Author Q & A
An interview with Lynn Byczynski
“I didn’t set out to be a flower farmer,” Lynn Byczynski writes in the beginning of The Flower Farmer. But twenty years after “a happy experiment” involving zinnias at a local farmer’s market, Byczynski is now an authority on growing and selling organic cut flowers. The Flower Farmer addresses everything from choosing varieties based on geographical location to knowing when to harvest and how to transport cut flowers to market. In this revised and expanded edition, Byczynski also explains what global warming means for flower farmers, as well as the burgeoning business opportunities as the demand for sustainably grown cut flowers continues to rise. Byczynski recently shared her story with Chelsea Green’s Brianne Goodspeed.
BG: You write that you didn’t set out to be a flower farmer and that you fell into it one summer while working on your organic vegetable farm. What happened?
LB: I grew a few rows of flowers one summer, took them to the farmers market and was amazed at how quickly they sold. So I grew more and more every year, and eventually flowers became the focus of our farm rather than a sideline.
BG: You also write that many people understand the importance of organic food – because it’s what we eat – but fewer people why it’s important for flowers. How important is organic for growing flowers?
LB: Everything, including flowers, should be grown organically. It's well established by scientific research that organic growing is better for the earth in every way. Organic growing protects the soil and its complex web of life, the water on which all life depends, and all the creatures that we share our planet with. And of course it's better for the farmer and gardener to avoid contact with toxic pesticides and herbicides! Organic gardening takes a slight readjustment in outlook and a greater understanding of plants, but it's not rocket science. Everyone can and should grow organically.
BG: How do the requirements for getting certified as an organic flower grower compare to getting certified for growing food? Can you even bill your operation as “organic” if you’re not dealing with edible plants and, if so, is it worth getting certified if you’re a small-scale grower?
LB: The requirements for certified-organic flowers are exactly the same as those for certified-organic food. According to the federal organic law, if you sell more than $5,000 in agricultural products per year, you can't label your products as organic unless they are certified organic. So any serious commercial flower grower has to get certified in order to call their flowers organic. But whether that is really necessary depends entirely on the grower's markets. In my experience, having organic flowers gives the grower a marketing edge (because who wouldn't want to buy organic flowers rather than pesticide-sprayed flowers?) but it doesn't necessarily mean they can get more money for them. Ultimately, every grower has to decide whether organic certification is worth the extra cost.
BG: When people think of farmers, they usually think of grains and vegetables. And when they think of flowers, many people think of a woman’s gardening hobby. What’s wrong with this picture?
LB: Let's call it commercial floriculture instead of flower farming. Does that sound more masculine? The fact of the matter is that growing flowers is every bit as difficult and demanding as growing any other kind of crop. And there are just as many men as women in the cut flower business.
BG: You write that the cut flower business has the potential to be rather lucrative, particularly compared to growing vegetables. This seems surprising. How much could someone earn, what sort of investment – both in time and money – would that require?
LB: A rule of thumb about cut flowers is that they generate about $25,000 to $30,000 an acre in revenue. That's about double the revenue per acre of veggies. A small commercial flower business requires very little start-up capital, especially for someone who already has land, basic gardening tools, and a van or pickup truck. Flower farms have a way of growing quickly, though, so most growers soon want to scale up and spend more on greenhouses, hoophouses, coolers, and better equipment. Finding the right scale is the challenge every farmer faces, and it depends on a complex mix of factors including the grower's desires, the markets, availability of land, and many other factors.
BG: How much land does someone realistically need to run a part-time flower farming business? How much land do you devote to flower farming?
LB: It all depends how much money you want to make. With two acres, you can net about $30,000 a year. I have grown more and less, but right now I'm growing on about an acre plus 8000 square feet of hoophouses. Your land requirements will depend on whether flowers will be your full-time job, a sideline to growing vegetables, a part-time job, or a little money-making endeavor for your kids.
BG: What flowers are the easiest to grow? The most popular? The most profitable?
LB: Sunflowers top the list of all three categories. They are easy, popular and profitable. Zinnias are a close second. After that, things get a little variable depending on where you live and where you sell. In my book, I have included recommendations of Top 10 flowers from growers in every region.
BG: What are your three personal favorites?
LB: That's a much harder question than you might realize. It's like asking which of my children I love more. I love virtually every flower I grow, though for different reasons. I love zinnias because they are so hardy and easy and such intense colors and because they attract butterflies and goldfinches. I love lisianthus because they are so tough and will bloom in the hoophouse in the hottest summers even while they look so delicate and elegant. I love tulips because they are the first crop of spring and they bend so gracefully in the vase. I love Oriental lilies for their incredible fragrance, and celosia for their interesting structure, and on and on.
BG: Many people think of cut flowers as annuals, but are there perennials that make good cut flowers? Do they require less work than annuals?
LB: There are scores of perennials that make great cut flowers, and I have a list of the best of them in The Flower Farmer, as well as detailed cultural information in the appendix. But, contrary to expectation, they are not really easier than annuals. You have to keep perennials weeded and watered 12 months a year.
BG: What sorts of challenges might a beginner encounter in raising and selling cut flowers? How do they compare to the challenges of raising and selling vegetables?
LB: The biggest challenge right now for flower growers is carving out a market niche, especially if there are already other local growers. I think it's really important for beginners to recognize that there is a huge potential to increase flower sales in the U.S., where per-capita sales are about half what they are in Europe. So new growers shouldn't try to steal away customers from other growers but should instead concentrate on developing new markets, recruiting new florists, finding new stores to sell flowers.
BG: If you could give one piece of advice to someone about to get into the cut flower business, what would it be?
LB: Take notes about everything. Everything about growing and selling flowers is so thrilling in the beginning that you think you will never forget a minute of it. But you will. So keep a journal, plant lists, planting dates, detailed sales invoices, reminders of things you want to do differently next year -- write it all down! View every success and every failure as valuable information, and you will be on your way to success quickly.
BG: Global warming and the increased demand for sustainably (and ethically) grown cut flowers are changing the business. What sort of impact do these relatively recent phenomena have and are there any other trends affecting the industry?
LB: Most growers agree that climate change has changed variety selection or production practices for them. My Top 10 flowers today are not the same as my Top 10 a decade ago. I can grow things I couldn't before, and vice versa. That means it's important to diversify, to try many new things every year, and to stay flexible.
As the demand for sustainably grown flowers increases, U.S. growers shouldn't be shy about trumpeting their green credentials. It's great that some of the big flower farms in Ecuador and Colombia are trying to improve their growing practices, but we can't let consumers forget that locally grown flowers in season will always be more sustainable.