Couple filling floral demands of niche market

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Farmers sharing insights on their successes have become hallmarks of the annual Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture conference.
At the 16th annual conference focusing on farming for the future, Evan and Jodi Verbanic, owners of Cherry Valley Organics, offered tips on all aspects of the cut flower portion of their farm operation.
Diverse markets. Located near Burgettstown, Pa., 20 miles from Pittsburgh, the Verbanics have developed cut flower sales beyond their farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture subscriptions.
This blooming business also includes florists, natural food stores and co-ops, restaurants, small businesses, coffee shops, craft shows, and special events.
Pricing pointers. Evan Verbanic noted that when they began bringing their cut flowers to farmers’ markets five years ago, many growers were grossly underpricing flower bunches.
As many as 36-48 stems were being sold for $4 to $5. Jodi Verbanic pointed out that a grower must get at least 50 cents a stem to be able to turn a profit.
They offer three sizes of bouquets. The small size includes 10-12 stems, medium about 20, and the large may have as many as three dozen, depending on the flower type.
Their flower arrangements, many of them designed as centerpieces, start at $25. The Verbanics advise checking the floral prices at local grocery stores. In addition, for the florist market, check the U. S. Department of Agriculture reports for current wholesale cut flower prices.
Quality counts. The Verbanics first purchased and studied the cut flowers sold by other growers at farmers’ markets.
They quickly saw deficiencies in quality. For example, lower leaves had not been stripped, which considerably lowers flower life when covered with water in a vase.
The efforts taken by Cherry Valley Organics in harvesting and post-harvest handling ensures that customers enjoy freshness that lasts, whether purchasing just a few stems or an elaborate large arrangement.
Harvest when full of water. Avoid cutting flowers in midday. Cut in the morning before 10 a.m. or 11 a.m., or in the evening when the flowers contain the most water.
If at all possible, do not cut when raining. The moisture encourages fungal growth, and the petals could spot.
However, Jodi has used box fans to carefully dry the flowers if an urgent order had to be filled.
Slant cut the stem. Jodi cuts the stems with narrow-tipped thinning shears because they handle better for her than clippers. Always cut on a slant to increase the surface area for the stem to take up water.
Jodi takes a bucket into the field, cuts the flower, strips the lower leaves, and immediately places the stem into water. Buckets are never placed in the sun. Stems are recut under water.
Tepid water is generally recommended for most flowers, although flowers such as dahlias, and flowers from woody shrubs such as roses and butterfly bushes benefit from warmer water.
Jodi added that zinnias often droop; they can be perked up if stems are recut. She also advises clients to recut stems every other day at home to prolong their flowers’ vase life.
Proper storage aids condition. Cherry Valley Organics transports their flowers quickly to five community supported agriculture pickup locations, and promptly delivers to florists and other sales outlets.
If stored before delivery, the cut flowers are held in a 60 F draft-free room. They advise never placing cut flowers near any ethylene-producing vegetables or fruits, such as tomatoes.
Presentation attracts. Evan remarked that some farmers’ market growers displayed their cut flowers in mayonnaise jars.
Conscious of a quality image as well as function, the Verbanics deliver their cut flowers in professional-looking containers.
A little shopping among mass-market retailers paid off in savings for the visually appealing buckets they use.
Jodi varies the bouquets for their weekly and monthly subscribers by concentrating on just a few colors each time.
In her floral arrangements as well, Jodi does not use a rainbow of colors. Rather, the design, coupled with an artistic blend of a few colors, imparts the right touch.
Since they grow 200 varieties, they can give their patrons a different assortment each time.
Flower growing simplified. For those growers contemplating adding flowers, the Verbanics encourage, “Vegetable growers can grow flowers.”
Flowers complement Cherry Valley Organics’ wide variety of vegetables, berries and herbs. The flowers make up only half an acre of the farm.
Although most of their cut flowers are annuals, more perennials are planned.
Depending on the flower, they start seeds in their greenhouse, or buy plugs or transplants. Bulbs augment their line. They have devised a system of permanent beds.
Weeding is done by hand, although Jodi explained that the 3 inches to 4 inches of straw mulch is applied as early as possible. She dislikes black plastic.
Product demand. Product depends on market. Cherry Valley Organics’ flower subscription sales can be purchased independently from their produce community supported agriculture service.
The prices vary from $50 to $400, and depend on frequency of delivery and the size of the bouquet.
Natural food stores and co-ops like mixed bouquets, and floral bunches for make-your-own bouquets. These outlets typically locate in an affluent area and enjoy the high end of the market.
Bud vases are successful for restaurants, small businesses, and coffee shops.
In addition, restaurants order grower bunches to assemble on site; small businesses display bouquets in their reception areas; and coffee shops often resell bouquets posted by their cash registers.
Florists. As expected, florists are the most demanding clientele. The Verbanics enticed this market with free samples.
Thanks to their post-harvest care and freshness, florists recognize that Cherry Valley Organics’ flowers have a longer shelf life than of sources that ship.
Florists require high volume. The Verbanics provide 100 stems of each variety at once in bunches of 10 stems.
They supply arrangements priced not less than $25 for special events such as anniversaries, dinner parties, and birthdays. They do not do weddings, and are still evaluating the potential for craft shows.
Cherry Valley Organics also creates lush holiday wreathes and centerpieces. Dried flowers, grasses, and other materials expand the design possibilities as well as connote the festivity of the season.
Flowers to cut. Cherry Valley Organics’ cut flower diversity comes from planting a small amount of a large number of flowers. The season extends from early May until frost for most of the varieties they currently grow.
Cherry Valley Organics is certified organic, and lists their products and other useful information on their Web site, www.cherryvalleyorganics.com.

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