Sunday, 20 March 2016

How to be a Flower Farmer!!

On Tuesday I pootled over to Common Farm Flowers, home of Georgie Newbery and her team who, in the last 6 years, have grown their flower farming and floristry business from a barrow in their lane to a business turning over serious sums of money. When I first visited Common Farm it was at the beginning of this momentous journey and I am enormously proud to have played a tiny part in where it is today, even if most of that part was nagging about good use of compost teas to keep the soil healthy.

Georgie is neither a trained gardener or a trained florist, but what she is, is a woman driven by wanting financial success and with natural green fingers and an eye for colour and form that could only come from someone who began their career working for American Vogue in Paris. She understands colour, knowing instinctively how to give her customer, be it a bride, someone wanting bouquets of posies, or even funeral clients, exactly what they need. The range of flowers grown at Common Farm is huge, and this all helps to make the Common Farm style instantly recognisable.
I went on this course because I was intrigued by what the title of "How to be a Flower Farmer", which lets be honest, could be a week's worth of work and still in no way have covered everything. I know this course is one run at Common Farm often due to demand, so nosiness was my real reason for going along. But also, knowing Georgie, I suspected it would be very real and honest. I was not to be let down.

Throughout the day the most important message was that although flower farming is a wonderful job, it has to be entered into as a business, and one that must make you a living, whatever that living might need to be. For a few people on the course this was obviously something they hadn't really thought about, with far more thought having gone into what to grow, how and where. Over and again we were brought back to the importance of working out your business model and your market, whilst ensuring that those things would make you a living.
Earlier in the year I had a conversation with someone involved with Fairtrade here in Bristol, and a comment made by that person concerned me greatly. I was horrified that an organisation was supporting Fairtrade flowers before homegrown for a Valentines campaign in Bristol and one of the reasons I was given was that growers in Africa and South America are being helped by the Fairtrade trade to feed and educate their families whereas she doubted that was a concern of  any flower grower in the UK. Flower growing, it seemed, was a hobby that a few might be making some money from, but it wasn't an important part of a family income. I found this completely infuriating. I know many flower farmers for whom their flowery income is their only income and who also employ several others who are then, of course, reliant on that business too. Flower farming isn't, for most at least, a jolly game that is played at, in between lunches and days out at events and courses, but a serious business often supporting rural economies as well as adding to them. I made this point and suggested they visit various flower farms in the area, none of whom they had even investigated. They seemed unaware that the industry even existed until our conversation, let alone that there are more than a dozen flower farms, that I am aware of, within a 50 mile radius of Bristol.

And so I was relieved to see that Georgie approached becoming a flower farmer by explaining that becoming a business was the most important part, before a seed is sown or a bulb planted. For flower farming to be taken seriously as an industry it needs to show that it has serious business credentials and that it can be a job that supports families,feeding into local economies and making them brighter and more exciting places to be in business within. Before growing anything, there is the need to decide what your market is, where that might be and how your flowers are going to get there. This depends on what it is you need to earn so whereas for some selling via mail order at high end prices may bring in what is needed, whereas for others selling through farmers markets might be a great way to turn over the required funds. Of course it's also important to look at ways to add value to your flowers, usually by working on wedding flowers but also looking at running courses, giving talks, and ensuring that key moments in the year, such as Valentines, are maximised on and that your customers know that they can trust your product at all times throughout the year.

So what did I learn? Well mainly that I want to grow flowers for a living at some point in the, probably quite far, future, but that I need a solid and sensible business plan before I even consider sowing a seed because there is nothing rude about demanding a living from doing something you love. A fair and valid point!!

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