California-based Flower Farm Grows Market for Organic Flowers One Bouquet at a Time
January 24, 2012 | Jessica Vernabe
When you give a loved one a bouquet of flowers, do you want that gift to have a happy story behind it or a sad one?
That’s a question posed by Marc Kessler, owner of California Organic Flowers, whose Chico, CA-based business grows USDA-certified organic flowers, arranges them into bouquets and mails them to customers all over the country.
“If the flowers are grown in greenhouses that are fumigated with chemicals and they’re grown in South American countries where the labor practices are terrible and people are suffering from those chemicals … and they’re shipped in a 747 from some faraway country to Miami, and from Miami to wherever, and (then) to your house, it’s not a very nice story,” Kessler said.
On the other hand, California Organic Flowers customers get a happy story. They can expect their flowers to be raised outdoors in a natural environment free of pesticides. Natural predators do the job of keeping pests away, with the help of the farmers’ use of cover crops. Chemical fertilizers are replaced with natural ones—nitrogen from the cover crops, kelp meal and plant protein-based fertilizer pellets, Kessler said. And when it comes to shipping, the flowers are only shipped within the continental United States, and they are shipped within a day of being ordered.
Organic flower farming isn’t new, but it has been gaining traction over the past decade as consumers have become more aware that “organic” isn’t just for food products. Total sales of organic flowers have grown from about $5 million in 2002 to $46 million in 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2011 Organic Industry Survey report.
Yet even with the market’s growth so far, it still has a long way to go. Organic flower sales make up less than 0.25 percent of the total flower industry, according to the report.
For Kessler and his wife and partner Julia Keener, the decision to grow their flowers organically was never a matter of jumping on the bandwagon—it’s just the way the couple has always grown them, according to Kessler. He said he and his wife originally had a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm in Victor, Idaho. The couple started growing flowers as value-added item to go with customer’s vegetable orders. Soon, Kessler and Keener were getting flower orders for weddings, which created a new business opportunity.
Kessler said he and his wife started splitting their year between Victor, Idaho and Chico, Calif. Eventually, they moved to Chico full-time and then started a new farm there in 2003, completely devoting their attention to flowers. The new business was called Terra Bella Floral Design, and the couple did a lot of work in the wedding sector and selling mostly locally.
The husband and wife team changed their business’ name to California Organic Flowers in 2005 once they launched their Web site and started selling nationally. Today, the company has more of a focus on individual special-occasion bouquet orders, Kessler said. During Mother’s Day, they’ll get about two-and-a-half months worth of normal business in a matter of a week, Kessler said. When combining online and farmers market sales, California Organic Flowers sold about 13,500 bouquets of its organic flowers in 2011, compared to about 7,500 in 2006. The company’s owners are now considering expanding into wholesale operations, Kessler said.
As business has increased, so too has their acreage. The couple is now using three acres of land for flower production compared to the half of an acre they were using when they started. They also now have four additional employees.
Creating an Ecosystem
Kessler believes organic growing is the most efficient farming method. The process requires the skill set of looking at the farm as an ecosystem and the soil as a living thing rather than just a medium, he said. He notes that his outlook is inspired by the concept of biodynamic agriculture, even though he doesn’t fully subscribe to all of its ideologies.
“Biodynamics encourages taking a broad view and looking at your farm as a system and how things work together with each other,” he said. “It’s a paradigm shift.”
One way Kessler and Keener create a healthy ecosystem is by using cover crops. They plant legume crops somewhere on the farm each season. These cover crops have two critical functions—they bring nitrogen from the atmosphere to the soil, creating a natural fertilizer; and they attract pests, such as aphids, which then attract natural predators, such as ladybugs.
“(Attracting pests) seems totally wacky to the average farmer, but … then the ladybugs, the lacewings, the damselflies, the dragonflies and praying mantis are attracted to that,” Kessler said, noting that the predators eliminate the need for pesticides. “The predators will then eat those, and when they’re done, they’ll go to our flowers and get what they can. If there are any pests, they’ll lay eggs and they’ll come back year after year after year.”
Kessler said he and his wife had been using organic methods even back in their Idaho days, but they didn’t get certified as an organic flower grower until 2005 when they started taking orders online.
“(Before) we had a relationship with the consumer,” he said, noting that customers could always visit the farm and see their practices firsthand. “But then as soon as went online, we realized we needed some third-party certification.”
Organic Flowers Still Fringe
Kessler noted that while there are a lot of smaller farmers out there selling organic flowers, he doesn’t know of many other USDA-certified growers that solely specialize in organic flowers. The demand is apparent in that the business constantly gets calls and emails from consumers all over the country, he said.
The Organic Trade Association’s 2011 report also addresses some of the organic flower market’s limitations. Some of those include unattractive price premiums and low supply.
The report said: “With virtually no organic wholesale operations, growers are primarily limited to direct selling through community-supported agriculture (CSAs), farmers’ markets and the natural retail channel. … According to some experts, the organic flower market today looks a lot like organic foods in the ‘90s, back when one local co-op was the only game in town. Retailers wonder why no one grows organic, and growers plead a lack of demand.”
Debra Prinzing, a writer and lecturer in Seattle who is including California Organic Flowers in a book about the shift towards the organic flower market, agrees that the industry sector is still at its cusp. Her book “The 50 Mile Bouquet” hits national distribution on April 1.
“It’s considered fringe right now,” she said, noting that some still question why organic flowers are necessary since they are a luxury good. “This is not new, but there is a sort of new awareness that’s being driven by the floral design trade asking for locally grown or organically grown ingredients.”
Prinzing commended Kessler and Keener for meeting some of that demand.
“There are a lot of people growing flowers organically or sustainably to sell to the floral trade, but what Marc and Julia have done is really think like a mainstream marketplace in terms of developing a very consistent product offering (and) branding themselves incredibly well.”