers and grant financed field trials has contributed to these budgets.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Robert Ambrose
  • David Johnson

Research

Materials and methods:

Since growers are always interested in variety selection, this project was built around screening cultivars. The cultivar trials provided a focal point for all other project activities. Field days, seminars and new grower schools built upon the results of the cultivar trials as well as using the trials as an educational site. In the first two years of the project, all three cooperating growers received plants and evaluation materials. Similar plantings were installed at both the Franklin County Horticulture Center (FCHC) and the PSU Southeast Research and Extension Center (SREC). Although the cooperating growers provided good input when it came to evaluating the flowers, those results were often contradictory due to the differences in the growers’ practices and markets. In addition, two groups of Master Gardeners planted the same varieties and provided similar evaluations. In an effort to standardize the research and increase the number of evaluations by the project coordinator, by the 3rd year only the FCHC and SREC sites hosted plant trials. Both the FCHC and SREC sites host numerous field days and open houses which greatly increased grower accessibility to the plantings.

First, the cooperating growers along with seed and plant suppliers provided input regarding what specific plants to include in the trials. Once the plants were delivered and planted, cooperating growers work with the technician and project supervisor in evaluating the flowers for marketability and yield. Only the FCHC site carried out vase life trials since that site had room available to keep flowers in a home similar environment from harvest to failure. All flowers were harvested and reprocessed in a manner similar to a small commercial grower before being placed in a preservative solution for measuring post-harvest lifespan. Since commercial growers market their flowers as rapidly as possible, they deferred on the post-harvest portion of the program.

Part of the overall evaluation was for saleable yield in order to develop production budgets. Lynn Kime, Extension Associate, Penn State Dept of Ag and Rural Soc. used the yield figures along with actual sale prices and production expenses in order to create a growing list of production budgets by specific variety. The first round of cut flower production budgets have been collapsed into 2 main types: Lisianthus, representing higher end annual flowers and sunflowers as the less expensive seed started annual flowers.

Succession planting trial with zinnia, sunflower, celosia, and salvia were implemented at the FCHC site. Seeds for each were planted in plug flats every week from 5 weeks before last frost (May 21) up until mid-June. These were planting in serial plantings in raised-bed plastic as each set of plugs finished. Evaluation of these plantings is based on overlap. How soon is the next planting needed as each harvest proceeds?

Grower outreach activities included field days at the SREC and FCHC sites. Of these, the greatest audience is at the SREC site as this farm has a growing reputation for horticultural trials. The last week of July is ornamental field day week at SREC with field days and educational programs on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. In 2005 and 2006, the project coordinator participated with the ASCFG in full day new grower schools in Lancaster, PA and San Jose, CA respectively. In addition, the day-long cut flower session at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable conference features new grower / getting started topics in the morning with advanced training topics in the afternoon. Another aspect of the partnership with ASCFG has been the participation in their summer field days at farms throughout the Mid-Atlantic.

Field days, variety trials, new grower schools and seminars have all worked well. They have attracted sizeable audiences and judging from post program responses, they have largely filled a void in cut flower support and programming. The publications that have been published and distributed have met with good reviews and are viewed and downloaded from the regional horticulture team website regularly. Unfortunately, two of the three original grower cooperators farms were too far from the project coordinators home base for sufficient, regular, on-site coordination. In addition, the often conflicting cultivar evaluations from those same growers made the summarization of findings challenging.

Partnerships and cooperation with the ASCFG has been an enormous asset to the program. ASCFG members have been interviewed regularly for program publications. These same members have reviewed many of these publications prior to publishing. They also provided substantial input into the proposal that became part two of this project that started in mid-2007. Biorational pest control (weeds, insects and diseases) are a major area of interest in addition to the variety trials program.

Originally in 2004, we tried to create a separate summer cut flower field day and drew 30-40 growers to the SREC trials. The FCHC trials drew less than 15 growers that same year. Beginning in 2005, the cut flower trial became a separate portion of the annual ornamental field day in late July. This dual draw (cut flowers and annual flowers) created a synergy that has expanded both audiences. Discussions with growers during the field day again indicated that biorational pest control was a major issue on their farms.

Research results and discussion:

Although the educational program and field trials took place pretty much as planned, the response from growers in year 1 (2004) was far less than anticipated. This was followed by a drastic increase in grower interest and program participation in years 2 & 3 (2005 and 2006). Growers that participated in program activities varied from experienced cut flower growers checking out the variety trials and exploring pest management methods to clientele with little farm experience exploring cut flower growing as a new business enterprise. The original proposal was based on our experience with growers that had been funneled through the Penn State Flower Trials at the Rock Springs, PA site. It turned out that we had largely satisfied this groups educational needs in terms of getting started in cut flower production. They now required substantially higher levels of training and information.

Partnering with the ASCFG as they prepared for a Lancaster, PA based annual conference proved to be the cure for the program. This program in September 2005 provided the audience, farm tours and educational sessions that exposed a much larger Northeast U.S. audience to the Penn State cut flower program. The other major correction was coupling the vegetative ornamental trials at SREC with the cut flower program. Unexpectedly, these two audiences had a great deal of overlap in the way of interest in varieties and production practices.

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

This program connected with growers in three ways: 1) Grower field days at PSU research and education farms and ASCFG regional meetings. 2) Seminar programs at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference, New Jersey Vegetable Conference, Maryland Greenhouse Growers Meeting, and ASCFG annual conference. And, 3) Printed publications on variety selection, bouquet making, and weed control delivered to growers at meetings and available at the Capital Region Horticulture Team website.

Program publications:

-Making it with Summer Bouquets: Web and print fact sheet providing information to get growers started in creating their own farmers market style bouquets. This publication was created through extensive interviews with experienced growers. 170 hard copies distributed and 358 downloads from the website.

-Great Cut Flowers from your Home Garden: Web and print fact sheet providing information for small growers as they are just getting started. 540 hard copies distributed and 733 downloads from the website.

-Selecting and Growing Zinnias for Cut Flowers: Web and print fact sheet based on evaluations from growers and field trials. 170 hard copies and 412 downloads from website.

-Selecting and Growing Sunflowers for Cut Flowers: web and print fact sheet based on evaluation from growers and field trials. 360 hard copies and 791 downloads from website.

-Agricultural Alternatives: Cut Flowers: web and print fact sheet due out in Summer 2008. This is a primer on getting started in cut flower production including production budgets and pricing sensitivity tables.

Educational programs:

-Cut Flower New Growers School: This one day program was held at the ASCFG annual meetings in both Lancaster, PA (2005) and San Jose, CA (2006). Over 120 growers attended each program.

-Cut Flower New Growers Session, Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference: As part of the 3-day program at this Hershey, PA based program, this session runs the entire day and focuses largely on issues and practices relating to new growers. 2004, 2005 and 2006. Audiences vary widely from 55 – 150 plus per session.

-SREC Growers Field Day: This annual field day focuses on the trial plantings at the research farm. 54 growers attended in 2005 and 78 in 2006.

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Farmer Adoption

Results of the survey of growers in early 2007 assessing program impact:

About the survey: An impact-oriented survey was mailed to 145 growers on the PSU Cut Flower mailing list in January 2007. A single reminder card was sent 2 weeks after the survey was mailed. 59 surveys were returned by 2/15/07, the closing date for the survey. Growers on this list had either attended educational programs, or requested cut flower publications. Questions were both open-ended and scaled in a 1-7 response. Below is a summary of their responses:

1) Did you attend a cut flower educational workshop, field day or conference? (n=59)
Yes=53 no=6

2) Based on information received at that program did you (n=59):
-Begin or expand a cut flower enterprise: 47
-Use information received at that meeting to select varieties: 59
-Use information received at that meeting to make pest management decisions: 59
-Develop or improve your marketing of cut flowers: 57

3) Rate the usefulness of the PSU / NE SARE publications you received at any educational programs. (n=59)(1-7 scale, 1=not useful, 4=somewhat useful, 7=very useful):
1-3: 3 4-5: 9 6-7: 47

4) Did you attend any of the Field days at the Penn State Southeast Research and Extension Center (SREC) near Lancaster, PA? (n=59)
Yes: 52 No=7
If yes, please answer 4a, b, and c.

4a) Have you adopted any of the flower varieties trialed at SREC?
Yes= 52 No=0

4b) Have you adopted any of the pest management practices demonstrated at SREC?
Yes=38 No=14

4c) Please rate how valuable the field trials at SREC are to you in selecting new flower varieties (1-7 scale with 1 not valuable, 4 somewhat valuable and 7 very valuable).
1-3=3 4-5=17 6-7=39

5) How important are field trials in your selection of new flower varieties? (n=59) (1-7 scale with 1 not valuable, 4 somewhat valuable and 7 very valuable).
1-3=0 4-5=19 6-7=33

6) Please indicate what type of agricultural enterprise you presently operate:
a. New cut flower business 29
b. Vegetable production and marketing 22
c. Small fruit production and marketing 18
d. Tree fruit production and marketing 4
e. Other crop focused business 7
f. Livestock operation (dairy, cattle, poultry…) 8
g. Ornamental greenhouse 33
h. Other agricultural enterprise 12
Note: total over 59 since many operate more than one agricultural enterprise.

7) What are your challenges in growing and marketing cut flowers? (mark all that apply).
Weeds 51
Diseases 36
Insects 49
Labor 57
Marketing 29

8) What portion of your farm-based income comes from growing and marketing cut flowers? (n=56)
1-20%=7 21-40%=22 41-60%=21 61-80%=3 81-100%=3

The survey indicates that this program through its many activities, cooperation with growers and with ASCFG contributed to many areas of agricultural sustainability including new enterprise startup, flower variety selection, pest management and marketing.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

Program participants have clearly indicated that more work is needed in organic and biorational pest control. This is reflected in the work presently going on in part 2 of this program. New growers specifically often request training in flower arranging and bouquet making. While we often offer short sessions attached to current educational programs, they have requested more, in depth programming.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.