Enhancing cut flower production and marketing for produce growers: Methods of diversification into proven niches, part II

Final Report for LNE07-251

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2007: $85,900.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Steve Bogash
Penn State Cooperative Extension
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Project Information

Summary:

Over three years, at least 223 cut flower growers and potential new cut flower growers attended field trials and educational programs relating to this project. During this period seven growers began new cut flower-based operations. All seven of these new operations were additions to existing vegetable / small fruit / tree fruit businesses. Two of these businesses sell through farmers markets and the other five through on-farm stands.

Of those 223 attending this program’s cut flower programming, 48 (22%) were seeking to diversify an existing farm business, 105 (47%) were interested in starting a new venture from scratch and 39 (17%) were presently growing cut flowers and seeking continuing education based around program activities.

While assisting new growers to begin growing and marketing cut flowers was originally a major focus of this program, clientele needs for pest management information (specifically weed and disease control) drove much of the educational programming and applied research. 100% of program participants indicated that variety-based information was a major driver to participate in program outreach activities. Weed control and pest management information was important to another 96% of program participants.

Surveys of cut flower producers at meetings as well as informal conversations with marketers indicated a need for educational programming on bouquet making and floral design. Over the three years of this program, 127 flower growers participated in evening seminars at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference on floral design.

Interest in new cut flowers businesses rapidly waned in the wake of the economic downturn in 2008. Project focuses turned to supporting those growers continuing to create sustainable cut flower business operations.

Introduction:

This project has three primary areas: research, demonstration and grower support. All research that fell under this project’s umbrella was of a nature that could be directly applied to grower operations. Earlier needs analysis had indicated that variety trials, weed management and disease management were areas that growers considered to be of paramount importance. New growers required demonstration-oriented activities in drip irrigation, planting densities and hands-on floral design. Grower support was and continues to be through on-farm one-on-one meetings, telephone Q&A support and grower seminars.
Variety trials consisted of evaluation of new cut flower cultivars comparing them with those cultivars considered to be the industry standards. Also included in these cultivar evaluations were “older, heirloom-type” cultivars since many newer growers are unaware of these options. These cultivars were evaluated by both grower / marketers for marketability and cultural compatibility as well as by PSU Cooperative Extension research staff for vase life comparisons. Other applied research under this project were extensive trials on sunflowers and zinnias doing in-field comparisons of biorational and conventional pest management strategies and techniques.

Demonstration activities were focused at the Penn State Southeast Research and Extension Center / SEAREC (aka: Landisville Farm) and on two grower-cooperator farms. The grower cooperators received a representative sampling of the variety trials plants in order to get feedback on their performance. At SEAREC, various demonstrations were developed around planting densities in sunflowers and the utilization of colored dyes in drip irrigation demonstrations. At the annual Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference held in Hershey, PA, we held a hands-on floral design class. This well attended class was led by a farmers marketer, a wedding florist and country florist in order to share their wide array of styles.

New growers have a wide range of requirements to successfully get started growing and marketing. By providing direct one-on-one technical support as well as referrals to business management support specialists from within Cooperative Extension and associated agencies, those growers received the resources they required to meet their goals. Through earlier new grower programs such as the USDA RDA funded program “Income Opportunities for Rural Areas” program, it was clear that startup operations require one-on-one support in order to develop early successes.

Performance Target:

Performance Target: Of the more than 180 cut flower growers that attend the annual Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference, cut flower field days and ASCFG regional meetings, at least 50% will utilize cut flower cultivars and pest management practices identified in this program as superior. This same group will increase marketable material per production area by 25% and increase pest management using biorational materials and techniques by 50%.

Actual performance this target: The annual survey held at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference, Cut Flower sessions indicates that 99% (n=220 of 223 responses) of participating growers use research results to adopt new cultivars and improve pest management practices. Due to the constantly shifting production area(s) of the growers, increase in marketable material per production area was very difficult to measure. However, 100% of respondents (n=223) believe that their marketable flowers increased substantially due to participation this program and cooperating related programs. The introduction of biorational and biological disease management materials has been an important focus of this program. At the beginning of the program, virtually no growers were using materials that fit into the category of biological, some were using organic practices, but many of these fall outside of this ‘bio’ concept. As of the 2010 annual conference, over 75% (n=68) of program participants had adopted at least one biological material / practice.

Performance Target: Of the 20 that begin developing business models, 8 will actually start cut flower-based enterprises in 2008 and 2009.
Actual performance this target: In 2007 and 2008, Penn State Cooperative Extension lost the two regional support positions primarily responsible for new enterprise business development. One of these positions (business planning) was based in the same office as the PI on this project and the other (enterprise analysis) was based in adjoining county. In spite of these changes, 7 new cut flower operations developed during this period working with the PI. They did not develop the complete business and marketing plans as was specified in the original proposal, but they have developed growing businesses. It will be interesting to follow these operations and the many other entrepreneurs that have been sitting on the fence as the U.S. economy recovers.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Robert Black
  • Jennifer Martin

Research

Materials and methods:

In an earlier program “Income Opportunities for Rural Areas” that has been noted in the original proposal and earlier in the report, a traditional Cooperative Extension model proved very successful in both encouraging the new businesses to develop and supporting existing businesses in the direction of increased sustainability. This model includes: 1) Applied research and demonstration activities. 2) Presentations at grower meetings. 3) Publications in printed media. 4) Publications with greater longevity than media articles such as ‘fact sheets’. And, 5) One-on-one meetings with growers.

-Applied research and demonstration activities: At the beginning of this project there were virtually no cut flower oriented variety trials or pest management research. We had several years of demonstration plantings of cut flowers at our Ag Progress Days site which attracted nearly 20,000 growers during its 3-day run in Mid-August. From the numbers of farmers that visited this single site in among many 100’s of other demonstrations, we knew that there was interest in cut flowers as a business proposition. What the NE SARE project provided was funding to establish real cut flower variety evaluations coupled with grower field days at a site closer to the primary produce production region, just outside Lancaster, PA.

In responding to growers’ needs based on survey analysis, we created two parallel programs. One program focused on screening cut flower varieties and creating specific grower recommendations based on those screens. These were installed at the SEAREC and at the Franklin County Horticulture Education Center where the PI is housed. Additional plantings were provided to the two cooperating growers in order to elicit feedback on the marketability of the same varieties that were being evaluated for yield, pest management, and post harvest vase life.

Flower varieties for the cultivar trials were selected by using those considered grower standards plus new varieties as submitted by seed companies and flower breeders. Included in these replicated trials were Helianthus, Zinnia, Salvia, Bracteantha, Matthiola, Lisianthus, Celosia, Calendula, Ageratum, Buddleia, Amaranthus, Cosmos, Gomphena, Achillea plus many others that were included in a separate three year perennial cut flower trial.

Many clients coming into this program were either traditional vegetable / small fruit growers or new entrepreneurs seeking to build sustainable agricultural businesses. Since cut flowers draw so many pollinators and other beneficial insects, determining methods to control insect pests such as Japanese beetles, Thrips and Aphids while doing minimal damage to beneficial pests created a need for a separate trial using only biorational pesticides.

Presentations at grower meetings: Grower meetings are a traditional and effective method to share project results and educate growers about applied research and related information. Numerous presentation were provided at growers meetings in PA, MD, WV, NY and CA.

Publications in printed media: One way to drive growers and potential growers to meetings and field days is through the preparation and publication of news articles in popular media. Outlets including local and regional newspapers, grower newsletters (E and printed), and the ASCFG (Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers) journal were used to reach growers with project information.

Fact sheets: While news articles work well to attract growers to meetings and alert readers as to opportunities, fact sheets have longevity, so are better able to educate growers long term. Several fact sheets were created in this program covering Sunflowers, weed control, bouquet making and others still in the que to be created based on program data.

One-on-one growers meetings: The only way to assist many growers that are truly new to growing and marketing cut flowers (or any new commodity) is through individual on-farm support. As growers indicated a desire to explore the growing and marketing of cut flowers, they were first provided what we in my office have named ‘the starter package’ then provided follow up support as the grower indicated need. Each grower demonstrated very different needs in this process. Some required nothing more than fact sheets and telephone support, others required substantial on-farm assistance in everything from growing plants to installing irrigation to locating suitable markets.

Together these five activities describe the methods used to encourage new cut flower growers and support those seeking to create more sustainable enterprises. While the flower variety and pest management trials have concluded, all of the aspects remain and will continue based on clientele demand.

Research results and discussion:

While the project began as planned, the loss of two colleagues that were originally to do business planning and enterprise analysis certainly had an impact on the type and depth of clientele support we could provide. The establishment of a strong partnership with the ASFCG (Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers) as well as the ongoing cooperation with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension New Grower program cushioned the loss of internal support. Through these cooperative efforts plus the more local one-on-one effort, the PI worked to encourage the success of new growers and improve the skills of existing participating growers.

The establishment of the now annual cut flower sessions at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable conference held in Hershey PA along with the associated floral design series is a special high point for this program. Through this annual program, growers and potential new growers can meet and network as well as get updates on the latest varieties and research. In addition, the ASCFG holds an annual one-day new grower course that the PI often participates in. One recent disappointment very likely resulting from our economic crisis has been the need to cancel both the 2009 and 2010 three-day new cut flower grower course that was to be held in MD due to very low interest. We will continue to try to develop this meeting in the future.

While the project attracted the numbers of participants necessary and was able to have significant impact on improving the practices of existing growers, fewer new growers than originally planned sought start-up assistance. This is likely another direct result of the recent economic situation. In conversations and meetings with existing growers, it is apparent that cut flower sales were impacted negatively by the economy.

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

Outreach is one of the strongest aspects of this program and it is likely why this program will have impact far beyond the end of direct funding. Outreach activities fell into five primary categories: 1) Field Days, 2) Conferences, 3) Presentations at grower meetings, 4) Articles in media and 5) Fact sheets. Together the outreach activities coupled with the applied research and demonstration at SEAREC, the Franklin County Horticultural Education Center and grower / cooperator farms created a program that provided effective support to growers.

Field days were held annually at PSU SEAREC and the Franklin County Horticultural Education Center. These were held as part of the Flower Trial field day held at the end of July and the Vegetable Growers Twilight meeting(s) and Field days held in early August. These meetings attract hundreds of growers annually and provide an opportunity for growers to see the research first hand. The Flower Trial Field days have been consistently rated by participating growers as the most important trial of its kind East of Chicago.

The establishment of a regular annual cut flower session at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference along with the hands-on floral design class will be one of the legacies of this program. The PI is the organizer of this annual session that typically attracts 70-90 growers. This program in addition to cooperative programs with the ASCFG and University of MD Cooperative Extension will continue to support new grower startup and existing grower continuing education needs.

The PI is regularly invited to present at grower meetings on various cut flower topics. Attached are several examples of power point presentations that were created for these meetings.

While it is impossible to determine the effectiveness of media articles, they do serve to market programs and grower numbers at all programs except for the recent multi-day new grower meetings have been strong. Examples of some of those articles are attached.

Fact sheets have the advantage of longevity over media articles. We’ve used not only fact sheets that were developed specifically in this program, but other selected Land Grant University publications to create a “New Cut Flower Grower” package that goes to growers calling in and expressing interest in this type of business. Several have been created from applied research in this program and other titles are in the works as PI time allows.

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

The number one most important outcome of this program is the ongoing educational effort that has resulted from the partnerships developed through this program. In the course of creating the many seminars, conferences, twilight meetings and field days, a strong and ongoing partnership has developed with the ASCFG and University of MD Cooperative Extension. This cooperation will continue to encourage the development of grower short courses, future field days and publications. These programs will support the continuing education of existing cut flower growers as well as provide avenues for new growers to enter the business with a greater chance of success.

While many more growers have received information and support from this project, we can directly measure the program’s impact on the 223 survey respondents. 100% of these participants have adopted new cultivars based on program outreach activities.

Articles and power points uploaded in the materials and methods section contain the results of much of the research that dominated this programs outreach and demonstration efforts.

Economic Analysis

While this project must have increased farm income among those participating since seven new cut flower operations were started and many others were supported by project research, we did not directly measure economic analysis.

Farmer Adoption

As discussed in other sections of this report, the ongoing cut flower sessions and floral design seminars at the annual Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference will continue to support the educational needs of existing cut flower growers as well as encourage new grower startups. This conference helps to support the network of growers as well as provide an avenue for the latest research to be discussed with growers. Similar cooperating programs now exist within ASCFG and University of MD Cooperative Extension.

While seven growers have worked with the project PI to develop new operations, many more growers have requested information and appear to be in the development stage of their businesses. Cut flower operations have the ability to provide additional income to farm market-based enterprises and are often started as an adjunct to these types of operations. In many farm market businesses, the cut flower component is started by younger members that would otherwise be just considered labor. This aspect encourages their early interest in the overall operation, thus increasing the likelihood of multi-generational businesses.

The 223 growers that completed surveys at the 2007-09 Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference (MAFVC) cut flower sessions have indicated 100% adoption of varieties recommended as superior in trials programs presented at the conference. Another 47% have adopted weed control measures from this educational programming.

One of this programs applied research focus areas has been evaluating biological and biorational insect and disease management practices. This is especially important with cut flowers as compared to other horticultural crops as they attract so many pollinators and other beneficial insects. 98% of program participants indicated in the 2009 MAFVC that they had adopted at least some biorational pest management practices in order to reduce negative impacts on beneficial insects. Research into biorational and biological pest control continues under the project PI on tomatoes. Much of this work is directly transferable to other crops.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

A needs analysis of growers participating in the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference Cut Flower sessions was held annually during this program. In order of their priorities, here is how the 223 respondents ordered their needs for ongoing support:

Variety trials 100%
Pest Management applied research 98%
Improved production practices 77%
Post production training (floral design) 73%
Weed control 67%
Marketing 58%
Harvest and Post Harvest training 35%

While this project has responded to many of these needs, these are ongoing educational requirements. Of interest is that the #1 need for ongoing support by vegetable and small growers is in variety trials followed by pest management research.

One of the lessons from the USDA RDA Income Opportunities for Rural Area program is that new enterprise startup is best stimulated by strong access to one-on-one support. As public agencies staff thins out due to the financial limitations, this type of support will in no doubt thin. In order to stimulate new enterprises, we will need to redevelop these support mechanisms. Attached to the results section (there is no upload tab here) is the final report from that program.

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.