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.