Flower power pushes Hill Country farm to new heights
Frank and Pamela Arnosky started with $1,000, twelve acres in the middle of nowhere, a tent to live in and a passion for flowers. Now they're grossing $500,000 a year.

By Skip Connett

A wide variety...

What varieties the Arnoskys are trying:

Sunflowers (Sunrich series): "Our most favorite variety last year was 'Sunrich Gold'." This new addition to the Sunrich series, a commercial pollen-less variety, has rounded flower petal tips 'Pro-cut orange' is another variety they experimented with last year for its thick and full flower petals. The only downside, Frank noted, is that they grow relatively short -- 3 to 4 feet, compared to 6 feet for the mainstay, 'Superior Sunset'.

Zinnias (Benary's Giants, Oklahoma, Cut-and-come-again): "It's our number two money maker. We plant them all year round -- about 5,000 a week."

Celosia (Kurume series, Supercrest, Pampas Plume): "They love the heat and they tolerate the greenhouse."

Callas ("California" callas): "Say a prayer over them. This is a flower just looking to die. We grow them in pots in the greenhouse."

Ammi visnaga (Green Mist, Angel): "You are pushing the limits in Texas."

Larkspur (QIS series, Giant Imperials, Blue Cloud and White Cloud): "Florists love it. We plant it in the fall, it overwinters, and blooms in spring."

Marigold (Gold Coin): "They smell like money. Very heat tolerant and we use a lot in our summer bouquets."

Agrostemma: "It has that back-to-the-garden look. You can direct seed it and plant it in the fall. It's horrible to pick, but makes a great wild garden bouquet."

Recommended Reading List

Specialty Cut Flowers, Allan Armitage and Judy Laushman, Tiber Press. The "bible" for cut flower growing. A comprehensive list, crop by crop, with cultural and post-harvest advice.

The Flower Farmer, Lynn Bycynski, Chelsea Green. Good advice on how to set up a cut flower operation. Profiles on established growers, including the Arnoskys.

We're Gonna Be Rich, Pamela and Frank Arnosky, Fairplain Publications.

"Your best selling point is putting your passion into what you like, and I always liked to buy flowers for myself. You have to be flower buyer to be a flower grower."

--Pamela Arnosky

(Hannah, Frank and Pamela's daughter pictured.)

April 19, 2005: In 1990, Frank and Pamela Arnosky bought land in Texas Hill Country with a $1,000 down payment and dreams of earning a descent living in the flower bed business. They were so determined they built a greenhouse before they built their own house, living in a tent on what then was 12 cedar-infested acres in the middle of nowhere.

Today, the Arnosky farm, Texas Specialty Cut Flowers, is one of the largest and most successful cut flower producers between California and Florida. Their 14 greenhouses and 40 acres in flower production yielded more than 100,000 bouquets and grossed about $500,000 last year. With the recent purchase of an additional 100 acres, they are adding greenhouses, and planting peach and pecan trees, blackberries and grapes. They also are expanding their weekend farm market to take advantage of the increasing traffic as growth in nearby Austin moves farther into these hills.

Like so many organic farming operations, Texas Specialty Cut Flowers is a natural outgrowth of its owner's passion for doing what they have always loved -- flowers and farming.

"Your best selling point is putting your passion into what you like, and I always liked to buy flowers for myself," says Pamela, who has a degree in bio-geography from Texas A&M and did graduate work in Canada. "You have to be flower buyer to be a flower grower."

Growing more than 60 varieties of flowers requires a lot of gardening know-how, some of which Frank gained during years in the horticulture business. But most of it came -- and still comes -- from long hours in the field and in the market. The payoff is the ability to provide top-quality production on a consistent basis and their claim to fame -- sole supplier of cut flowers to Central Market, an Austin-based Whole Foods competitor with seven large and lavish stores popular with tourists.

"We've grown to meet the demand," says Pamela. "As Central Market added stores, we've added acreage."

And employees, too. With assistance from the federal government, they obtain temporary visas for a dozen Mexicans, who stay with them for 10 months out of the year. Dealing with cultural and language differences are an added challenge but one that offers closer ties to Mexico, where they frequently vacation to learn about farming techniques south of the border.

If all this success is beginning to sound too good, just read Frank's collection of articles from Growing for Market, with the disingenuous title, "Now We're Gonna Be Rich." Or listen to Pamela begin her presentation at the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association's annual conference with a list of travails they have overcome -- two tornadoes, an ice storm, a flood, a drought, and a grasshopper plague -- all in one growing season.

Compared to vegetables, notes Frank, cut flowers offer higher profit margins. But the risks are higher, too: "When you don’t make the rate of return," he cautions, "you lose big time."

Compared to vegetables, notes Frank, cut flowers offer higher profit margins. But the risks are higher, too.

That happened more than once, such as the time a deadly fungus slowly devoured 25,000 blue bell plants. All they could do was watch them die in the field, and wonder what they had done wrong.

"It's all trial and error. Our conditions in Hill Country are completely different than in the Valley," he says, referring to that vast ocean of land stretching south from San Antonio. "That's why you need to join the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (www.ascfg.org) because you can trial and error forever."

With 60 varieties to master, each with its own requirements, just keeping up with planting and harvesting cycles is a juggling act. Yet it's that diversity that helps ensure success. "We like to mix it up," Frank explains. "You don't have the same kinds of insects when you have mixtures. You have a moving target." Although controlling spider mites and aphids are regular challenges, the Arnoskys' strategies for pest control are keeping soil healthy, leaving lots of wild space and edges around their beds, and growing enough for the bugs, too.

For the most part, the farm uses a two-part growing system. They plant all winter long and as flowers bloom and are cut, they replace them with additional plantings. By mid summer, it gets too hot to grow all but a dozen or so varieties.

In this part of Texas, most perennial crops are grown as annuals because its more economical, both in time and money, to harvest the flowers, till the soil, and start over.

"It's hard growing perennials in Texas and every inch has to pay for itself – when a crop is done, it gets pulled out," says Frank.

The Arnoskys rely on a permanent bed system, The beds are fertilized mostly with a mix of composted turkey manure and rice hulls, and are irrigated with drip tape rather than sprinklers. As Frank is quick to point out, watering is such a critical activity in flower growing that it's the one job he won't let anyone else do. Much more unforgiving than vegetables, trays of flower seedlings will reveal almost immediately the results of sloppy watering.

"Watering is critical and it's constant," Frank explains. "You have to water evenly and regularly, not too little and not too much."

The Arnoskys also use various planting densities. Four rows to a bed is the standard but six rows are sometimes used, such as for sunflowers, to keep flower size down or for weed control.

Marketing in Texas takes advantage of
customer loyalty

Cut flowers were a thriving commercial business in Texas in the early part of the last century, with more than 650 acres planted in 1929. By the 1980s, the bloom was long off, as competition was lost to Colorado, and then to South America. Fortunately for the Arnoskys, Martha Stewart came along and cut flowers became the must-have centerpiece of the home again.

That history underscores how in the highly competitive cut flower industry, businesses rise and fall on the success of their marketing. "The market is where people can fall down in this industry," Franks says.

"Vegetables bring families to your stand. Flowers bring them back"

That is especially true in the wholesale market, which has much more stringent demands than a farmers market, where you are essentially your own florist. Indeed, starting out small and selling to farmers markets has many benefits even for vegetable growers, they say.

"Vegetables bring families to your stand. Flowers bring them back," Pamela says, adding that they don't grow vegetables after spring, because there is too much competition and their main focus is flowers.

Flowers too short for the standard 24 inch stem length for the wholesale market are turned into miniature bouquets by the Arnoskys' daughters, Hannah and Elena, and sold by them at several farmers markets in Austin --money that helps pay for their summer camps in Colorado.

Like many growers, the Arnoskys started out growing the big three -- roses, carnations, and chrysanthemums. But eventually they found their specialty after tireless experimenting and taking risks -- flowers ranging from native Texas' coreopsis and black-eyed susans to the elegant oriental lilies and callas. Focusing on flowers that like cool conditions and mild nights also allows them to grow flowers in their greenhouses with very little heating.

"Don't believe what you are told," Frank says. "Try everything and anything. You never know."

He mentions lilies as one of those flowers the experts at Texas A & M said wouldn't do well in Hill Country, at least not without a greenhouse. So they planted a large bed of lilies and built a greenhouse over it. Problem was, they never got around to putting the plastic on it. The lilies did just fine, and today, they plant about 70,000 of them in a season.

"Don't believe what you are told. Try everything and anything. You never know."

--Frank Arnosky

While Texas Specialty Cut Flowers enjoys the prestige and prominence of a big display at Central Market stores, an added benefit of growing and selling locally is Texans' famous loyalty to homegrown products. Surveys show that 80% of Texas prefer Texas-grown to California-grown products -- a fact that the Texas Department of Agriculture capitalizes on by promoting Go Texas labels and the Go Texas pin that adorns Pamela's vest.

Although the Texas field advantage definitely helps, no marketing strategy outdoes quality, Pamela says. "Your flowers have to be as good as the competition in Holland and they have to last," she says. "Our secret is sticking to the highest quality. All of our flowers are picked at the right time, and packed in flower food and wrapped at the market so people can see we are making it just for them. And you always have to have something new, something to set you apart."

In the wide spectrum of colors found in a bouquet, blue is the most elusive and the one that every buyer wants, the Arnoskys say. A single cornflower added to an arrangement can have an almost magical effect, not unlike the bright blue house on their logo (a verisimilitude of the small but colorful house they built after their family outgrew their rustic cabin.). It's that kind of market "leveraging" that can make all the difference to the bottom line.

The crop that contributes most to that bottom line is sunflowers. Last year they planted 200,000, in batches of more than 7,000 at a time. For the first time, the Arnoskys plan to offer certified organic sunflowers this season, not so much for a price premium but because it adds another selling point. "We are always looking for differentiation," Frank explains. "That is the name of the game. Now we can say, 'not only Texas-grown, but organic grown, too."

Moving from whole sale to retail

As Texas Specialty Cut Flowers has grown, the Arnoskys have begun to change business strategies, looking more at selling directly to customers rather than to wholesalers. The cost alone of transporting their flowers to the Houston and Dallas markets is considerable, so increasing on-farm sales is their big push now. Later this year, they hope to have a roadside market store that will not only sell flowers and vegetables, but shirts, hats and books.

"We're ready to let someone else pay for the gas," say Pamela.

They are also looking at their management practices differently -- as employers spending less time doing the labor and more time directing it. To gain insight into managing a small business more efficiently, Pamela has finally gotten around to reading Michael Gerber's book, The E-Myth Revisited, after it sat on her shelf for a couple years. "We are having to do a lot of growing up in this area," she says.

New ways of thinking about farming and marketing are already showing. In addition to farm tours offered through Central Market, the Arnoskys recently began offering a "bouquet buyers club card." Customers who get their card filled win two free tickets to an elaborate outdoor banquet at the farm. The next goal is to attract more customers to the farm by adding activities, including dirt bike rentals for touring the back stretches of their expanding acreage, coming back tired -- and hungry.