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 customers.
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
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
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 poinsettias.
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
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,”
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 is doing.”
“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
“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 phone calls.”
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
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
“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 sell it.”
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.”