On a sunny weekend in early spring, 40 farmers and would-be cut flower growers fill the second floor of the barn at Jello Mold Farm in the Skagit Valley. Bundled in their coats against the cool morning, they eagerly listen to more experienced farmers, a florist, a grocery store buyer, and a floral designer talk about ways to grow and sell their peonies, ranunculus, and dahlias.

As new subjects come up, notebooks and pens sprout in their hands. They note that hydrangeas, roses, and lilies could be the “workhorses” in their bouquets. They learn that the demand is growing for local and seasonal flowers. And they hear that as a group they could boost a local cut flower industry.

Diane Szukovathy and Dennis Westphall
Diane Szukovathy and Dennis Westphall (Photo David Perry)

But these farmers, the future of the cut flower industry in our region, also discovered that even if they master growing and arranging the blooms, there are some big obstacles planted in their path.

The meeting was organized by several flower growers and a Washington State University research team of Bev Gerdeman and Lynell Tanigoshi. They started out addressing a problem with flea beetles and, with the help of a Washington State Department of Agriculture grant, turned it into an effort to foster sustainable production and strengthen the local cut flower community.

The first big problem for local farmers is that about 80 percent of the cut flowers in this country are imported, farmer Diane Szukovathy tells the group. A big chunk of the import business comes from growers in Colombia, where labor is cheaper and flowers can be exported to the U.S. duty-free. “The way I see it, we’re losing an heirloom trade,” says Szukovathy. She and her husband Dennis Westphall established Jello Mold Farm five years ago. They grow more than 150 varieties of cut flowers which they sell at markets, directly to farmers, and through grocery stores. They have seen firsthand the effects of an import-dominated industry.

They and other Northwest flower growers responded to the South American domination of the market by replacing standards like long-stemmed roses and carnations with blooms like sweet peas and dahlias that are in high demand, are harder to transport, and don’t do particularly well in the Colombian climate. They also expanded their offerings beyond traditional flowers to include items like willow branches, foliage, gourds, and grasses. The resulting arrangements are stunning and interesting, quite unlike the bargain bouquets you find on most grocery store stands.

WSU’s Bev Gerdeman describes Washington’s specialty cut flower growers as a cryptic group. She found several different sectors: a large community of Hmong farmers who dominate flower sales at farmers’ markets, the traditional non-Hmong growers who have long-established channels for delivering their product, and the newer small-scale growers who run roadside stands, sell at local markets, and work with local businesses. As she started her flea beetle outreach, none of the groups was easy to reach.

When she sought out and visited with them, she realized that yes, they were concerned with insects and pest management, but were really worried about getting their flowers to market. “I think I can help them,” she says. One way is through this two-day flower school. Another is by teaching the new growers how to find customers, whether they be florists, stores, individuals, or a mix. And a third, says Gerdeman, is to teach them how to farm sustainably, in a way that will both protect the environment and make them appealing to a socially-conscious clientele willing to pay more for their flowers.

Flower customers are already demanding local and seasonal arrangements, says Melissa Feveyear, owner of Terra Bella Flowers in Seattle. “I work with the seasons. I work with what the weather and Mother Nature has to offer,” she says. “My customers just want to know it’s local and conscientiously grown.”

Stacie Sutliff, who owns Blush Custom Floral in Anacortes, says she meets brides who want to have “green” weddings with local, organic floral arrangements. Both Sutliff and Feveyear like to buy flowers directly from the farmers. But unless they go out and find them, or the farmers seek them out (and only a few do), there’s no way to connect.

That brings us to another obstacle. The world’s largest flower auction, after Holland, is just north of Washington in Burnaby, British Columbia. The market operates three days a week and connects Canadian farmers with more than 500 buyers, especially professional florists, from around the Northwest. And, according to Diane Szukovathy, the B.C. market has a major effect on flower farmers in the Puget Sound region. “It’s drawing business up the coast,” she says.

This issue came up last year when Szukovathy and other Washington and Oregon growers were at an Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers meeting. “We realized there is a lack of ways for local producers to band together and sell product,” she says. “And Oregon farmers were not getting into the Seattle market.”

Their solution is to create a large owner-run wholesale market in Seattle. The Seattle Wholesale Growers Market Cooperative is scheduled to open May 18 in the Original Rainier Brewery Building in the Georgetown neighborhood. Growers will be able to sell directly to regional floral designers. And designers will have access to local, in-season flowers. “It’s one place where we can unload it and people will come to us,” says Szukovathy, who is now president of the co-op. “We have no idea what the demand is going to be.”

While the notion of running a cut flower farm seems lovely and romantic, there are some hard realities, the workshop organizers tell the students. Labor is the make or break factor. You’re extremely vulnerable to the weather. “And cut flower farms don’t look like gorgeous gardens always,” Szukovathy says. “What you want to look gorgeous is what goes on the truck.”

The workshop inspired several of the farmers to go out and teach their communities about buying local flowers. One woman, whose home on Whidbey Island near Langley came with a flower garden and a farm stand, now plans to visit local businesses, restaurants, and bed and breakfasts to develop a new customer base.

“You have to use every resource you have available,” says Szukovathy. “It takes every bit of everything you’ve got: your brains, your body… And you have to educate people around you.”