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Local flower farms growing in wholesale co-op market

Jul 3rd, 2014 | Category: Features

by Jessamyn Tuttle

Living on a flower farm seems an idyllic existence, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard work. “We’re not working the fields in a sunhat with a basket,” said Vivian Larson, owner of Everyday Flowers in Stanwood. “We’re getting up at four or five.”

Diane Szukovathy and sweet peas at Jello Mold Farm in Mount Vernon. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Diane Szukovathy and sweet peas at Jello Mold Farm in Mount Vernon. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Larson, who has been growing flowers for 25 years, raises some spring bulb crops, like specialty tulips, then focuses on annuals, starting nearly all of them from seed in her small seedhouse. Her growing beds are kept going throughout the season with succession plantings of flowers like ranunculus, stock, sweet peas, Queen Anne’s Lace, and calendula. For many years she put together mixed bouquets and sold them at the Mount Vernon Farmers Market, and now she’s working on a grander scale with the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market.

The market, which is a cooperative of flower farmers from around the Pacific Northwest, has been offering wholesale cut flowers in a warehouse in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood since 2011. By bringing growers into one place, it lets floral designers and other professionals buy in quantity while saving the farmers from having to deliver to multiple locations.

“The Seattle Wholesale Growers Market has actually allowed me to do this on the level I do,” said Larson. “It’s way too much for a local farmer’s market or local florists.” For many years she worked a nine-to-five job as well as the farm, but is now farming full time thanks to the expanded wholesale opportunities which make up nearly all of her sales.

The market’s existence is largely due to the efforts of Diane Szukovathy, who runs Jello Mold Farm in Mount Vernon with her husband Dennis Westphall. Szukovathy, who took up flower growing after working as a garden designer in Seattle for many years, has been lobbying to create awareness of the effects of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which has resulted in a flood of cheap imported flowers taking over the market, greatly reducing sales of domestic cut flowers.

“We’re an endangered industry,” she said. “We’re trying to build national awareness.”

Vivian Larson of Everyday Flowers in Stanwood. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Vivian Larson of Everyday Flowers in Stanwood. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

The need for buyers to be able to find locally grown flowers in a larger market resulted in the formation of the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market cooperative, taking inspiration and encouragement from the Portland Flower Market, which has been running since 1941. The Seattle group currently has 14 farms participating, from growers in Walla Walla and Cle Elum down to Oregon.

“It’s a way for small farmers to band together to do something that alone they couldn’t do,” Larson said.

To be able to compete with commonly imported flowers like roses and carnations, growers here focus on specialty varieties and flowers that don’t travel well, like sweet peas, dahlias, hellebores, and lilacs, and they are extremely careful about quality so that customers know they will always get a good product. “We have a very high standard,” said Szukovathy. “Long term it’s a really good way to do business. It’s respectful.” They have also encouraged co-op members to pursue Salmon Safe certification and use organic farming methods as much as possible. “You can’t find better quality than at the wholesale market,” Larson said. “We’re vigilant. We have to be.”

The market has had a particularly huge benefit for Triple Wren Farm owners Steve and Sarah Pabody, who farm flowers around the apple orchard they manage outside Ferndale. “You can make better money with ornamentals than edibles,” said Sarah Pabody, who runs the flower farm while her husband manages the orchard. Her first year of flower gardening she sold to local florists and markets in the Whatcom County area.

When they joined the Seattle market they had a completely different experience, earning almost 20 times as much as they had the previous season. “It’s radically changed the viability of our business,” Pabody said. The co-op is also a huge source of information for them as beginning flower growers, with more experienced growers acting as mentors. “It’s such a wonderful environment for me. They’re so free with their information,” she said.

Unlike the Pabodys, Jan Roozen of Choice Bulb Farms is beginning to scale down rather than grow his business. Roozen, 70, comes from a long line of Dutch bulb farmers, and started his own farm in the Skagit Valley in the 1980s. (“My uncle said I was too dumb to do anything else,” he said.) Specializing in tall, sculptural, long-lasting cut flowers like eremerus and allium, he still ships to clients in Las Vegas and San Francisco, but sends an assortment to the Seattle market as well. His product sells best in major population centers, so the market is a good additional venue for him. “It’s not about working harder, it’s about working smarter,” he said.

Picking sweet peas at Everyday Flowers in Stanwood. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Picking sweet peas at Everyday Flowers in Stanwood. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

It’s a busy life for flower growers. Szukovathy said they’re often in bed before sunset, needing to get up at 2:30 in the morning to load the truck for market and set up before the first customers arrive at 6 a.m. Larson, who said she hates getting up early, sets her alarm for 3:30. The market is open Monday through Friday for wholesale buyers, but on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. they’re open to the public for retail sales.

Customers can place an order with the market’s front desk staff, who then issue purchase orders to each farm. “We have wonderful staff people that we just adore,” Szukovathy said. Staff are currently funded through grant money, but the hope is to make the market self-sustaining over the next few years.

To a great extent the different growers complement each other. Szukovathy grows mostly perennial crops, including green filler like raspberry foliage and ninebark, while Larson grows annuals and Roozen grows bulbs. Triple Wren grows over 50 different crops including huge numbers of sunflowers, which Pabody says are “nice obedient little children.” She is particularly interested in working with other growers to make sure they offer different flowers. “I would much rather grow something they’re not growing.”

Customers also can affect what’s offered at the market as the growers get to know their customers and what’s in demand. “It’s an added bonus for them and for us,” Larson said. “We’re taking a big middleman out of the picture.”

Nasturtiums at Triple Wren Farm in Ferndale. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Nasturtiums at Triple Wren Farm in Ferndale. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

For the farmers, it’s about making a living while following their passion. “I enjoy it immensely,” Larson said. “It’s long days but rewarding.”

“I love flowers more than anything in the world,” Szukovathy said. “We’re living the dream.”

LOCAL FARMS

Following are the local flower farms involved in the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market. They do not offer direct on-farm sales, but some offer other arrangements.

Jello Mold Farm, Mount Vernon, www.jellomoldfarm.com, no sales at farm, wedding flowers by private arrangement.

Choice Bulb Farms, Mount Vernon, www.choicebulbfarms.com

Everyday Flowers, Stanwood, everydayflowers@live.com, weddings and flower CSA by private arrangement.

Triple Wren Farms, Ferndale, www.triplewrenfarms.com, weddings and CSA by arrangement, flowers available through local florists and Green Barn.

Published in the Grow Northwest July 2014 issue

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