Selling sustainably produced cut flowers to retailers
When you provide the best product and service to match, you get to choose your customers.

By Dan Sullivan
Posted March 9, 2006

A few of her
favorite things

Five of Vicki Stamback’s proven winners in the field and in the greenhouse

Sunflowers—She likes them so much she’s produces 5,000 a week for 23 weeks.

Zinnias—She’s got 70, 100-foot beds of her favorite variety: Benary ‘Giant’.

Dianthus—Bear Creek Farms hosts three to four 120-foot beds of ‘Amazon’ dianthus.

Tuberoses—“This year, we will plant 25,000,” said Stamback.

Celosia—“We grow a lot of it, all colors and several kinds.”

Greenhouse picks
• Sweet pea
• Freesia
• Ranunculus
• Lupine
• Dahlias

Stamback offers a word of caution with regard to favorites: “Just because you like a crop doesn’t mean you should grow it—and vice versa.”

Wholesaling strategies that work

1. In order to deal with overhead costs such as increasing gas prices, cut flower grower Vicki Stamback bumps up the price on 10 items—about a tenth of her inventory— annually. “The following year, I choose a different 10 items, she says.

2. “I do not sell any mixed bouquets at all,” Stamback says. “It’s all straight-stem buckets.”

3. Stamback sends all seeds out for bid.

Find your marketing personality quotient

Vicki Stamback—whose bread-and-butter customers are all florists—has never gone the farmers’ market route because, she says, she’s worked in retail before and “direct to customer is not for me.” That doesn’t mean she’s not a people person—au contraire. She’s got figuring out and responding to her individual customers down to a science.

“There are three common communication styles,” Stamback said. “Visual people say things like ‘See what I’m talking about.’ Auditory people talk to themselves, and if they’re not looking, they’re not hearing. Kinisthetic people are all about feelings; they wear their heart on their sleeve, and their feelings get hurt a lot.”

“Keeping customers is about communication,” she said. More personality types on Stamback’s radar:

Expressives. Talk with their hands and tend to make quick decisions.

Analyticals. Take their sweet time…and can be difficult to deal with because they tend to be penny pinchers.

Drivers. Task-oriented, abrupt and to the point.

Amiables. Avoid confrontation at all costs.

(She’s a self-proclaimed expressive, a personality type she says she naturally shares with many of her best customers.)

“You have to adjust to a person’s type and communication style and not take it personally,” she counseled. “That makes everything go so much better.”

It’s critical to not only sense and respond to your customers’ individual personalities and styles but to know your own—and their limitations—as you deal with customers and make critical business decisions, she said.

“Each person has to look at the pros and cons [of different marketing modes] and see if it’s right for them,” Stamback said, recalling her somewhat timid first foray into the selling wholesale as a producer. “Florists can be intimidating, but they can also be great business partners.”

Additional resources:

The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers www.ascfg.org. Membership ($175 annually) into the organization gives you membership to the Cut-flower Quarterly and to a network of growers who swap information and tips. Stamback is on the board.

More on Stamback’s operation, in her own words, can be found on the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture website at:
www.kerrcenter.com/
publications/2002_
proceedings/cut_flowers.
pdf
.

Specialty 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 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 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 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 is doing.”

The essentials

SEEDING
“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.”

WATER
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.”

PRICING
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.”

MARKETING
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 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 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 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.”