Cut Flowers as a Sustainable Agriculture Alternative
Recent figures indicate Oklahoma revenue from cut flowers sales total more than $9 million per year. Of this, only approximately $300,000 are produced in Oklahoma. National wholesale production of cut flower and greens is estimated at over $560 million per year. Production of specialty cut flowers (all species except roses, chrysanthemums and carnations) is a rapidly growing section of the cut flower industry.
Many cut flowers are imported into the region from other countries. The Mississippi State publication, Inventory of Non-Traditional Agricultural Commodity Activities in the Southern Region (1990), lists only three references to floriculture and production; they are located in Kentucky, Mississippi and Washington, D.C. In Oklahoma, the diverse soil and weather conditions and the long growing season could allow production of numerous cut flowers species, ushering the small farmer into heretofore untouched markets.
Many small farm operations in Oklahoma are experimenting with sustainable crop alternatives to their conventional crops. Berries, herbs, legumes and organic vegetables have proved to be popular sustainable alternatives to corn, wheat and cattle. Cut flowers typically are not among the crops considered for agricultural alternatives. Production literature, research and essential start-up information about cut flowers is virtually unknown in Oklahoma. In this project, two producers converted wheat acreage to a cut flower production system in order to evaluate the feasibility of cut flowers as an alternative crop in Oklahoma.
1) Develop a prototype of a mixed-species specialty cut flower production system.
2) Test the use of rye and other winter cover crops as a nitrogen source and as companion plants for specialty cut flowers.
3) Develop “how-to” materials about the incorporation of cut flowers into sustainable farming systems.
The prototype, expanded from one-half acre the first year to three acres the second year, accommodates woody plants such as pussy willows, lilac, butterfly bush and forsythia; annual and perennial flowers; bulbs and groundcovers such as ivies and lily of the valley. The species were selected to allow year-round harvesting, with many species harvestable three months of the year.
The area is set up into 50 (36-inch) raised beds, divided by a walkway to accommodate a small tractor with tiller attachment. The beds are watered by a trickle irrigation system that delivers eight to 10 gallons per minute.
A 14-14-14 formula fertilizer was applied when the beds were built, sidedressing after that as needed. In winter 1994, a rye cover crop was planted on the entire three acres. It was turned under and chopped when the beds were rototilled in the spring. Although this produced a good stand, the producers switched to a mixture of annual rye and with agronomists at OSU. The growers now utilize winter and summer cover crops and legumes as nitrogen sources to meet future fertility needs.
Due to a severe drought from August 1995 until July 1996, summer legumes were not planted. The winter cover crops did well, though. The growers planted white, red, crimson and arrowleaf clover and austrian winter peas. They plan to mow the clover in spring and apply the clippings directly to the beds as mulch. They mulched the beds with oat and wheat straw during the 1996 drought, and they reported that it helped retain soil moisture.
Their program of mulching and ground covers was so successful that they used only one half of the fertilizer used the year before, even though they increased the number of beds from 36 to 50! In fact, they only needed to top dress two new crops: dalias and gladiolas, particularly heavy feeders. They were top dressed with compost made from chicken manure and plant material from chicken manure and plant material from last year’s production. Composting is very time consuming for these growers but they feel that it is very necessary and have purchased a manure spreader to facilitate their work.
The growers attribute visibility improved soil texture to the cover crops and mulches. The high clay content soil, which two years ago was hard when dry, can now be worked with bare hands, no tools needed. Weeds not controlled by the mulch/cover crop system were removed by hand or with the tiller, except for tough grasses in the rows whih were treated with over-the-top applications of a post-emergence herbicide.
The growers believe 1996 saw higher insect problems due to dry weather. Nevertheless, the growers observed large numbers of lady beetles as well as assassin beetles. They treated an early occurrence of spider mites with hot pepper spray and applications of Safers soap. Grasshoppers were treated with No-Lo bait, which the growers expect will show positive results next year after the bait has infected the grasshopper eggs. Outbreaks of bud worms were controlled with twice monthly spray applications of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The growers hope that use of clover and other cover crops in open areas will attract beneficial insect species.
The growers have found the cut flowers to be a successful alternative crop for their operations, but marketing still remains the toughest problem they face. Education has been identified as their most effective marketing strategy. Florists are unfamiliar with the flowers the producers are growing and, therefore, don’t know how to order them or make use of them. The growers have been addressing this educational need with regular visits to area florists in order to share the latest information on flower species and post harvest care.
Even though the growers are still making personal visits to potential clients to show them their flowers, they believe that once they have their marketing plan in place that they will see an increase in orders and requests for information. Experience has shown that if buyers see their flowers, they usually will buy. In fact, one of the growers tried for over a year to get a florist to talk to her. When she was finally allowed to show him her products he placed a standing weekly order for as long into the fall as she had flowers.
Any new business takes from three to five years to become profitable, and the growers say theirs is no different. They have kept detailed production and profit records on each crop to fine-tune the growing and marketing system. They have done very well in the three years they have been in the cut flower business and are currently working on plans to ensure their continued success. This includes collaborating with a business specialist at a nearby vocational/technical school to formalize a business plan, a marketing plan and a budget.
In 1996, their third year, the growers hired a full time employee and their sales have gone from $3000 the first year to $24,000 the past year. Since they are selling to two percent of the market the growers feel that they have plenty of market in which to expand their business.
The producers, working in conjunction with OSU horticulturists, have produced a fact sheet about cut flower uses and post harvest care. This has been distributed to florists and to ATTRA. They made presentations at the OSU Cut Flower conference, Texas Specialty Cut Flower Conference, the Horticulture Industry Show in Tulsa and numerous garden clubs. A field day at their farm was held in September 1995, and 40 people attended. In 1996, in addition to numerous talks and lectures, the growers hosted groups at their farm. They also spoke at the OSU Spring Cut Flower Conference, with 177 people in attendance. They also hosted a tour of their farm.
The producers cooperated with Benary Seed Company on post harvest trials of zinnias, lobelias, scabiosa and gaillardia. The vice president of Benary attended their field day and later presented the results of their trials at the Specialty Cut Flower Conference in Baltimore. An article in Oklahoma Farmer-Stockman featured their operation in a cover story complete with color photos.