WISCONSIN DELLS — Erin Schneider is a self-proclaimed “people, plants and dirt lover.” She has spent the last 11 years co-operating Hilltop Community Farm in La Valle with her husband, Rob. And although the farm has changed over the years, one thing hasn’t — and that’s her passion for flowers.
“Flowers found me and I found flowers,” she said. “Flowers will draw you in. You just know when a plant is doing well and you know you’re going to pick them at a ‘marshmallow’ phase.”
Schneider presented the final workshop at the New Farmer U on April 29 with a good mix of people attending, showing interest in the possibility of growing flowers on their own farms. Flowers can be a value-added product to a farm, but you’ll need to know your land, your systems and your skills before going all in.
At Hilltop, Schneider and her husband do things on a mostly small scale, cultivating much by hand and specializing in flowers, fruit and vegetables. While their farm encompasses 60 acres, only a small section is used as their production area, with the orchard sitting on an acre and flowers growing on about a half-acre. Eleven acres are woodland, some land is prairie enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program and the rest is in ravine — limiting the land but still serving as an asset to the couple.
Schneider never really set out to be a flower farmer but always had a knack for making bouquets. Now she grows 122 types of flowers on her farm, the bulk of them perennials — something they consider their niche.
Forty-seven perennials, including 23 woody perennials, grow at Hilltop. Forty-four different types of annuals are also grown, with Schneider stating that “they have their place” in helping hold the soil in. While most vegetables have been phased out of the farm, five types are still grown there.
Woody perennials, like the 12 different kinds of fruit grown at Hilltop, provide interesting elements to bouquets made by Schneider. Fruit collected is also sold to area chefs and through a food market, she said.
Having a variety and mixture of flowers can lessen some of the risks associated with flower farming. If one plant does not do well one year, there are other plants at Schneider’s disposal. She also recommended establishing a “plant guild,” finding complementary plants that grow well above and below ground and planting them together.
Schneider uses several production tools at Hilltop, including raised beds, crop rotation and mulching with wood chips or straw for weed suppression. She also uses low tunnels for some of her taller flowers to protect them from the top.
Their model is field to vase — and making sure those who purchase the flowers can enjoy them to their full potential. She recommended purchasing a cooler to store the flowers once cut; the cooler was one of her best investments, she said.
Long-stems and having a variety will set your flowers apart from others, with the stems from her farm lasting between seven and 10 days on average. Quality and vase life are the two big motivators for repeat business, adding that a third is the appreciation of organic and the sustainable management of the land at Hilltop.
“Look at each stem as currency,” she said. “Start to train your brain with stems and bunches.”
June through October, Schneider caters to wedding business. She also has a flower community-supported-agriculture operation, which has 20 members; CSA members receive a dozen different types of flowers, with Schneider recommending at least three different kinds in a bouquet. These are her two major channels for the sale of her flowers.
One of her bigger challenges has been finding the right price to sell her flowers for and educating her customers on why her flowers are priced the way they are. She recommended speaking to other flower farmers and florists about their pricing; there are also two networks available that can serve as resources for a flower farmer: the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers and more locally, Madison Area Flower Farmers.
You must remain committed to the quality and value of your flowers, she said.
While Schneider and her husband both have off-farm incomes in addition to the flower business, Schneider told attendees it’s possible to have a full income from flower farming. But much like anything else, it takes time and dedication.
For more information on Hilltop Community Farm, visit http://www.hilltopcommunityfarm.org.