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
"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
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,"
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
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,"
"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
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
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
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
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,"
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.