My first acquaintance with quality control came at the age of six in a potato field, when harvesting spuds still consisted of hand picking into sacks. There must have been forty of us, migrant workers and housewives and children let out of school for a couple weeks, on our knees or bent at the waist grabbing one potato at a time, the first step of many from field to table. The boss came out to the field one day, all a-frenzied, eager to steer us from our method of gathering ALL the potatoes toward sorting them, taking only “number ones” and leaving the rest. I didn’t really understand for many years that the market paid premium prices for “bakers”(eight-ounce, smooth potatoes, without knobs or blemishes) while small, large or misshapen spuds actually worked against the farmer—the buyers called these “unusables”, though they were used for processing (they just weren’t paid for). So the farmer wanted to increase his profit by lowering his labor bill, since he was paying us by the sack to harvest potatoes he not only wouldn’t be paid for but which cost him extra for transport and storage.
Just a couple years later, my sleuthlike uncle traced a criminal’s distinct footprint through a similar spud field to discover which picker was leaving small potatoes in the field—potatoes he saved for seed in the coming year. The culprit, of course, was me. I’d been leaving those tiny potatoes, some smaller than a big toe, thinking they were unmarketable, but my uncle, unlike my previous employer, used them for next year’s crop.
Just like potatoes, each cut flower species has a range when it needs to be harvested, and usually it depends on to whom it’s being marketed. Wholesalers like most flowers tight so they hold longer, giving the seller a wider window to market them in, florists want them somewhat open so they appear lush but will last a few days, while event designers want them as close to blown as possible, since the flowers only need to last through the wedding or party.
There are other considerations, too. Some species, like lilies, open even when cut as a tight bud. Monarda, tulips, scabiosa—all give the harvester lots of leeway for marketing, as they continue to color and bloom after being cut, even in the low temperatures of a cooler. But others, like zinnias and asclepias, stop evolving the moment they’re harvested—no pushing the envelope, there.
Then there are spiky flowers, most of which bloom from the bottom up, with lower florets deteriorating as upper ones open, giving pollinators a longer window of opportunity but forcing a harvester to decide when to cut. If bees get to delphiniums, for instance, you need to cut much earlier than if they don’t, making for quite different product to deliver to a client. Since bees generally don’t visit inside greenhouses, snapdragons harvested there can usually be allowed to open considerably farther than those outside, where bees trigger florets into seed producing mode almost immediately. Then there are those spikes that bloom from the top down, like peachleaf bellflower, and require a reverse procedure, a decision on how many upper florets to allow open before harvesting.
The grower possesses an advantage when cutting that any employee lacks. He knows what stage he wants a particular flower to be harvested at and can alter his harvest according to the shifts of his market. Likely, he doesn’t overload his help with information—Emily wants them ready to use, Sarah Jo needs them to hold until Saturday—so he may confuse cutters when he shifts harvesting standards. This freaks some employees out, since there are a lot of people unable to be flexible, whether they’ve been taught to be rigidly black-and-white thinkers or worry too much about pleasing the boss and can’t stand the thought of being wrong. Other employees will quickly forget the new standard, and almost all will slow down at least a microsecond, having first to remember what to forget, then remember what to remember, before cutting.
The range of cuttability being so shifty, today’s standard may not be tomorrow’s, so those who can’t erase one set of instructions to adopt a new one instead suddenly have two that overlap and even contradict each other. The result: frustration, bordering on sheer craziness. It’s much like having your thermostat set in such a manner that the heat comes on when it gets too cold, but when the heat comes on the air conditioning kicks in.
That confusing place in consciousness, where what is isn’t and what isn’t is, has been the subject of philosophical thought for a couple thousand years, and can be illustrated in the statement made by the Greek that “all Greeks are liars,” which means the speaker is lying and telling the truth at the same time—it makes no sense at all, but most of us are confronted with like situations from time to time and some of us even get brought up in environments where such paradoxical communication happens habitually.
Interested in this mental landscape of contradiction, social science researchers in the mid-twentieth century devised an experiment to illuminate the results of being given conflicting messages. Since ethics committees prevented using humans as subjects, the researchers taught dogs to distinguish the difference between a circle and an oval, rewarding them for right decisions. Once that part of the experiment was taken care of, they slowly made the oval more circular in subsequent tests, and the circle more oval. As they did, the dogs started exhibiting increasingly odd behaviors, whimpering, self-biting, spinning in circles, presumably because they knew they were supposed to know the difference but could not. Such an experiment wouldn’t be allowed even on animals these days, I suspect, but it is instructive to know that choosing can be maddening if the choice is irrational, even impossible.
So, if you’re the boss, don’t present your harvesters with impossible decisions. It’s best to cut a number of stems when showing new employees new species, one showing the place in the bloom cycle where cutting is too tight and one showing where it’s too blown, one displaying the maximally tight stage and one the most open you will tolerate. And if your standard shifts from day to day, make it clear why, explain to them to erase (for the moment only) what you told them before. If they can’t follow directions spelled out so clearly, if they start spinning and biting themselves, pat them gently and have them go weed, they may simply never be harvesters.
I see a lot of young farmers talking about their exhausting 12-15 hour work days—that’s way too much to endure for any lengthy period of time, though it may have been common before labor unions curtailed the practice. Such effort, though commendable, is unsustainable, and when those farmers hit the wall that makes them hate their work they’ll likely walk away.
It’s a rare day for either Jeriann or me to put in more than 8 hours, and usually we’re finished working by noon. Only in late June, July and August do we even work that long on a given day, and though we have an established farm and are consequently streamlined with wasteful activities worked out, our workload should be replicable by others in terms of hours worked. If you’re younger and stronger, you can certainly work harder for more hours if you want to, but you should not NEED to.
When comparing our workload to your situation, adjust by considering the “acre-month”—we grow on 4 acres, have a 4 month growing season, so multiply the two figures to make 16 acre months. This allows those with longer or shorter growing seasons to compare their hours against other farms—shorter seasons will have less field labor total, but perhaps the same amount of hours per acre month, for instance, and longer ones likely will have more hours totaling up but with the same results. Also, adjust for climate: wetter climates will have more weed pressure, thus more weeding. but likely have less time devoted to irrigation. Proximity to market means adjusting, too, as you’ll see our driving time includes 50 trips of 250 miles or more, each trip requiring a seven hour day in the best scenario. If your market is close, you’ll have fewer hours in the van, and if you man a farmer’s market booth, your hours will add up—it’s a matter of comparing apples to oranges unless you consider all time equal in nature.
Another way to assess labor costs is to compare hours to sales: we grossed 190k our last season, so you could do a calculation of hours per dollar that would be helpful for comparison purposes.
Here’s a breakdown of our labor for the last year we farmed:
600 hours by employees included:
120 hours driving
280 hours weeding
200 hours transplanting/processing/general labor
800 hours for me included:
600 hours cutting
100 hours tractor work
100 hours various field/processing work
650 hours for Jeriann included:
370 hours driving
230 hours prepping orders, sales/taking calls
50 hours cutting
That’s 2050 hours totaled up for the year—about 95 dollars of gross income earned per hour, and roughly half to sixty percent of that if you want to figure net income earned per hour. If you want to use acre-month as your measuring stick, we work about 130 hours per acre per month. Use these rough estimates to situate yourself in relation to us—do you work more? Less? Why? Remember, it’s not a matter of judging one farm against another (there are no gold medals here) so much as a matter of understanding how other farms operate in relation to yours—so much of farming consists of asking yourself if you’re beating your head against the wall, or if indeed others share your struggles and you’re operating your farm “normally.” Our totals are just one dart mark on an imaginary bullseye containing a similar mark from every flower farm—if you saw them all, saw where your dart landed, you’d know where you sat in the scheme of things, and quite likely it’d be somewhere in the middle. If it’s not and your circumstances aren’t extremely unusual, you probably can make some adjustments toward efficiency. Knowing that, you can decide whether you really want to work so hard, HAVE to work so hard, if you should throw in the towel for a less demanding livelihood or just learn to manage your workload more efficiently.
On a mature farm, then, our labor amount may be “normal” or it may be inefficient, but it satisfies us—we’re pretty sure there are ways to do things better, we even often know where waste occurs but are willing to accept it, whether out of a whim (growing an inefficient variety of flower we love) an ideological stand (we use less chemicals than the amount that would be more efficacious and labor saving), a desire for convenience (we have much wider walk rows than necessary, not to mention more than we need) or have the momentary luxury to work at a slower pace without considering whether it’s costing us. But early on in a farm’s life, the gross profit per hour is going to be less because you’re working harder with less infrastructure (i.e., labor-saving devices like tractors and irrigation systems), less understanding of how to streamline things and where to cut activities, perhaps on a piece of ground requiring rock removal and perennial weed work, and in an unproven market situation that sends you down a lot of empty pathways—not exactly wasted hours since you gain knowledge, but hours that drive your profitability down and stress levels up. And just as a child should grow up, slowly dropping false beliefs and bad habits to become an adult, a new farmer should take feedback from his land, business and market to hone his skills and eliminate wasteful actions that are unprofitable.
The old adage “work smarter, not harder” may be trite and overused, but it rings true for much farmwork. Proper timing saves you work. Systematized labor saves you hours—spending a lot of time switching tasks wastes your time, as Adam Smith told us a couple centuries ago and Henry Ford displayed with the assembly line. Doing tasks correctly once rather than poorly twice or three times improves efficiency—it’s not a matter of being right, it’s a matter of getting better outcomes. Using good tools, the right tools, saves time, though insisting on using the perfect tool can waste it.
An example of the benefits of timing: mulching before the season begins and before perennials are up can be done efficiently with a tractor by applying directly over the bed and letting plants grow through the mulch, while waiting until plants are growing means hand work with a fork so mulch doesn’t get on foliage. Waiting takes triple the time and does the job less efficiently since mulch can’t be worked in between emerged stems.
Weeding, too, done early in the season saves a lot of work later. Five minutes with a scuffle hoe when weeds are less than an inch tall may save you hours compared to waiting for weeds to grow larger. It may seem you’re getting more work done when you pull big weeds, but the effort of removing one bulky weed at a time exceeds greatly that of removing dozens of small ones with a single swipe of a hoe.
Cutters who band and size and control quality at harvest save time lost in the processing area; orders put together beforehand, labeled and separated, save the salesperson from searching for product. Stripping material in walkrows rather than dropping material on plants to be harvested again for several days keeps detritus from interfering with future cutting.
Choosing the right tool matters. A tractor does more than a tiller, a tiller does more than a hoe, a hoe does more than two fingers, but each has its place. Same goes for the mower, the weedeater, the shears—use them in the proper context. A large stem cutter works more swiftly than scissors at the processing area, and in the field you may use pruners, scissors, or even knives, depending on the species and your expertise, not to mention the feel in your hand. Context matters—no tool or technique is omni-useful, each has its most beneficial place.
Having a feel for the market saves a lot of work. While a flower business should always have too much product (otherwise you lose customers not just when you run out but long term—if you get a reputation of not having enough, clients will go elsewhere first), overage needs to be kept to a minimum. A typical farmer always plants too much, and that’s a good thing to some extent, but that doesn’t mean everything needs to be harvested. When we first started we grew several colors of monarda and picked every stem, borrowing space in a local convenience store cooler to store the many, many buckets of product—and still we left blooms in the field, not to mention throwing away most of the harvest. We learned then to take our best estimate of what sales might be, add a small percentage just in case a big order came in, and turn a blind eye to the rest of the harvest, painful as it might beg (to prevent second guessing, mow the remaining harvest down so you don’t have a chance to change your mind).
If you start seedlings and tend them for weeks rather than buying plugs, your hour totals will soar if you’re honest about time spent with them. If you love germination and growing-on, doing so is an income, not a debt, but one hard to measure in dollar terms. No one gains more of my respect than those who have the knack to grow small seedlings uniformly and healthily, but unless you have the luxury of extra hours to take care of plants you may be costing your business dearly. Of course, if you grow varieties unavailable as plugs, then you’re forced to grow them yourself—we started sweet peas for that reason, being unable to find a supplier—but otherwise plugs are much cheaper than self-germinated plants. Take a box of 5 trays of snapdragons (392 size)—that’s 2000 plants at less than a dime apiece, plus 30 bucks for freight in our locale. If you pay yourself 10 dollars an hour, you’d have to do all the work to grow your own in less than 23 hours to make costs comparable—and that doesn’t include, heat, trays, seed, and any other devices you use in the process of germination. Small growers often say they don’t need that many plants—if so, throw half of them away, compare the costs, and you’ll likely still be better off buying plugs in. You only have so many hours, use them in a manner that is most beneficial to your farm: if you’re freed from a task like germination you have hours spent doing other things likely more valuable—things you can’t hire out that require your expertise.
That expertise turns out to be invaluable, so cherish it accordingly. Give simple tasks to those who lack your knowledge and save the complicated ones for yourself, export time-sucking work to those in other fields—germination to plug producers, transport and delivery to couriers, tillage and other tractor or field work easily and cheaply done by others to custom service providers. It may seem to be spending money when you first look at it, but you’re saving time and therefore money, enhancing your business’s performance.
In the late 1970s I was driving into the little rural town of Aberdeen for a sunup cup of coffee when I saw what appeared to be a flooded field—someone’s mainline had broken and run all night, I surmised, and figured there’d be someone getting their butt chewed.
It turned out, though, that the field was blue flax, just come into bloom, and because flax drops its flower by late morning I’d never seen it on my normal lunchtime trip to town.
The flax farmer was going to strike it rich—he’d planted five acres of flax the year before, it yielded over a thousand pounds an acre, and he’d sold the harvest for fifteen dollars a pound. So he figured he’d make eight times the money by planting eight times as much.
What he hadn’t realized was he was the big player in the flax market—that eight times the supply didn’t equal eight times the demand, that he was actually competing against himself since he was basically the only grower within hundreds of miles. The flax market dropped out of sight and he lost money. He didn’t plant flax again. Ever.
A lot of new flower growers come from traditional farming—grain, cattle, even vegetables—and likely they know the habits farmers are well known for: after a year of high prices, they plant more than they should, driving the market down and putting many out of business. As deeply as that knowledge is ingrained in farming culture, and as obviously self-destructive as the habit is, farmers just keep on doing the exact same thing. At the coffee shop they laugh about it, then every spring go do it.
Recently I’ve seen one grower’s intentions to sell a million hydrangea blooms a year, other newly entering farmers with no market experience and little horticultural knowledge planting ten thousand peonies, no doubt expecting, like the flax farmer, to get rich. If you bring the same habits to flower farming you had in traditional farming—overplanting, overcapitalizing, underpricing—you’ll get the same results. Which would be all right if you were the only one suffering for your actions, but unfortunately the entire community of flower farmers will suffer from those actions.
Already, existing flower farmers complain about underpricing—traditional farmers, used to low margins, charge whatever their costs are plus the profit they’re accustomed to, not understanding that the demand for flowers is far less than that for potatoes and that a higher return is necessary to make a living. Maybe a quarter a peony at the farmer’s market seems like a profit so why charge two dollars, but the low price doesn’t mean you’ll sell lots more peonies—flowers are a luxury item, and those who value them are willing to pay a decent price while those who don’t won’t take them if they’re given away.
If you’re coming from other farming endeavors, leave some of your preconceptions behind, keeping only the barest generalizations that fit to any business. The specificity of flower farming—the importance of quality, service, botanical knowledge, among other things—doesn’t coincide with traditional business or agricultural ideas; in fact, it often contradicts them. There are different economic rules which differ from place to place, and you’ll have to learn them as if you’re an explorer in the New World.
After this summer that was our first in over two decades without the frantic cutting, planting, weeding, and irrigating of four acres, I’m already amazed by how hard Jeriann and I worked—it actually seems impossible now, because already I’ve recalibrated the set point of “comfort”. I still recall the joy of being in the field, of my body moving, heart pumping, muscle memory and unconscious understanding making the equivalent of a harvest “dance” that lasted five hours or more every day, and I rationally know that I could still do it, but it does, on initial observation, seem impossible as I watch the new owner and his workers go at it.
I’m not entirely into the lackadaisical stage, since I just finished spreading eighty yards of bark onto an area that would be lawn in a normal landscape. One spud forkful at a time into the wheelbarrow, dump, one spud forkful at a time onto the walkways and between the plants, it would have seemed an enormous task to me as a twenty year old, one I would have balked at were I asked to do it, but one I understand now as just another task to be undertaken not as an instantaneously done project but one to be whittled away at, perfectly doable if I just work at it with undistracted intent and don’t work against myself with thoughts—thoughts which I’d have had at twenty and even at thirty years of age--of what I’d rather be doing, of its unpleasantness in relation to other things, of the heat, of the dust, of the bugs…
And then there was the energy spent on the mental gymnastics I’d use to try to get out of the work: excuses, lies, weaseling around the task, doing it shoddily. I pretty much always made any work harder by making it more than it was. Now, I imagine an alternative reality, a twenty year old “me” with the understanding I have now, and envy that imaginary self for what he could accomplish. Alas, so much of what we do is undoing what we’ve done and what’s been done to us…
Judging from posts from new flower farmers elsewhere on the net I’m thinking that the ideas of comfort and convenience lured many to the profession. Maybe they thought having a farm and business meant being the boss and thus being free from the stress of a regular job (I did). Maybe they had an image of being amidst nature, strolling through the blooms, leisurely picking weeds on their own property on their own time in their own manner at their own pace (I did). Maybe they got caught by that old idea, seemingly new to those too young to have seen it before, that took hold in the 1960’s (which I fell for!), the one about finding your calling, getting meaning from your work, rather than slaving away under the thumb of factory work or at a desk. They all seem enthralled by the idea of a particular state of mind, the default mode of comfort.
Such an idea’s not much different—except in scale—from the junkie’s search for the perfect high, the alcoholic’s aim for the “just right” feeling of drunkenness and abandon, or the religious search for Nirvana, and I’ll bet my life savings it proves to be just as elusive (it did for me). Human existence is a compilation of many states of mind and clinging to any particular one of them can only result in failure. The ideas of comfort and convenience may be used as guides, but as aims they can only get in the way.Just as you can’t leave a job when you want to, you can’t leave the farm as you please—that three day family reunion, that concert you wanted to see a couple hundred miles away, that camping trip, aren’t options unless you want to lose control of the weeds and the harvest and lose your customers’ faith in you.
You don’t feel like doing something, you don’t like to cut cosmos, roses are prickly, you’re tired, you’re depressed—you can’t call in sick like you can when you work for someone else, you can’t avoid a task without paying the consequences of having to do twice as much the next day, making what was manageable into something unmanageable.
That leisurely pace you envisioned won’t get the flowers cut, the weeds pulled, the seeds planted at the rate your more active and dreamy mind planned—ramp it up, get your heartbeat beyond its lay-on-the-couch-watching-Netflix rate.
And that’s the key, right there: in your mind you think you know what comfort is, because you’ve never felt the comfort that comes from exertion and so don’t know that comfort’s default mode is adjustable, that it isn’t just one place in the terrain called consciousness but wherever you put it, right there between too much and too little, between exhaustion and boredom.
You can be comfortable resting with a book in hand, you can be comfortable hiking up a mountain slope, you can be comfortable cutting a bunch of flowers every minute as easily as cutting one every ten—when you freeze the idea of comfort at a specific place in your mind and then try to fit reality into it, you deprive yourself of possibilities (and profit) that exist if you just let your mind and body adjust to the flow of necessity out there in the real world.
Laborers and owners alike need to rid themselves very quickly of the preconceptions of comfort—first, that there is such a thing, and second, that they really would want it if there were. Rest is not happiness, nor is ease. You think it is only because you’ve been overwhelmed by their opposites and your mind takes you to them for counterbalance.
The leisurely pace your mind envisions doesn’t match the hungry pace of your business needs: if you don’t exert yourself when cutting, when weeding, you won’t earn even close to what your template of a minimal existence demands. If you opt for leisurely pursuits over doing what needs to be done because you “deserve them” and “you’re the boss”, be assured that your endeavors will fail—you can compartmentalize your life into the components of work and play only when you toil for someone else, when others in the workplace can take over your duties, but no one has your back when it’s your farm. Comfort and convenience are not options in flower farming—or, you might say, in anything.
The second you cut a flower you’re ushering it onward toward death. Lack of water, too much heat, and entropy itself all work to move it along its path toward destruction. Your job is to slow that process, and you do it by shortening its time out of water and the time it spends in heat and light.
There should be a clock in your head speeding your work—ten minutes is about it on our farm before we know we’ve failed. Sure, you can forget a bunch of peonies and pick it up a couple hours later, and we’ve had people rescue discarded sunflowers from the dumpster after hours out of water, but for the most part, cut flowers need to get in water and out of the heat.
If you see wilted leaves on your flowers, you’ve waited too long. Give the stem a fresh cut immediately, get it into water and into a shady spot. Put it in the cooler—often the cold temperature inspires a stem to pull warmer water up through it.
You should quickly learn which species need to be cut first. Orlaya likes an early cut—it will rejuvenate after being cut when it’s hot, rising from fully limp to stiff in a few hours after being in a cooler, but it can’t help to let it wilt. Monarda, too, loses turgidity quickly, even though it lasts well—but it doesn’t like the heat of a parking lot at farmer’s market. Queen Anne’s Lace needs to be cut early; it too wilts in hot weather. Sturdier flowers like sunflowers can take up the last spot on the list as they are forgiving, but even they deteriorate so be quick, get them in water.
Another time bomb should be your cutting speed. If it takes you longer than a minute or two to harvestt a bunch of flowers, you’re cutting profits as well as blooms. Figure out your hourly wage and subtract it from the price of the flowers and you’ll see how quickly earnings diminish. Bunch cutters should whip through grass or alchemilla in thirty seconds, as there’s no need to slow down to determine quality.
It’s the deciding that lengthens most cutters’ process, because we almost all have the physical abilities to harvest and the mental acuity to determine quality. If you’re slow, take a little inward look into why it’s taking you so long, because it’s the steps you add between spotting a flower and cutting it that’s sucking up time. Don’t worry about getting it wrong—second guessing the initial decision doubles your time: DECIDE and commit. Don’t look down for the exact place to cut, feel for it. Grab the head of the flower with one hand, get that cutting instrument down in the canopy and your mind will give you the general area to cut and your flower-hand will feel when the scissors hit the stem. Use your whole body—the depth you reach into the canopy tells you the length of the stem, you don’t have to eye it and thereby slow yourself down.
Desperation fueled our frantic pace from the start—we had to make a profit or get real jobs, so we understood the phrase “time is money”. In a short season climate, we have 120 growing days, 180 market days, to make a living—we have the winter to relax, we have afternoons in the summer to recuperate (it’s too hot to cut flowers, but also too hot to work after noon) Maybe Warren Zevon said it best when he sang: “I can sleep when I’m dead.” Why dawdle?
I put ladybugs in the same category as ghosts, since I’ve neither seen a ghost nor the efficacy of ladybugs—after a dozen attempts to use them. Some growers swear ladybugs to be a godsend for taking care of aphids, but I know people who swear they’ve seen ghosts, too—I just don’t know what to believe.
In the mid 1970’s a group of my hippie acquaintances rented a beat up house out in the country from which to base their partying exploits that included lots of alcohol, marijuana, and whatever else was making the rounds, drug-wise, at that time. Some years later one of them related a story about a ghost (they called him George, as he’d pluck a guitar—a nonexistent guitar—at random times night or day) that inhabited the house: they were sitting around drinking and smoking reefer, having a good old time, when a light bulb unscrewed itself, hovered horizontally across the room, dropped in their midst and broke. I was not sure how drug-addled the teller was at the time of the occurrence, so I chalked the tale up as a result of a VERY good time.
But a couple years later, another member of the same crew told me the story in almost the same words, without prompting, and while my skepticism remained, I had to move the doubt-meter just a hair.
And then, a couple years later, I heard the story again from another person who was there. Again unprompted, he repeated the tale almost verbatim.
And again, a few months later, I heard another telling from yet another attendee.
These fellows, great guys that they were, weren’t so sophisticated as to conspire to tell me such a story over several years, so while I don’t have to believe that a “ghost” was responsible for the happening, I do have to believe that they believe, and I do have to believe that something weird occurred. So, while I still don’t believe in ghosts, I do wonder…
The same goes for ladybugs—I keep hearing how they’re magic predators, so I have to adjust my doubt, but my own experience tells me that maybe those using them are just imagining their success. I’ve put them by the pint in my greenhouses when aphids appeared and they didn’t help at all. Most, I believe, flew out through the louvers looking for better fare. I tried scattering them through the field, a silly effort at best. For me, it was a waste of money, particularly when I witnessed a case of their mass cowardice one year when aphids afflicted hundreds of thousands of acres surrounding me.
Because the infestation was so rampant, I either had to give up my livelihood for the year or hire a crop duster, which I did and which took care of the problem. The day following the spray, I saw dead aphids everywhere, and along with them an absolute horde of LIVE ladybugs. Millions, if not billions, had followed the chemical onslaught for reasons I can only imagine—were they eating corpses, or had they avoided the field earlier because the infestation was so bad they were afraid—is the local species’ DNA marred by cowardice?
So my impression of ladybugs, I admit, is a prejudiced one. Had I caught infestations in the greenhouses earlier, applied the ladybugs more correctly (whatever that might mean), they may have worked. But even if they had worked, they wouldn’t have been able to save my crops since the mess aphids leave tends to make flowers unmarketable. I still use ladybugs, but more as a “canary in a coal mine”—when I see a ladybug on a species I know to be aphid-prone, I stop in my tracks and investigate. Often, I catch an early outbreak this way, so I guess they’re not entirely useless.
And the ghost? I asked my father, without telling him what inspired my curiosity, if any suspicious deaths had occurred in that house, and he recalled that a young man in his late teens had perished there in the 1940s.
“Triage” best describes our approach to farming—the term generally applies to the emergency room, where pressing problems like strokes and severed limbs take precedence over broken arms and wood ticks, which then take precedence over hangnails and runny noses. There’s a hierarchy of action that never is more evident than now on the farm here, just a week before the average last frost date, when the major early seeding takes place along with the biggest plug transplant, when the irrigation system has to be ready to water them and the suddenly burgeoning perennials, when the early woodies like lilac come to bloom and the last tulips are finishing and the weeds start coming so vigorously that they threaten to overtake the farm. It’s a bit of a panic.
Backing up a ways to my childhood, locals often made light of us dairy farmers because we never could really leave the farm—you milk in the morning, milk at night, and you don’t leave on vacation without ruining the business. In fact, to vary the routine an hour or two might lower herd production ten or twenty percent for a few days. Flower farming’s worse—cattle can at least feed and water themselves if there’s sustenance available, flowers can’t move on to the waterhole over the hill, and you harvest when they are ready or forget harvesting entirely. A lot of new growers think they can “manage” the farm, treat it like a project they can leave if they have the right plan, the right system, the right employees on hand, but mostly they’ll be mistaken. You can’t bully nature with your ideas. It’s a nice thought to imagine you take precedence over your business, but if your business is to be successful you need to serve its needs so it can serve you.
You need a triage hierarchy. Since it’s a business, harvest comes first, along with sales. Any business that has customers lined up at the register rather than taking care of them quickly risks loss of sales, and any business that runs out of product or has inferior product loses business, so cutting the flowers that have to be cut early is crucial, while species that are more forgiving, like sunflowers, can wait a bit.
Weather determines much of the farm’s action, so those tasks dependent on windless windows, like spraying, chemical come first if calm hours (or minutes—never days) allow, and necessary irrigation HAS TO take place for transplants or suffering plants NOW, not when it’s comfortable to you. If a storm is brewing and there’s tractor work to do that rain will set back, get ‘er done now instead of losing your window. Plant seeds or plugs before rain hits to take advantage of free water; rain is the best irrigating because it seals the ground nicely (though too much can also be a problem).
Because weeding can take place any time, regardless of weather, it comes last on the list of emergencies, though it may be the most important of the tasks. It has to be done, it cannot be placed on tomorrow’s agenda without suffering sometimes severe consequences. The most weedy areas come first, the species bolting (hopefully not yet blooming!) need to be removed immediately, while slow growing weeds can wait, but not too long.
You have to think of what the most costly INACTION is—if you wait, which will be the worst scenario? If you fail to harvest—zero dollars. If you fail to irrigate, stunted or ruined crops. If you fail to weed, years of frustration and more weeds. You may take the route I might have taken as an employee, blow it all off and go party or go on vacation—as an employee, you can get away with such a viewpoint, but as the owner, you will pay.
In general, almost all Clematis species make good cuts in terms of vase life, they just don’t make good cutting—most of them being climbers, they form tendrils that grab every available stick, stake, or neighboring stem, so require more patience than the usual grab-and-cut method used for other flowers.
A number of Clematis, however, grow shorter and more bush-like, and while most still need staking these respond to quicker harvesting and a little more roughhousing. First on the list comes Clematis Recta, a vigorous grower we sometimes bunch cut three times a year that yields 30 dollars in sales per running foot. Net and stake Recta, raise the net as it grows (pay close attention, as it’s very quick on the draw), grab a bunch of stems at the base when its white, star-like flowers either bud—for long term holding in the cooler—or form flowers—for immediate sales or use. It grows about three feet tall here, so you may not need the entire stem, but harvest deep to make the second harvest stems longer and easier to cut. Designers can substitute Recta for Jasmine, and its long vase life makes even traditional florists open to using it.
Clematis Recta Purpurea has dark leaves like Physocarpos Diablo or Lysimachia Firecracker, flowers just like the species Recta, but doesn’t yield much of a second crop, being less vigorous. It too needs staking, reaching three feet tall. Serious Black is one of its cultivars.
Clematis Mandshurica’s blooms, which look just like Recta’s, come about two weeks later. We’re trialing this somewhat taller species this year, hoping for equal success.
The Integrifolia Clematis yield a number of useful species. Durandii may be the queen, its four-inch, silver-blue flowers lasting ten days to two weeks in a vase. It’s a spindly plant that doesn’t interwine and requires double layers of net, but its three foot stems reward the grower and designer with multiple harvests through the summer, almost as if it were an annual.
Durandii’s sister Integrifolias include a mauve and white variety generally sold as a mixed bag. The white, according to propagators, is less vigorous, which explains why it’s hard to find. Since every designer wants white for weddings, if you can find a source for white integrifolia, jump at the chance to purchase. Both mauve and white integrifolia grow much shorter than Durandii, requiring only one layer of netting, and can be cut in bud or with its bell-shaped bloom fully open. You can cut a stem at a time, but we like to bunch cut to the ground, thereby pruning and harvesting at the same time and preparing for a second and even third harvest. If you tire of the flowers, let it go to seed, as it forms a swirling, nebula-like head that many designers find irresistible.
Roguchi, another integrifolia, poses more of a trellising nightmare than its siblings. We treat it like sweet peas, using vertical netting with T-posts and adding layers of twine to keep its rampant vines upright. Roguchi blooms prolifically, with purple bells that keep coming all summer. You’ll need a number of clients to keep up with even ten or fifteen plants.
Of the Clematis we raise, Heracleiflora grows unusually slow, yielding flowers only in the third year but generously after that. Its silver-periwinkle bloom comes late in the summer and should be harvested in fairly tight bud. It too needs to be staked, but only barely, its stems being much stiffer than any other clematis we know of. The leaves are attractive enough to use alone as foliage, though on our farm they tend to get the desert-blight that comes after a summer of sun and wind.
The integrifolias and rectas grow in full sun, while the Heracleiflora requires a little shade, according to recommendations.
Two vigorous species with small, white star-like blossoms bookend the clematis season. Neither are short by any means, autumn clematis (Clematis Ternifolia) flowering in September here and Paul Farges in late May and early June—later if pruned severely to delay bloom. Both grow and bloom prolifically, require innovative trellising and patience when cutting, but both work equally well in arches or vases—just pick your length of stem. Paul Farges is said to grow up to fifty feet over time, but we cut ours back considerably in the spring and it still runs ten to twenty feet. You can’t be afraid when harvesting its intertwined stems. Cut, pull, and when you hear tearing sounds just keep pulling. You may damage some of the plant but there’ll be enough to go around, I assure you. You can harvest in bud or in bloom, depending on when it’s going to be used, and you can take four feet or ten, depending on how comfortable you are transporting it.
There are a number of other species that work as cuts—Jouinana, hexapetala, Integrifolia Arabella, those listed here being a fraction of the possibilities. Use your imagination, turn your horizontal farm into a vertical one with clematis. You’ll be pleased with the results at sales time, though perhaps a bit petulant as you harvest.
There are a couple equally ridiculous notions regarding this particular dilemma, the bookends to a spectrum defining relationships between different entities. The capitalist notion that competition is inherently good for all has no basis in fact but proves to be a handy excuse for almost any sort of behavior, and the idea that we can “all just get along” by sharing denies the dynamic nature of existence, its constant change. Somewhere between these two comforting ideologies lies reality’s difficult relationships, and most flower growers (and any businessperson) eventually have to discover how to deal with them.
There’s a famous essay dealing with the problem of sharing called “Tragedy of the Commons”, the gist of it showing that in a shared area it takes only one individual to destroy the egalitarian nature of communalism—one person deciding he wants more or needs more than others, unrestrained, destroys the balance of cooperation, and the rest of the community quickly follows his action. Equally famous in Game Theory, The Prisoner’s Dilemma shows how, while two criminals gain most by refusing to rat out each other, if one is offered a better deal at the expense of the other he generally takes it, fearing his partner will do the same and so beating him to the punch when given the chance.
Though we were pretty much first to the flower farming game locally, we still faced the threat of sharing our market throughout the years. At the farmer’s market where we sometimes fought to make a hundred dollars a session a retired woman sold 50 sweet peas for 50 cents and a grade-schooler sold bouquets for a buck. Later, when we became visible as a successful venture, people came to “visit” the farm, then stole our methods, our species list and even our client emails and price sheet, and even last year we received a call from someone who had just sold sunflowers to one of our clients, who suggested she read our book. “I’m no competition,” she started, then asked us how to price, what to grow, when to cut.
It’s foolish to assume competition is inherently good. Just as often as it makes the competitors better growers or more efficient, it creates a race to the bottom pricewise or a prize to the most ruthless tactician. And it’s just as foolish to assume cooperation will work, to think that multiple growers can have identical financial needs, the same growing abilities and methods, or that a market can grow infinitely to match any influx of new growers, however large. Markets can grow but they aren’t infinite, and as soon as a market saturates the sellers become adversaries. It’s either step aside or fight for your place, may the better—or more ruthless, or richer—grower win.
There is now easy answer to the problem. Communication between competitors may help, but only if they trust one another and have similar ethical stances—somewhat unlikely, but possible. Not talk but actions create the trust necessary for smoothly working arrangements. Repeated financial interactions and successfully completed agreements increase interdependency and reduce competitive friction. That doesn’t mean all parties get to be totally happy—more often it leaves all just a little grumpy about the situation (operating just like a true democracy).
If you trust someone before they’ve earned it, you set yourself up to be exploited. Apple Computers got some of their early ideas on a visit to a Xerox plant—just how happy do you think those executives were? Similarly, we trusted our “visitors”, who lost any chance of future cooperation by poaching our ideas and client list. It’s quite possible, had they been honest from the start, that we could have given them tips on how to grow, what to grow that we didn’t or couldn’t, who to sell to, or markets we refrained from entering. Having been so burned, we’re skittish about offering visits and information to not only the innocently curious (how do we know who’s “innocent”?) but those explicitly interested in entering the business. It’s a difficult position to be in—we want to be helpful, but do we really want to condense twenty years of hard work and investments into a nice package to make someone else’s life easier (particularly when it may make ours more difficult)? Automatic distrust may be a recipe for paranoia, but automatic trust sets a person up as a mark—you just have to ride the fence between the two, slip onto one side or the other as each case arises.
You’ve seen the witty aphorism on the wall behind the cashier in the random local business: “A failure to plan is a plan to fail”, but as partially true as that might be, I’d add “and if failure’s not in the plan, it’s not a very good one.” As an overarching template on reality any plan occludes the world, often makes it more difficult rather than easier to negotiate and succeed in it. A plan is a map you’re placing over the very ground it purports to represent, and the more exact it is, the more it hides and less flexible you become.
One early winter, when I worked on a large commercial farm, the boss had a late arriving “plan”, deciding in December to construct a new corral for the hundred head Angus herd. The ground was already deeply frozen, so we had to chip away at the earth with a sharp metal bar to make postholes, the conditions multiplying the work by a factor of at least ten. That taken care of, the remaining construction proceeded as does much work in cold temperatures: frozen fingers, frozen wood, short days all contributed to a lengthened-out project we eventually completed after world-class amounts of grumbling.
The boss’s “plan” denied reality—had it been implemented in the spring when the soil was still moist the job would have been easy, and even if we’d dug the three feet deep holes in the fall when the soil was hard and dry it would have taken far less time than using a bar to chip away iced up soil a square inch at a time. The plan might have been a good one except for one thing: it was placed in a hierarchy above reality, trying to make itself a fact that superseded all others. A plan, to be a good one, always has to be subservient to the real world. That means it can only be intended rather than slavishly followed. When it comes up against resistance, it may need to be changed, but most people just try to use more force to bully it through—keep doing what they’re doing but doing more of it, rather than admit they’re wrong.
On a farm, having a plan means being prepared to alter it almost immediately. Anything beyond a slightly fleshed out intention may become a waste of time—a pleasant waste, I admit, so not entirely without worth, but nonetheless a distraction from one’s original intent. An effective plan-that-isn’t-a-plan means understanding the real world and how everything in it has thresholds, ranges, breaking points, and other characteristics that can’t be altered—no matter how elegant the plan to overcome them might be. Nothing, from ephemeral market forces and client wishes to more tangible, physical objects on the farm, nothing escapes the boundaries of its existence. Chemicals have their range of efficacy, tools have a threshold of use, each client has a level of tolerance toward quality and behavior, each employee has specific abilities and emotional limits.
And, of course, all your plant species have ranges: temperature needs, sunlight needs, daylength needs, irrigation needs, and more. No plan supersedes their requirements. They won’t germinate at a lower or higher temperature, grow outside their climatic needs, live with less water or more than they’ve evolved for, and your plan, if it intends otherwise, will simply be an elegant structure in your mind or computer or notebook.
This may seem mundane and obvious, but in this moment in history a couple trends, seemingly contradictory but often held simultaneously in the same mind (if not the same breath), get in the way of directly perceiving the world and placing oneself within the boundaries perceived. On the one hand, doing the “extreme” (be it eating or athletics) and “thinking outside the box” is so popular that natural limits which cannot be exceeded get lumped in with social and imaginary ones that can, and on the other hand, the exponential proliferation of virtual technologies boxes in with maps, lines, apps and templates the same reality the “extremists” are trying to escape. Thus, a way of being that might be productive in one sense becomes counterproductive in another: it may be good to play with your toys outside their intended use in innovative ways, but is it ever good to break them?
“Rules are made to be broken” is a rallying cry for the resentful as well as the innovative, the revolutionary as well as the simply destructive, but break the rule that your engine needs 5 quarts of oil and not 3, or that tulips require 12-14 weeks of cold temperatures, or even that your client expects you at 10 AM on Tuesday and the value of understanding and obeying natural and societal rules becomes evident. Our attitude toward living can be the plan that inhibits it if we fail to refuse the facts as they present themselves to us.