Ashley Savage harvests flowers that will be used as decoration at a wedding. Savage and Adrienne Lee are co-owners of Belladonna Floral, that grows their flowers at the horse-powered New Beat Farm in Knox. Credit: Gabor Degre

Nothing brightens up a farm stand quite like a bucket of fresh bouquets for sale. If you are thinking about adding cut flowers to your inventory, you are not alone. Demand for locally grown cut flowers is growing, and the local cut flower industry is growing right alongside it.

About 80 percent of cut flowers in the United States are imported, but the local cut flower industry in North America is growing. The number of members of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, which are primarily based in the United States, more than tripled between 2014 and 2018. According to the Agricultural Marketing Research Center, the wholesale value of domestically produced cut flowers was $374 million in 2015, up 3 percent from 2014.

“I’m thrilled to see the resurgence of cut flower production in the United States,” said John Dole, professor of horticultural sciences at North Carolina State University.

Dole has been working with the cut flower industry for more than three decades. He said the available statistics on local cut flower production barely scrape the surface of the industry’s growth. According to Dole, local growers who produce small quantities for weddings and or add flowers to community supported agriculture boxes rarely show up in datasets.

“The biggest increase in category has really been the farmer-florist. None of these tend to show up in the statistics,” Dole said. “It’s a wonderfully diverse industry in terms of what it grows and how it operates.”

Why the local cut flower industry is growing

Credit: Micky Bedell

Experts like Dole credit the blossoming cut flower industry with the resurgence of the grow local movement.

“I think it’s just part of the overall trend towards buying local,” Dole said.

Maine’s burgeoning cut flower industry is also rooted in the buy local wave as well as the proliferation of small-scale agriculture.

“I’ve seen an increase in the number of growers, especially in southern and coastal Maine,” said Matthew Wallhead, ornamental horticulture specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “It’s a result of the local food movement spilling over into the flower industry, and also the influx of people growing vegetables. Growers are looking to diversify and tap into a different part of the market.”

Depending on the season, locally grown flowers offer more diverse blooms for buyers. Whereas imported flowers are limited to blooms that are durable and transportable, hundreds of species are grown commercially as cut flowers in the United States.

“In South America, the number of species grown is just a fraction of the United States,” Dole said. “They have to be durable enough to be shipped, and they have to go through inspection, and certain things haven’t been approved.”

The chemicals not only impact the environment, but the health of the communities as well. In a study published in the May 2017 issue of the journal NeuroToxicology, researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine found altered short-term neurological behaviors in children — including impaired attention, self-control and eye-hand coordination — during the peak pesticide spraying season linked to the Mother’s Day flower harvest.

Growing flowers can be water-intensive in areas that are water-scarce. According to a 2014 study published in the journal “Water International,” cut flowers account for 45 percent of the water Kenya uses for exported goods.

Internationally shipped flowers often have significantly higher carbon emissions than their local counterparts grown outdoors in-season. When flowers are harvested from the fields in which they are grown, the environmental cost of international shipping is omitted. That said, not all local flowers are created equal. Those grown in greenhouses out of season can have as much or more carbon impact as their shipped counterparts.

Growing challenges faced by the cut flower industry

Dole is one of the authors of a study recently released in “HortTechnology,” a journal published by the American Society for Horticultural Science. Dole and his coauthors surveyed more than 200 cut flower producers and handlers in the United States and Canada about the challenges they faced producing and distributing 31 popular cut flowers.

The research also breaks down issues based on species, which helps guide new producers through the things they have to consider before starting their own operation.

“I think its article provides a good roadmap for what issues to pay attention to,” Dole said. “Even seasoned growers are looking for new crops, and this research gives them an idea of the issues to pay attention to.”

The study showed that the main issue for local cut flower producers was insect management. Dole said this is exacerbated when farms are certified organic (or striving to be) and do not use pesticides.

Properly timing crops was the second most prevalent problem among growers.

“It just takes a while for a grower to learn, ‘If I plant sunflowers in April, I’m going to get them [at] this time,’” Dole said. “[And if there are] two weeks of 100 degree temperatures, that goes out the window because they are ready sooner.”

Dole said that the variability in timing is especially challenging given that customers often demand cut flowers on specific holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.

The recent growth in the industry and the influx of new producers may also play a role in defining the challenges local producers face.

“What you are seeing right now is a huge influx of new flower growers,” said Anika Wilson, owner of Bad Rabbit Flowers in southern Maine. “Not everyone who is starting up has the know-how necessary to get the best out of their product.”

Unpredictable temperatures were even challenging for experienced producers, though. Jennie Love, owner of Love ‘n’ Fresh Flowers, which was established in 2009 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was one of the growers featured in the study.

“In [Love’s] experience, drastic weather [and] climate change has been the biggest challenge of being a flower farm in the U.S. — [and] probably anywhere, for that matter — in recent years,” said Jennifer Anderson office coordinator at Love ‘n Fresh Flowers.

Cut flower industry challenges after harvest

Credit: Gabor Degre

Cut flower production can be even more challenging after the harvest. Flowers have a short shelf-life. Compared with vegetable production, Dole said, cut flower production is less flexible with what growers can get away with in terms of handling.

“If a fresh tomato is ripe, you have to handle carefully, but it’s a far cry from the prompt and careful postharvest you have to give sunflowers and zinnias,” he said. “Also, with cut flowers you [sell] almost all of the plant. If tomatoes get a leaf spot, [it’s not a] big deal [because] you’re harvesting the fruit.”

Dole and his co-authors found that the main postharvest problems were temperature management (namely, keeping flowers cool after they are harvested), as well as properly hydrating and feeding cut flowers. During storage and transport, damage and hydration were the most common issues.

“We just built a walk-in cooler, so I have a lot fewer challenges now than I did in the past,” said Sarah Lutte, owner of Lazy Acres Farm, a farm that sells cut flowers in Farmingdale, Maine. “In the past, if I had flowers I couldn’t keep things very long, [but I] can keep them in the cooler now. It’s something that I’m still learning, but I picked up through experience. “

Customer complaints about local cut flowers

The research found that the most common customer complaints focused on flowers dying and petals falling off. Though growers like Lutte echo these findings, they also say that customer education matters.

“I believe that has to do with how they’re treated,” Lutte said. “Did they put them in a sunny window? Did they change the water? Customer education is the challenge there.”

Growers also say that customer complaints often depend on the clientele.

“Because we provide flowers primarily for weddings and events, we do not often encounter the common complaints that farmers selling at farmers markets regularly encounter, namely about longevity,” Wilson said.

Unlike at farmers markets, though, growers are providing flowers with certain types of flowers within a specific color palette.

“Setting that customer expectation has been really big for me,” Lutte said. “I plant hundreds of dahlia tubers, but I can’t promise you can have one in your wedding in September because something might happen to my dahlias.”

Ultimately, though, buyers seeking out locally grown cut flowers tend to be flexible with a little explanation.

“It’s about helping them understand what buying local season flowers is about. Most of the time, they say, ‘I didn’t realize that. I want whatever you have.’”

Other challenges faced by the local cut flower industry in Maine

Credit: Gabor Degre

The research on national trends are mostly reflected in Maine, with a few caveats for the specific climate and market in the Pine Tree State.

Wallhead said that the main challenge of growing in Maine is the short, cold growing season, so crop timing should rank higher.

“The short days and the cool, wet weather makes it challenging,” Wallhead said. “This year, it was really cloudy and cool and wet, [so] you have flowers that are blooming prematurely and they have three inch stems rather than long stems.”

Wallhead said that there are a few popular cut flower varieties that thrive in the cold temperatures — dahlias, lisianthus and tulips, for example — but the selection is more limited than elsewhere in the United States.

“If we were to compare our production to a warmer climate, it couldn’t quite compete,” he said.

Wallhead recommended season extenders to get around these issues.

“To grow cut flowers in Maine, most growers are going to need high tunnels,” he said. “Spring bulbs tend to do well in high tunnels.”

Wallhead noted another factor for Maine flower growers, especially small farms: weeds.

“For Maine growers, especially the organic grower, weeds are going to be their No. 1 issue,” he said. “Having good weed management practices and making sure you put some sort of mulch is going to be necessary. ”

Like with other agricultural endeavors in Maine, cut flower farms suffer from a shortage of labor.

“Labor is a challenge I hear from everyone,” Lutte said. “I’m already thinking I have to hire someone next year.”

New cut flower producers in Maine may also struggle to find a market.

“Farmers markets can be challenging to get into if you’re a new grower,” Wallhead said. “If you want to market yourself for weddings, [brides] tend to exclusively want a lot of long stems and mostly white, cream and peach. The color palette is a little more limited.”

Convincing customers that local cut flowers are worth the price premium can also be challenging.

“Big box supermarket chains are selling flowers at incredibly low prices, and it’s difficult to educate the public about how unrealistic those prices are for small local farms to compete with,” Wilson said. “It isn’t cheap to grow flowers. There is a lot of time, work and money involved.”

The growth of the industry may exacerbate existing challenges.

“I think that with the increasing number of flower growers there are going to be challenges in marketing and selling flowers,” Wilson said.

Ultimately, though, the cut flower industry has a growing future in Maine.

“You can do it here quite successfully,” Wallhead said. “It’s a very rewarding crop to grow because it’s so beautiful. You just have to understand that you’re operating in a short, cool season.”