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."
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
"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
"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
Marketing in Texas takes advantage of
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.
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.
believe what you are told. Try everything and
anything. You never know."
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
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,"
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.