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Business Is Blooming for Flower Farms


by Carolina Keegan

Published: Friday, September 15, 2023

Since COVID, U-pick flower farms have been sprouting across Michiana, and experts don't expect it to stop. But is it just a season of start-ups or will the flower industry be a perennial bloomer?

Two farmers and Emily Evers, St. Joseph Extension (Ind.) educator, discussed the popularity of the budding industry and the finer details of keeping things in full bloom.

DeAnn Fetzer, 40, of Rochester is in her third year of flower farming, and she sees a brightly colored future ahead of her.

After 17 years in the corporate world, she returned to her family farm to help her dad, Daniel, and brother, Dustin. While the farm was a traditional corn and soybeans operation, Fetzer brought her own unique touch to Zellers Farm.

"I thought of this crazy idea: The U-pick flower field," she said. She had read about them in magazines and had seen multiple success stories on Facebook, so she decided to give it a try.

As a fifth-generation farmer, Fetzer was confident in her ability to run the production side of things, but she made sure to familiarize herself with different types of flowers and what was working for other flower farms.

While flowers are beautiful, that alone can't carry a business. Fetzer says there are some details that cannot be overlooked by planters. First, cut-and-come again flowers, or flowers that regrow multiple times in a year, are mostly annuals, so those are the favored plants for a U-pick farm. Second, many flowers in a U-pick farm do not have a strong scent. In order to address this, Fetzer planted several different "smelly" varieties around the farm, including plants that smell like lemon, cinnamon, black licorice and lavender. This way, visitors can choose a "scent profile" for their bouquet and enjoy the benefits of their favorite smell with a brightly colored bunch.

Fetzer started the U-pick farm with a partner, Megan Grube of Fort Wayne, to teach others about farming, encourage her kids to chase their dreams and because she simply loves flowers.

"I want to sell the experience," she said. "Anybody can go up to the grocery store and buy flowers, but I want them to have the experience of picking their own bouquet and especially having the different types that you're not going to be able to just go find at the store."

She also enjoys hearing all the stories that people tell when they find different flowers. Each variety seems to bring up memories of loved ones, and Fetzer says she enjoys giving people that experience.

A U-pick farm must be started months in advance to be ready for its peak season, July through October, so preplanning is done in November and December. Then, in February, she starts seedlings in the greenhouses.

"I literally, the first year, just threw myself into research," Fetzer said.

And Zeller's Beautiful Blooms was planted.

Another essential for flower farming is to keep the flowers rotated. However, there are a few staples that will bud every year, including zinnias, sunflowers, dahlias and celosia among others. But, they don't show up in the same place every year. Fetzer is passionate about soil health and the excitement of hunting for a favorite flower. By keeping the rotation diverse, this helps the soil rest and regain nutrients, and gives visitors the chance to find new flowers as they search for their favorite varieties.

Evers has been working with Kosciusko County Extension educator Emily Kresca to provide an informative overview of flower farming and ways women can incorporate floral beauty into their farming operation. Last Thursday, they hosted a ladies' night out to teach women how to make floral arrangement and discuss the successes and challenges of flower farming, how to market the farm, what types of seeds to look for and where to get them and more.

"I think they will become more popular as I see a lot more flower farms popping up across the county," Evers said. "More people are becoming interested in growing their own food and products. There is also a lot of potential with flower farms and different ways of marketing. I have seen roadside stands, booths at farmers markets, edible flowers, U-pick farms, and even delivery/subscription methods for businesses looking to have arrangements in their lobby each week."

One such business is run by Kate Freisen.

Freisen, 31, of Goshen, raises fresh-cut flowers and has been in the flower farming business for the past seven years. Before that, she worked as a farm manager at an environmental center run by Goshen College.

"I've always enjoyed flowers, but I didn't think of it as a career," Freisen said.

But, in 2016, she began working for Flowers by Pheobe, a local floral arrangement business. While there, she raised flowers for the shop and arranged bouquets for sale. The owner, Pheobe Brubaker, moved back to her family farm in Pennsylvania in 2018, so Freisen and her husband, Scott Kempf, began growing flowers for their own business.

Both Freisen and Kempf had been involved in farming, but that was in a more traditional sense. It wasn't until Brubaker left that they considered flower farming full time. At first, it didn't seem possible. But, as it turned out, it was.

"We didn't' want to open up a shop. We wanted to stay a flower farm because we both really enjoyed the farming part of the business," Freisen said.

Under her direction, the business became Singletree Farm, three-fourths of an acre of several different types of flowers that are sold at the farmer's market, through a community supported agriculture program (CSA) and as wedding bundles.

Since they've started, they have done over 30 weddings in a year, service over 100 people through CSA and attend the farmer's market twice a week.

The biggest challenge Freisen had when starting her shop was learning business management. Neither Freisen nor Kempf had a background in business, so the learning curve was steep. However, they stuck with it and taught themselves how to balance books, plan financial growth and more.

Fetzer encourages anyone interested in starting a flower farm to do so.

"I don't want to have it as a competition, but as a community," she said.

Her advice to those interested in the business is to go for it. Try new things. But make sure to go in with the right attitude; flower farms are for the customers. Also know that failure is inevitable, but don't give up because failure is a good teacher.

And watch out for those weeds.

Weeds are especially difficult in flower farming, because, as Fetzer said, there is no herbicide that targets weeds that will not kill flowers. But there are herbicides for grass that will leave other plants alone.

So, how can a farmer manage weeds without destroying his or her flower crop?

Get on it early, Freisen said. She has utilized cover crops, landscape fabric and flame weeding. The most effective weed control for Freisen is simply mulching and pulling the weeds while they're small.

Fetzer gives similar advice. She incorporates plastic tarps in each row of flowers in order to discourage weed growth, and also says it is most effective to attack the weeds when they're young.

"Sometimes that works, and sometimes you just have to mow a bed down and say, 'OK, we lost that one,' and start again," Freisen said.

Marketing is also an essential aspect of U-pick flower farming and can make or break the business. As flowers depend on bees and butterflies to transfer pollen from one to another, U-pick farmers rely on customers to pass the word about their product. It helps to cater to multiple different groups, Fetzer said.

But it's also the hardest part, she said.

"I think marketing is critical here," Evers said. "It isn't easy, but if you have the consumers that are interested and a way to reach those consumers, it can work."

To help get her name out, Fetzer spread seeds with several local businesses, partnering with them to host flower arrangement workshops, parties and other events, including a free concert. While on the farm, visitors are encouraged to wander the three acres of flowers, take photos and cut their own bouquets. Fetzer said she incorporates several different pricing structures, which helps bring in more people.

The first few years are instrumental in the overall success of the operation, Fetzer said. The first two years saw little profit, but she did see slow growth between the two. But at the bud of the third year, she noticed something: business was blooming. Word was finally getting around about Zeller's Beautiful Blooms and several of her five-year goals were being reached.

Because Freisen had been involved in Flowers by Phoebe, her marketing transition was a bit easier. She only had to decide what aspects of flower farming she wanted to focus on.

"We are concerned about a different type of consumer experience. I think U-pick farms are (for) people who want to come out and see the farm and have the farming experience, and we're often involved in a different part of peoples' lives—things like weddings or quinceañeras or even just people who want to give someone a gift," Freisen said.

Also different from U-pick farming is that Freisen grows different types of flowers, including requested flowers, which are specialized for celebrating or commemorating special occasions.

U-pick flower farms began to spread across the countryside during COVID because people were looking for a safe, outdoor experience that would support local small businesses, Freisen said.

"And I think flowers are beautiful, and during COVID it was a hard time for a lot of people, and those little things that made us feel more human, I think that became more of a priority for people," she added.

Fetzer echoed this, saying people are becoming more involved in the Farm to Table movement and were eager to find ways to connect to others during COVID. Evers also named COVID as the No. 1 reason why people are seeking the outdoors and agri-tourism. Homesteading, she said, is also pushing people toward the outdoors.

Freisen, Fetzer and Evers agree that U-pick flower farming is not going to be mowed over, like a weedy patch of their farm, but will continue to expand across the state.

"I don't think they're a fad," Freisen said. "U-pick has been pretty popular in the food business, so I'm not surprised to see it flowers."

The growing curiosity of consumers and the efforts of farmers to educate the public go hand-in-hand with U-pick operations of all kinds, they said. The farms are catering to that curiosity and giving people a taste of the farming lifestyle.

"One thing about fresh flowers is that they don't live forever, so there's incentive to go back," Freisen said.

The flower farmers said a key to future development is having more than one revenue stream and steadily increasing their selection. Freisen uses an 80-20 formula; every year she replants popular flowers (80% of the crop) and starts a "trial crop" (20% of the crop).

Fetzer also adds trial crops to her field, which she redesigns each year to maximize soil nutrients like nitrogen, which sunflowers need a lot of. Each year, she makes sure the flowers are in a new spot to give the soil its needed rest and incorporates about six new varieties to see what customers like and keep diversity up. Her goal is to master each new flower of the year.

Finally, customer feedback is essential. This is how the two farms plan for the next year. They evaluate which flowers attract the most people and concentrate on growing more of them.

But, ultimately, the key to successful flower farming is to create the best possible product, because customers will always be available.

"So many people love flower farming, and there are always people who love picking flowers," Freisen said.

Every blossom attracts a bee.

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