Local flower-farming takes root  in a global economy - Salish Current
May 28, 2024
Local flower-farming takes root  in a global economy
Adam M. Sowards

Local flower-farming is about quality of life and quality blooms, said Diane Szukovathy of Jello Mold Farm as she clips weigela stems bound for the local flower co-op and Mother’s Day bouquets. “It’s a lot easier to farm when you’ve got swans in the sun.” (Adam M. Sowards)

May 28, 2024
Local flower-farming takes root  in a global economy
Adam M. Sowards

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Small-scale Skagit farms seek to demonstrate there’s more than a price point to value.

When Skagit florist Mindi Fatigate went into business in 1992, she did not purchase many flowers from local growers.

Things have changed in the last decade or so for the owner of Hart’s Floral in Mount Vernon. Fatigate now estimates that about 50% of her cut flowers in the summer come from local growers.

The cut-flower industry is dominated by imports making it difficult for local flower farmers to compete strictly on economic grounds. Relying on local growers for half her summer stock is unusual. 

“People ask for it,” said Fatigate. “That’s why I have shifted more that way.” 

This decision reflects that the bottom line is influential but does not determine everything. 

Nurturing local souls — and blooms

Small-scale flower farmers in the valley are creating their own niche. Their efforts counter the global cut-flower industry with high-quality local alternatives, strengthening the local economy and community ties.

Among other things, a thriving local economy matches local producers and consumers. It shrinks supply chains and nurtures relationships between those who grow or make things and those who buy them. This strengthens communities and fights climate change, its proponents insist.

Such a world needs flowers, too.

“Feeding the people is a noble cause, and we are not feeding the people,” said Diane Szukovathy, a Skagit flower farmer. “We are feeding people’s souls, and, you know, those of us who are creative and have the visual eye and love plants would tell you that it’s almost as important as food.” 

Brightening lives, homes and special occasions with local blooms costs more.

The price point on that can be tough to gauge.

A global market

Roughly 80% of the cut flowers Americans purchase — roses, carnations and other standard blooms — are grown outside the United States.

Some 70% of imported flowers come from Colombia alone where favorable growing conditions and lax labor standards encourages that industry.

So do U.S. government policies.

In 1991, Congress passed a law that removed a tariff and jumpstarted the flower industry in Colombia, as a way of discouraging farmers from growing coca plants.

In the subsequent three decades, domestic rose production in the United States dropped 95%.

According to Fatigate, a bunch of snapdragons costs her about $5 for imported flowers at a Canadian auction in Burnaby, British Columbia, where she buys many of her flowers. In Seattle wholesale markets, they cost $11. 

Some Skagit flower farmers sell in those markets, but others sell directly to florists and consumers — and local growers can have trouble moving their flowers at that price.

“I’m willing to pay more,” said Fatigate, and she likes to support local growers. But paying double is hard since she also must mark up flowers. “What do you have to charge for a bouquet of flowers?”

That is the kind of question that sits at the center of local economies and small businesses competing with a global industry.

Cooperating for wholesale

Locally, a different type of flower production is possible and has been developing for some time. 

Szukovathy recalls driving around trying to sell flowers 20 years ago. That was an inconvenient, impractical and inefficient way to make a living.

“There’s not enough hours in a day,” said Szukovathy.

So Szukovathy and a few others got together and started the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market, a farmer-owned cooperative that opened in 2011.

Szukovathy operates Jello Mold Farm west of Mount Vernon with her husband, Dennis Westphall, growing “everything but tulips,” they joke.

Szukovathy thinks the co-op has found a “sweet spot of efficiencies.”

Not only does the co-op create a certain scale and centralized location to sell to florists, as well as the public, but it also helps standardize prices, which helps flower farmers just getting started learning the true value for their products.

“We’re trying to make sure that people could actually raise families doing this,” said Szukovathy. “The only way we can actually create a solid industry from all this creativity is if we nail quality for a fair price — but a working living price.”

Fortunately, the Seattle market supports buying local. The co-op allows operations like Jello Mold Farm to survive economically on its five acres of foliage.

The local movement 

It is not surprising Fatigate noticed increasing demand for local flowers about a decade ago. That corresponded with the birth of the co-op and the rise of the “slow-flower” movement.

Akin to the slow-food movement, slow flowers — the brainchild of Debra Prinzing of Seattle — emphasizes a local, seasonal and sustainable floriculture through several avenues include the Slow Flower Podcast, books and even a manifesto.

A dozen years ago, Prinzing published The 50 Mile Bouquet: Seasonal, Local and Sustainable Flowers and then Slow Flowers: Four Seasons of Locally Grown Bouquets from the Garden, Meadow and Farm.

These books joined analogous ones like The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating that had appeared five years before, signaling a zeitgeist rooted in the local.

About the same time,  Floret Flowers got its start. It has earned international attention through books and a documentary. Its workshops have helped others develop their own flower farms.

Fatigate credits Floret with helping local growers produce more professional-looking bouquets, which makes it easier for local florists to rely on local flower farmers.

Flowers are a way to tend community roots in Skagit Valley, according to Meghan Ellsworth, tending ranunculus at FlowerFunk Blooms. “There’s definitely something special about Skagit.” (Adam M. Sowards)

This spirit is pulsing in Skagit.

Having some green space

Standing next to her plot at FlowerFunk Blooms, Meghan Ellsworth explains her vision of flower farming as a way to promote a sense of community.

“There’s magic in the fields here,” said Ellsworth, referring to the Skagit Valley.

At her farm, the South Fork Skagit River runs just beyond the dike, which is a stone’s throw away. Pink ranunculus await harvest. The scene is deceptively idyllic. Overhead, two bald eagles squabble.

“If you like Russian roulette … become a farmer,” said Ellsworth.

Her ranunculus nearly froze this year, pushing her on an emotional as well as economic roller coaster.

“I would not be able to stay in business if I was not working part-time somewhere else,” she said. Getting established takes a long time. “I think most of the flower farmers in the area would not be in business if it weren’t for just pure love.”

But “a love choice,” as Ellsworth characterizes this work, is a risky way to pay rent and student loan debts.

Despite the risk of her small-scale operation, she thinks it is worth it. Her hat says as much: Dig Plant Love.

FlowerFunk Blooms is in its first official year, although Ellsworth has been a hobbyist grower for years.

Ellsworth is planting seeds in a several economic fields. She got her start doing flowers for weddings, which she sees as the focus going forward. She sells some flowers wholesale. Finally, she also teaches floral design courses monthly in the community with the potential to do more to meet growing interest.

The floral designs either in classes or for weddings are most lucrative for Ellsworth. She estimates she can earn up to four times as much per stem in a bouquet than at wholesale rates.

They are essentially a value-added product, which generates more income.

This diversification within her floral aspirations is a strategy familiar to any small business. Other local flower farmers and florists offer subscription-based bouquets, much like community-supported agriculture shares.

The heart of Ellsworth’s classes is more than the bouquets community members are designing.

She thinks about it as “teaching people how to grow with the land and love the land,” she said, and taking “a little moment to have some green space.”

A local co-op?

Seattle supports the local ethos that can make the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market survive and serve the region. What is sold there helps support local flower farmers.

Ellsworth would like to see a smaller scale co-op form in Skagit. 

“Skagitonians understand the value of Skagit, but then they don’t actually honor Skagit,” she said. Having grown up locally, Ellsworth knows that Skagitonians recognize the importance of buying from local farms, “but then they don’t follow through.”

She and some other local farmers are brainstorming ways to start one. Ideas are still forming. 

Fatigate would welcome “a cooperative or something where you could go to one place and pick everything up.” She thinks there would be enough florist business in Northwest Washington to make it work, “especially if they work together on what they grew.” The market cannot support flower farmers growing only dahlias or peonies. 

Ellsworth agrees on the need for cooperation. “I think we need to look to our neighbor because that’s who’s going to help us,” she said.

In these bright pockets, away from the tulip fields, flower farmers have been building a future designed to last with distinct local tones. 

She has learned, Fatigate said, that “people love local.”

— By Adam M. Sowards

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