Reasons Why CSAs Are Beneficial for Your Flower Farm
For the past two years, I have run the flower operation for an established urban micro-green farm in Columbia, SC. One of the first business decisions I made for this operation was to start a flower CSA to capitalize on my main flower season: the hot, long summer here in South Carolina. As a flower grower in South Carolina, my main harvests for florists and designers are during the early spring and late fall months, the wedding seasons in the south. With our temperatures reaching the 90s as early as May and running well into October, my growing period is at its height when my sales avenues begin to slow. The flower CSA allows my blooms to have a home week to week even when florist sales are low and keeps my produce happy with regular harvesting to maintain a healthy crop of flowers for other sales.
If you have kept up with the local food movement over the past two decades, the term CSA has probably been something you have come in contact with. CSA is an acronym for Community Supported Agriculture, the concept of which can be interpreted in a number of ways. At its core, a CSA is a model in which the customer financially invests in a farm at the beginning of a growing season, when sales are at their lowest, and in return receives a share of the farm’s harvest once crops are coming out of the fields. Vegetable farms often use CSAs as a business model to help pay for the upfront costs of getting crops into the ground – seeds, compost, time and labor spent of growing and maintaining crops, water and energy costs, etc.
This business model can easily fit into a flower farm or garden operation and acts under the same principles as it would for a vegetable farm. A weekly pick-up of cut flowers, whether they are presented as a mix of individual flower varieties or as a prepared bouquet, can help a business maintain an outlet for crops that need to be harvested every few days.
STEPS TO CSA SUCCESS
There is nothing worse than having people invest in something you cannot fulfill, or having to spend money on flowers from another farm if you aren’t able to harvest enough for bouquets each week. It is best to incorporate a CSA model once you have confidence as a grower that your seasonal flower availability will be able to provide for the amount of CSA shares you’ve committed to.
There are certain flowers I grow in much larger numbers for florists and market sales. In addition to these core flowers, I grow small plantings of seasonal filler flowers, ornamental grasses, and wild and cultivated foliage for my CSA bouquets. That way, the bouquet can have a different aesthetic each week.
To always have quality cuts, you need to invest time in planning out your season. Succession planting is precisely what it sounds like – multiple flower plantings that follow one another. This way, every few weeks, you have a new flush of flowers to harvest from. Here in the South, Zone 8b, I plant zinnias every three to four weeks, first transplanting young seedlings around March 30, with the last planting in the first week of August. That is six plantings for the season, and I have a new group of zinnias coming in every month. Dara Ammi is another flower that has proven to work well in succession planting in my warm climate. My first planting goes into the ground as young transplants the first week of November. These flowers bloom before Mother’s Day, and I can harvest off of these for about five to six weeks. The second planting goes into the ground mid-March, and I begin harvesting off of these in June for four weeks. This is perfect for being able to have Dara Ammi for Mother’s Day bouquets and for use in my CSA and market bouquets in June!
As with any business, efficiency is huge. My CSA harvests are planned and written out before harvest day. Some flowers that store well are harvested a few days before which can help ease the load on the main harvest day.
INVEST TIME IN YOUR CUSTOMERS
For the CSA model to be worthwhile to your business, you need to make an effort to show your customers that you enjoy having them be a part of your farm! Depending on the type of pick-up you have arranged or delivery service you create, you should find a way to interact with your CSA customers. If you have a delivery service, you could consider having a CSA get-together during the season out at the farm. Making an extra effort with CSA customers goes a long way to establish repeat customers and to ensure your members have a real feeling of who you are and what makes your farm special to them! I’ve made friends with CSA members who are like-minded individuals I otherwise might not have met. To me, that is a priceless benefit for my psyche in a career that’s often isolating.
If you have a pick-up service that has a window of a few hours, you can’t be expected to be there the entire time. This is the service I had with the established farm I worked with, and the first season of my CSA, I dedicated specific pick-up dates for socializing with the CSA members.
FLOWER TIPS and NEWSLETTER
Another way I invest time to my CSA members is with a cheat sheet on floral care and a weekly email/newsletter. The cheat sheet outlines how to ensure the most extended vase life for their weekly bouquet (changing water, re-trimming stems, etc.), and I give this out the first week of pick-up. The weekly email is simple but effective in helping the customer understand seasonality, farm labor, and types of flowers—and it gives the farm a personality! I describe what will be in their bouquets (type, color) and provide fun facts about the flower or foliage used that week. I’ll even describe when Mother Nature wins the battle. I’ve had great responses from my customers about these emails, and it's nice to put my thoughts out there for someone else to absorb.
As I embark on the next part of my farming journey in opening and operating my own farm, there are a few things I will do differently going forward.
While I did break down the price of the flower cost of the CSA bouquets I sold the past two years, I failed to include accurate costs on labor (harvesting and design time) for these bouquets. Prices should reflect the ACTUAL COST OF LABOR plus the cost of the blooms themselves! You must be fair to yourself and your business! Seasonally grown, chemical-free flowers are not cheap. In the South, some of these flowers take lots of care in comparison to other regions. My goal going forward is to limit the number of available shares and have a real price that includes a better understanding of labor costs to help educate my community and customers about the actual cost of growing flowers.
INVEST MORE TIME TO AN EXPERIENCE
I hope to prioritize planning and hosting workshops that are dedicated to enriching my CSA member experience: “Build Your Own Table Arrangement,” “A Lesson on Drying Summer Flowers,” and “Native Plant Tour,” for example.
I am planning to test new varieties and include these blooms and colors in my CSA bouquets. Their feedback will be so valuable when it comes to making crop choices for the next season!
For my operation, I am beginning to crunch the numbers on having a delivery option for my CSA. My new farm location will not be downtown like I was before. Thus on-farm pick-up will not be ideal or possible for most of my members. In order to maintain their business, I recognize the need to taking the product to the customer.
A flower CSA program can help bolster a stronger community connection to your farming operation. CSA members have chosen to invest in your business, knowledge, and creations. I have found my CSA customers to be some of my business's best advocates – whether it be about the quality of my flowers, the creativity of my designs, or advocating for the importance to support companies that provide sustainably grown, never-flown blooms!