cut flower grower Vicki Stamback is a stickler for
details, so much so that she knows the production cost of
every flower that leaves her farm. A compact woman whose enthusiasm
for her work blossoms forth like a zinnia in summertime (her
favorite flower), Stamback counts the twin pillars of her
success to be outstanding products and service to her florist
She’ll grow just about anything there’s a market
for, with the notable exceptions of what she calls “commodity
crops”—roses, carnations and chrysanthemums.
“The price [of commodity flowers] fluctuates rabidly,”
Stamback told a roomful of workshop participants at the Fifteenth
annual Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference
in Louisville, Kentucky this past January. “Specialty
cut flowers stay the same price year-round.”
The reason for this, Stamback explains, is that the so-called
commodity flowers are primarily grown out-of-country, and
there’s just no way to compete with the labor and other
production costs. That’s fine with Stamback, who keeps
plenty busy with more than 100 varieties of flowers grown
in five greenhouses and on eight acres of production fields
at her Bear Creek Farms in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
“I learned about gardening and organic vegetable growing
from my grandparents and they had several Rodale books, which
I read when I was 15,” Stamback told New Farm in a follow-up
interview. “I still have those books today.
Flowers that last
Schooled as a landscape architect, Stamback took a common
sense marketing approach when launching her cut-flower business:
Find a void and fill it.
“I started out with a niche market—flowers that
don’t ship well,” she said. “All of these
wholesalers that bring flowers in from all over the world
were not my competition.”
Not that there’s no crossover, Stamback said, but wholesalers,
with a vigilant eye for quality and the shrinkage (waste)
factor, quickly discover what’s prudent to buy locally.
Take zinnias, for instance. “They come dry in a box
and get re-cut and re-hydrated,” she said of the typical
wholesale scenario. “The key is, mine do better because
they never get dry.”
Snapdragons similarly shipped will last eight to ten days
in an arrangements, Stamback said. “My florists tell
me my snapdragons last 21 days; it’s not a matter of
success or failure, it’s a matter of better success.
My customer stores have to throw less away.”
While farmers' markets in some regions of the country bring
a clientele ready and willing to support local farmers, Stamback
said the ones in her area tend more to attract bargain-basement
shoppers she simply can’t afford to cater to. She targeted
her first florist customers by thumbing through the yellow
pages to see which ones had the biggest ads.
Bear Creek Farm’s outdoor production includes bulbs,
annuals, perennials and some wood plants (which Stamback has
cut back on due to several years’ drought conditions).
Well cared-for raised beds are sculpted a foot high by 3-feet
wide, ranging in length from 50 to 130 feet. Indoors, Stamback
utilizes ground-bed growing systems—beds are 3-feet
wide with wooden sides 8 inches deep—with the exception
of one greenhouse on a concrete slab where she grows winter
Off-season dahlias delight
Dahlias are also grown in the greenhouses over winter. “They
are discarded after Mothers Day for two reasons,” explained
Stamback: “First, the bugs really hit them when it gets
warm and we have no problems in the winter. Second, dahlias
come in from everywhere in the summer: I have them in the
winter when no one else does.”
All of her greenhouses are heated. “We figure we need
$3.50 a square foot to break even,” she said. “If
we aren’t at least two times that, we take a good look.”
Last December’s heating bill was $2,400. “I make
sure it’s worth it,” she said.
The greenhouses—which have roll-up sides for ventilation
in warmer months—offer a controlled environment without
which growing certain varieties would be next to impossible,
given Oklahoma’s extreme weather conditions. “The
harder a flower is to grow, the more money-making potential
it has,” she said. “If you really want to make
a name for yourself in the market, do something no one else
“The only thing we direct seed is sunflowers. Everything
else gets planted outside and inside the greenhouses as plants.
We use 72 and 128 plugs and we do all the plugs ourselves,
unless we just don't have room or something is just too difficult
for us, then we may buy in a few flats of plugs, but not many.
And if it's a bad grasshopper year, we put the sunflowers
in as plants, too.”
For irrigation “I drip tape everything,” she said.
“If we are really dry, we may put moisture in the beds
with sprinklers, but those are not used often. We use two
drip tapes per bed and they have slits every 4 inches; it
does a great job.”
Stamback chose city water over well water for a number of
reasons. “I would much rather deal with chlorine than
salt, and our ground water typically has a lot of salt and
is not reliable. That's why I chose city water, with the chlorine
and the reliability. What is dangerous to flower growers is
water with fluoride in it; luckily, ours does not have that.”
When it comes to pricing her product, Stamback said “A
good way to start is to look at what the wholesalers are charging.
You don’t want to undercut them. You have a better product.
I look at the USDA [Wholesale Cut Flower Price] Reports www.ams.usda.gov/fv/mncs/ornterm.htm.
Some I charge more for, some slightly less.”
Production is year-round, and though she has several full
and part-time employees, Stamback is always there putting
a face to the business.
“I don’t need time off…I was missing major
flower holidays,” she quips matter-of-factly of the
days when she used to take vacations. (Stamback gives the
impression not so much as a workaholic but of someone who
passionately enjoys her work.)
“Florists want consistency; they
want to know you are going to be there. It’s precisely
the uncertainty that has many florists dubious of dealing
with local producers."
“Florists also want consistency; they want to know
you are going to be there,” Stamback said. It’s
precisely the uncertainty that has many florists dubious of
dealing with local producers, she said, following that the
most oft-question she heard when starting out was “Are
we going to see you next year?”
Stamback makes deliveries to accounts in Tulsa on Tuesdays
and Thursdays and to Oklahoma City on Wednesdays. Both are
about 70 miles away. “I do that consistently—my
customers in Tulsa know for certain I will be there on Tuesdays
and Thursdays—and I will make emergency trips on the
weekend. My customers know I will do that but that they have
to buy enough to make it worthwhile. It’s a working
relationship…I’m honest with them, and they’re
honest with me.”
It’s that kind of service that’s grown her business.
“I don’t even carry business cards; it’s
all referral.” Having earned a good reputation also
allows her to pick and choose. She drops customers who don’t
pay or who don’t buy enough.
“Some customers absolutely insist on paying me whenever
I deliver flowers,” she said. “Some like to pay
every 30 days—I will do that after three months; until
then, they pay up each time.”
Knowing when to risk
Acting on intuition and common sense, Stamback will also
cut slack where it’s due. She recalled one client who
went bankrupt, kept her off a creditors’ list, and she
continued to do business with them. When they got back on
their feet, they settled up. “It takes time to get to
know your customers and to know where to take what kind of
risks,” she said.
Stamback said her own insurance policy against financial
upheaval is a diverse client base. “If one of my customers
goes out of business, it’s not going to kill me.”
“How do I keep customers? The answer is service. The
wholesalers are not doing that; my customers tell me all the
time. I return all my phone calls right away and my customers
tell me I’m the only one who will do that, and that
amazes me. If you’re in business, you have to return
Stamback is hands-on in all aspects of the business. “We
switch routes so all of my customers get to see me once a
week, because I’m the owner. That way I can check on
accounts.” When Stamback hired a new driver, she took
her around and introduced her personally in order to make
the customers comfortable with the new face. “Peggy
went with me on deliveries for two months before I had her
go on her own. By then, everyone knew her name, they were
all comfortable with her, and there were absolutely no problems.”
To keep the job interesting, she said, “everybody does
a little bit of everything on our farm.” During peak
summer season she has five full-time and four part-time employees,
tapering off to two full-time employees over winter.
Two trusty delivery vehicles—3/4-ton Ford cargo vans—are
equipped with factory air only. To avoid the oft-squelching
Oklahoma heat, drivers leave by 7 a.m. and are back in Stillwater
by 1 p.m. Flowers are cut in the morning, processed in the
afternoon and delivered the next day. An on-farm 10’
by 20’ walk-in cooler gets filled daily.
“If you don’t grow it,
you can’t pick it. If you don’t pick it, you
can’t take it. If you don’t take it, you can’t
Vans leave Bear Creek Farm jam-packed with product, Stamback
said. “If you don’t take it, you can’t sell
it,” Stamback offered, following with two other personal
mantras: “If you don’t grow it, you can’t
pick it,” and “If you don’t pick it, you
can’t take it.” Even if she only has half the
load spoken for, Stamback will choose as many varieties and
colors as she can load before she’s under way. “Everybody
has their favorites,” she said.
While Stamback is not organic, she uses crop rotation, cover
crops and compost to build fertility and break the cycles
of pests, diseases and weeds. “We make our own compost
from horse manure,” said Stamback, who has now been
in the cut-flower business for 10 years. “When I first
started growing on my farm, the soil was so poor that I just
put the fresh manure right on the beds and worked it in by
tilling about six times. I've improved the soil so much now
that I can wait until the manure is composted and then apply
it to my beds. I also put all the plant material I can back
into the soil besides the cover crops.
“About the only thing I ever have to spray for is grasshoppers.
I use biologicals whenever I can, but if I see something threatening
a crop and it’s going to get expensive, I’ll bring
out the big guns—I won’t hesitate.”
Stamback said she plans to start experimenting with plastic
mulches in her fields in order to conserve water and so she
can be assured she will have at least some dry beds to plant
into in the case of excessive spring rains.
“The fun thing about this business is that I learn
something new every week; that keeps it very interesting.”