This post is part five in our five-part series all about how to start your own small-scale flower farm. Make sure you check out the other posts in the series first so you’re caught up to speed:
- Part One: Business Plan + Site Selection
- Part Two: What to Grow + Planning Your Year
- Part Three: Marketing + Building a Customer Base
- Part Four: Harvesting + Arranging
I would wager a bet that most people who get into flower farming are dreamers. We love to envision the fields of blooms and crates of wrapped bouquets for the market, and we love the idea of working for ourselves and getting to spend copious amounts of time outside enjoying the fresh air and sunshine.
While being a person who dreams big and who can see the big picture is a highly valuable trait to have, it can also mean that we dreamers sometimes have the tendency to misjudge what the reality will actually look like. I wrote this final post not to totally scare you off of flower farming, but rather set you up so that you go in with both eyes wide open.
Managing Expectations About Your Farm
I once heard something to the effect that virtually all the frustration we experience in life boils down to unmet expectations. Therefore, to save you some unnecessary future frustration if you decide to go forward with flower farming, I’m going to try and set you up for having more REALISTIC expectations about what flower farming is AND what it isn’t.
Flower Farming Is NOT Gardening
Perhaps the biggest misconception potential flower farmers get into their heads is that flower farming will be just like gardening, except they’re going to be making money from it.
As a gardener, your goal is generally one of two things: 1) to produce the greatest yield (if you’re primarily growing food), or 2) to cultivate the most beautiful space you can. Now, the first goal of producing the greatest yield is definitely true if you’re going to switch over into flower farming, but if you’re used to just gardening for the aesthetics, flower farming will have a LOT of rude wake-up calls for you.
First: You won’t actually get to enjoy most of the flowers yourself. If you’re harvesting your crops when you should (which is often well before the flowers are fully open), it’s your CUSTOMER that will enjoy the beauty of your flowers, not so much you.
Second: Even if you don’t plan on using or selling every stem, you’ll still need to be in the habit of cutting them all anyway, just to signal to the plants to keep producing. If you’ve been used to enjoying all your flowers in your garden and maybe just deadheading them once they’re spent, this ruthless harvesting can take a lot of getting used to.
Third: Often, people garden as a relaxing hobby–something that brings them delight and joy and wonder and relaxation. Flower farming will change all of that. Now, I’m not saying there won’t be moments of wonder and delight and all that good stuff, but when your plants have become your business, you think about the whole thing differently. All of a sudden, instead of a leisurely stroll out in your yard to simply enjoy what’s currently blooming, you’ll be spending the vast majority of time in the dirt working, not simply looking and enjoying. If you’ve made commitments to bouquet subscription members or to florists, you’ll also have the added pressure of needing your crops to perform a certain way (and sometimes bloom at a certain time). The business aspect definitely adds a layer of pressure and stress that just doesn’t exist when you’re only doing it for yourself.
Fourth: With gardening, you often build up “layers” in your landscape over time, keeping a “base” of the same shrubs and perennials year after year and maybe swapping out a few annuals here and there and dividing things as they need it over time. While there might be areas of your flower farm that you leave untouched year after year (such as your rows of peonies or other perennials), the majority of your farm will probably be getting constantly ripped up and pulled out and overplanted with something new, over and over again.
The Perils of Working with a Perishable Product
One of the trickiest things about being a flower farmer is that you’re working with something that has a very limited shelf life–the second you cut that stem, you only have about a week (maybe a little longer) in which that flower will look good, and if you want your customer to enjoy as long of a vase life as possible, that means you’ll need to sell everything you cut within about 48 hours of harvesting it.
The other tricky thing is the harvesting itself. With some crops, such as apples, there is a often a relatively long window of time that you can safely harvest it in, often over a span of a few weeks. With many flowers, your ideal harvesting window is often extremely small, which means that no matter how you’re feeling or what else you have going on, you’ll need to drop everything and harvest certain things at the right time no matter what if you want any kind of return on them.
Take tulips in the spring, for example. If you let your tulips “blow open,” they’re basically only fit for the compost pile at that point — you’ll be unable to sell them. Because of that, you’ll need to be checking your tulip fields 2-3 times PER DAY in the spring to harvest stems right at the “color crack” stage.
All of this means that you need to be prepared to make sacrifices — of sleep, of attending events or outings that will prevent you from bringing in your harvest on time, and of energy. There are many, many times that I don’t feel like going out and harvesting yet again for the 10th time that week, but I have to do it anyway if I want any kind of sell-able crop.
This is Not “Easy Money”
Back before I’d really gotten started, I fell into the trap of thinking that because I was already decent at getting stuff to grow, having a backyard flower farm would be pretty easy money.
I literally had NO IDEA just how much effort and thought and good ol’ sweat had to go into pretty much everything about it. Not only did I have no clue of the hundreds of hours I’d have to spend in the spring starting everything from seed and eventually planting it all out, but I also had completely not taken into account all the hours I’d have to spend marketing the business and actually trying to sell our flowers.
Sure, you might think to yourself — “I can buy $100 worth of seeds and then turn around and sell all the flowers I can grow from that and make a couple thousand bucks” — but there is so much that has to go into that process between sowing and selling that if you’re just in it to make some “easy money,” you will not be in the flower farming business for long.
Recognize that there will be a crazy amount of work involved, and that you could probably make more money doing almost anything else.
The Weather is Your Boss
And your boss can be fickle.
Sometimes she extends your growing season gloriously long, and you’re raking in way more money during the fall than you’d ever dared to dream of. Sometimes she hits you with a frost in mid-June that kills everything you’d already planted out since your expected last frost date was weeks earlier.
While you can control a lot when it comes to your farm, you can never control what the weather is going to do. So just accept from the beginning that the weather will often not want to cooperate with you, and learn to deal with whatever curve balls she decides to throw your way. Sure, you can complain all you want about it (and you will!), but the sooner you just learn to be flexible and roll with the punches, the longer you’ll be able to stick with farming in general.
How to Avoid Burnout
No matter how well I try and manage my time and expectations, I seem to hit burnout around every August or September. By that point, we’re so swamped with blooms and weeds and work that it’s all I can do just to hang on, and by the time the killing frost comes, I’m ready to welcome it with arms wide open.
However, I have managed to get better at staving off the burnout every year since my first year growing (when I was honestly worried that I’d made myself hate flowers and never wanted to see one again), and I’m sharing the following tips with the hopes that they’ll help you too.
Set Clear Boundaries
I’ll admit I’m a people pleaser by nature, so one of the hardest things for me as a business owner is to set clear boundaries and stick to them. My first season, I wasn’t super good at doing that — I often offered free delivery (or delivery at a fraction of the cost I should have), I often waited hours per week for people to show up to get their flowers, and I took on requests at all sorts of odd hours without thinking twice about it.
While I’m still working out the particulars, I definitely entered my second season with some much needed guidelines in place that seriously saved my sanity and helped me to actually enjoy much more of the process.
A few things I did:
- I no longer offered free delivery (even in the same town), which literally saved me hours upon hours every single week. Sure, it meant that far fewer people were willing to pay for delivery and I know I missed out on some business because of it, but the tradeoff of hours of my life back was worth it. (Plus it was nice knowing that on the rare occasion I did make a delivery, I was at least compensated somewhat fairly for it.)
- If someone was more than 15-20 minutes late to come pick up their flowers, I would leave their flowers on our porch so that I no longer had to wait and listen for them to come to the door. This was probably the #1 most important thing I did this year because I would hazard a guess that at least 75% of people showed up late to pick up their orders, some of whom were well over an hour late. Not feeling like I had to hang around inside waiting meant I was able to get back out on the farm and work on other tasks since I knew they could just get it off the porch.
- I haven’t started this yet, but if I get any “same day rush” orders where I’m not given at least 4-5 hours notice, next season I’m going to charge an extra $5 fee. Ditto if it’s someone wanting a custom order on a Saturday. (I don’t do any on Sundays at all.)
Anticipate Tricky Situations
Tricky situations usually come in a couple common forms: 1) family members or friends expecting freebies or special treatment, and 2) expectations not being clearly communicated between you and the customer, which creates misunderstanding.
I’ve actually been super lucky in that pretty much all of our family and friends have bent over backwards to support us on so many levels (including purchasing flowers at regular, full price from us), but the one that does seem to come up under that category sometimes is the expectation of free delivery. If it’s someone who has helped us out a ton with the farm in one way or another, I don’t worry about charging delivery, but if it’s just a neighbor or friend who knows I live close and doesn’t want to come pick something up, it can get tricky. I can’t tell you what to do in every scenario, but just keep in mind that your time is valuable and that you are running a business. You also need to keep in mind that what you do now might set up future expectations, so think about what you’re willing to (cheerfully) do, and what you aren’t. Sometimes I’m truly happy to do something a little extra for the family members and neighbors who have literally done so very much to support us in this dream, but if someone asks me to do something and I feel resentful, it might mean that a different expectation needs to be communicated.
Speaking of communication, it’s critical that you make your communications between you and your customer as clear as possible so that one or both of you doesn’t end up frustrated. That means being very clear about final price (including any extra fees), what the product will look like, exactly when they’ll come by and get it, if they need to pay beforehand, acceptable forms of payment, etc.
One other tidbit I’ve learned from personal experience: if someone is paying for a custom arrangement or bouquet to be delivered, make sure you take a picture of it before you deliver it so that the buyer can actually see what it looks like.
Keep Your Expectations Reasonable
From the get go, I had the unspoken expectation that I would try and sell every (usable) stem, every time. While this expectation meant that I was really good at hustling and staying on top of harvesting, it also meant that by the height of summer, I was completely and totally exhausted. My first year, I just kept pushing through anyway, with the end result that I was literally almost ready to throw in the towel and quit flower farming for good. Heck, I was ready to never grow a single flower again! However, after a long and necessary winter that forced me to rest and take a big step back, I could see that I did still love growing things, but that I just needed to be a lot more intentional with my time and energy.
That meant that I learned to do away with the expectation of selling every stem and that I instead built in “safeguards” for myself. For me, that meant that once I fulfilled my necessary CSA bouquet subscription obligations for the week and any custom order requests that I was willing to take on, I looked to my energy levels to see if I had anything left to do pop up sales. Sometimes I did, and I really did basically sell every stem. Other times, I decided to ease up and just do the bare minimum. As a result, I was in a much better state of mind (and body) at the end of my second season than I was at the end of my first, and I had no intentions of quitting!
Schedule Rest — And Do It!
This might mean you always schedule a little vacation in the middle of the growing season or that you regularly give yourself a day off during the week, but whatever that rest looks like for you, make sure that you actually do it. The work to do on a flower farm is literally never ending, so it is vital you schedule breaks and take them, or you WILL burn out or get sick or start to resent the business.
I’ve taken vacations during both growing seasons so far, and even though it does mean that it’s kind of a crazy catch up game coming back, it also has meant I’ve been in a much better head space when I do. I also started blocking out one “non-farm” day per work week out of necessity, which has been a lifesaver. Sometimes I’d have custom orders or florist requests come up on those days, but just knowing that I had nothing else scheduled meant that I felt more able to choose to take on those extra work opportunities or not.
Get Help If You Can
Even if you can’t afford to hire even a part-time employee, you might be surprised by how many people are willing to help you out, just because of the nature of your work. I’ve had several neighbors offer to help just because they love flowers and gardening so much and wanted to learn some extra skills, so they’ve come over to help me harvest or do other farm-related tasks so that they could learn more. I’ve also had many people who have offered me flowers from their yard to use in my bouquets if my own don’t come on when expected, and I’ve had people offer parts of their yards for me to grow on as well.
One of the best things I did my second season was training my husband on how to harvest everything, whereas before I’d just done it all on my own. Now, with both of us working full speed, we can often do a full harvest in about an hour and a half or two hours tops, and it’s also made the task way more enjoyable since we’re out there together. I’ve also started to train my kids on basic farm chores like weeding and helping us plant bulbs in the fall so that the work doesn’t have to take so long.
If you don’t have family that can help, seriously consider using a little bit of your money from selling flowers to hire someone once a week to come and help for a few hours. One of your greatest assets as a business owner is your own mental wellbeing and health, and if you’re feeling at the top of your game, you are much more likely to be more profitable than if you’re constantly stressed out and pushing yourself past your limits.
Like any job, flower farming has its benefits and disadvantages. And some of flower farming’s greatest benefits (working outside! being your own boss!) are some of its hardest pitfalls (working outside no matter the weather! never feeling like you can take a break!). But even despite this being one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever taken on, it’s also probably the job I’ve loved the very most.
I love that flower farming is something I can do out of my own backyard, with my kids and husband right there beside me. I love that flower farming challenges me on every level, and that it gives me chances for both physical exercise and for mental stretching and creativity. I love that what I create with what I grow brings people joy and delight, and that I can see firsthand that sometimes it’s the smallest things that can make the most difference in someone’s life.
So I accept the whole package, the beautiful AND the beyond frustrating, the successes AND the setbacks.
I can’t tell you if flower farming is the right path for you, but I hope that this series has given you a clearer picture of what the job actually entails.
And that’s a wrap for the series! Did I answer all your questions?