SLOW FLOWERS Podcast: Farm-to-Table; Field-to-Vase Panel Discussion (Episode 101)
July 31st, 2013
Welcome to Episode 101 of the new SLOW FLOWERS Podcast. The audio featured here is from the July 19, 2013 panel discussion at the California Association of Flower Growers & Shippers (NORCAL) conference, moderated by Kasey Cronquist, CEO/Ambassador of the California Cut Flower Commission. Panelists included Kathy Brenzel, garden editor at Sunset Magazine; Christina Stembel, founder of Farmgirl Flowers, and me. The audience Q&A that followed our presentation was difficult to hear due to the limited number of microphones in the room, so here is the edited transcript of those questions and our panel’s answers.
Q&A following Field-to-Vase Panel discussion:
Kasey Cronquist : I hope you all have a sense of how special this group is in context of this industry. This is certainly a trend, or as Debra says, “a cultural shift,” that we’re excited about. It’s a special time because you’re not necessarily going to hear a program like this or have the chance to hear from speakers like this subject in our industry or at other floral trade conventions. I get to sit back and enjoy listening to people talk about locally-grown.
I think you have a sense here that there’s a renaissance in our midst in terms of bringing flower farmers back and of course this is a good thing for California. Where people say “California’s Flowers are America’s Flowers,” it’s because we want to back up that local claim for those florists when the season is over and they can’t source from those local farmers, California’s growing flowers all year long providing another source of American grown. I could spend each day energized by the things I’ve heard here. I want to open it up to questions:
Q: Regarding the “Farm-to-Consumer” idea or for that matter, “Farm-to-Florist.” How should our wholesalers in the room feel about this particular approach? Because I can certainly see where you’re going. We are flower growers who are strictly wholesale and we want to keep it that way. I have 185 customers and I don’t want 2,000 so how does that work for the wholesaler?
A (Debra): I totally agree that we’ve got to work on the wholesale level of this message. Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think wholesalers should be afraid of this concept at all. They’re the ones who are on the front lines, talking to florists. And even if you don’t care about American grown, you should care about making money and branding your flowers as American grown or California grown in order to answer the question that the florists are going to be asking anyway. If they’re not asking it now, they’re very soon going to be asking it because consumers are asking them. I think from a farmer point of view if you can provide content, photography, messaging or signage that the wholesalers can use it’s going to do the work for them. I know there’s a fear that somehow the florists are going to cut around the wholesaler and come to you direct, but like you just said, you don’t want to deal with all those florists. So if you can partner with the wholesaler and make everybody succeed, I think it could be a win-win.
A (Christina): Pictures. Pictures of the farmers with content about where (the flowers) come from. People want to see a human face, so give them information about “this is the farmer who grew this.” It’s something that the wholesalers can then give to their customers. At Farmgirl Flowers, we use a wholesaler as well for some of our product and they don’t want to be photographed because they don’t want 2,000 people coming to them either. But it’s about educating the florist. And I really do see this movement shifting quickly and I think that the florists will be asking you soon, just based on the volume of questions we get. We’ve had to hire staff people just to answer the email and the phone calls that we get from florists. It’s not directly our bread and butter but we feel like it’s our mission to educate as well.
Kasey Cronquist: I want to add to that. We’ve felt that pressure on the requests for content. For wholesalers, as much as for the flowers, it’s a content marketing-supply opportunity for them. They have the relationships with the farms and they can package that relationship up and provide it to the florists who are wanting that content to share, either on Facebook or Pinterest so (the florist) has access to the farmer, not directly, but through the wholesaler’s relationship with the farmer.
Audience Member Comment: As a wholesaler outside California, I think there’s some interesting things for us because as this starts to happen more, especially when we talk about specialty cut (flowers), it might be harder for us but it’s more interesting because we’re going to have to source from many farms. One of the most interesting things my people do is find peonies. They know where all those little farms are. And people get to that more creative and interesting place. The wholesalers are the only ones who are going to do it. Somebody who’s only going to sell for six weeks can’t put up all of that marketing to get sales. They have to go through distributors.
Audience Member Comment: I really like the idea of California grown, locally-grown, West-Coast-grown, USA-grown. It’s very admirable that you are tuning into this, but there’s also the matter of dollars and cents. There’s also the effect of transportation and time from the farm to the customer. Perhaps you should continue with your message that if you “buy local” then there’s lower transportation (costs). The flowers are really direct from the grower to the customer instead of getting them from Equator.
Kasey Cronquist: You don’t see it in the slides, but we did conduct a carbon footprint study. It was just on transportation, which is where consumers’ minds are easily able to understand and appreciate — plane versus truck versus distance and mileage. We did a study that showed there was a 3 to 16 times difference between buying locally here in the United States . . . a truck leaves from Los Angeles compared to that same plane flight out of Bogota. That’s not information that most people have access to but when they get pressed on that it’s an easy answer. They (customers) are going to prefer that lower carbon footprint product. That’s coming. We’re doing the research and we’ve got that information now. but that pressure on the food side is already taking place and the organics have suffered from that in many ways. There’s a big issue about what organic means out of Mexico due in part to that footprint issue versus locally grown. So it’s really interesting how it’s changing.
Q: One thing I was going to ask in terms of that cultural shift and this goes to your perspective at Sunset Magazine, Kathy. How do you as a lifestyle magazine look at “local” being so important to your demographic of 5 million subscribers? One of the comments I get is: This is just a trend, Kasey. It’s going to cycle through and go back to imports. Locally grown is not going to be the big deal it is right now for you in California. Do you think your magazine will shift away from local anytime soon? What is the horizon in your mind for where this is all going? What recommendations or advice would you have for us on the floral side?
A (Kathy): The bottom line when we look at trends is that many of them do come and go. All you have to do is look at the Hollywood red carpet to see what’s in and what’s out. But I think in this case, with cut flowers, with farm to vase, with farm to table, I think it’s a movement that’s growing roots. I think it’s here to stay. We’re seeing among out readers tremendous support for local flowers, for local produce. Everything local because local means fresh; local means good. It’s becoming part of the consciousness and we’re basically seeing it in everything that we do. We get questions from readers on ecological touring, local-produced compost and sustainable gardening. It makes me realize that our readers are better educated now about sustainability; they’re more comfortable with it. It’s not an “out there” mentality anymore. It really has gone mainstream. People are very comfortable with sustainability, with earth-friendly gardening, with making smart choices for fresh food for the table; fresh flowers for the table, and they are thinking carbon footprint, too. If we ever allude to something that’s not along that line, we hear from our readers. So that makes me think it’s here to stay.
Q: One comment with regards to wholesalers. As a grower, I think of it as a team. When our wholesalers buy from us at that point they become part of our organization, too. I know that some of our customers who are wholesalers will tell their customers that they get their flowers from us – Protea USA. And vice-versa. When retailers ask how can I get your flowers? Do you sell direct? And I’m selling the wholesaler who works with us. From a grower’s perspective, it’s a total team effort. From the farm all the way to the retail.
Q: A question for Farmgirl Flowers. Our association, we represent the entire supply chain of about 7,000 retail florist members. One of the things they sell is the personal touch that retail florists can put on these arrangements. We see that consumers enjoy that; it’s a really big selling point for our members. What you’re doing is definitely taking away that personal touch.
A (Christina): Actually, our arrangements are very personal. Our aesthetic is also what people like, and that it’s local. So we are basically a designer-florist. When we’ve experimented with other styles we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people that they want our traditional Farmgirl Flowers aesthetic, which is a mixed bouquet. We usually use about 12 different varieties of flowers in each one. We won’t just do a red roses and babies’ breath Pro Flowers, 1800 Flowers, FTD-type arrangement. It’s a hand-picked-from-the-farm look. I’m not formally trained. I taught myself, which I’m actually proud of. I know a lot of florists look down on that, but every bouquet that we make is what we’d want to receive ourselves. People have responded really well to that. In growth one of the big challenges we have is that we can keep our aesthetic. It’s something we’re working through and why we haven’t expanded as quickly as we wanted, because we want to make sure of our quality control.
Q: So your bouquets are all the same, correct?
A (Christina): We do one daily bouquet.
Q: So if I had one on my desk, it would be the same bouquet as the next person. I think that’s what he might be asking. If two people at the same company received one of your bouquets, would they look the same?
A (Christina): They would if they were the same size and product. We use different flowers from small to medium-sized arrangements because we use more expensive flowers as the sizes go up, and we use more of them. And we may use different color combinations in the medium versus the large. So if you order two small vases, they will look the same, but they will be equally beautiful.
Q: So you haven’t had any issues with that?
A (Christina): No, in three years we’ve had two complaints, which I think is really good. It’s been unbelievable how few complaints we get about the style and aesthetic. The only times we’ve received feedback is when we’ve done other aesthetics. We have lots of weekly and monthly customers; it’s about 10% of our business. So we would hear from them if they didn’t like it.
Q: I’m Dani Hahn and I have a farm in Carpinteria called Rose Story Farm. We grow garden roses, which all of you know have a 10-minute vase life. So we’ve had our specific challenge of running the business of cut flowers. But I think as farmers we all have a responsibility to our consumers to be fresh. Fresh is the operative word here. I know in the past it’s been really tempting to cut and hold. And we do that for the bottom line; many of us do. However, I know that when I cut product and get it out the door that day it is as fresh as it can possibly be. When we compete with South America products, we’re also competing with longevity. So it’s an education process. When the flowers come in from South America, we have no idea what’s been sprayed on them, what kind of preservative has been used on them, but we do know that they will last 10 or 12 days in a vase. And we know that’s what consumers have been trained to expect from their flowers. So I think the issue is twofold: One, we as farmers need to put out the freshest product possible so we do have longer-lasting flowers in the vase; and (two) I think we also have to re-educate the public that if you want organic – just like the tomato – you might have a beautiful tomato that looks perfect and can ship and stay for a month in your refrigerator, it’s might not be the one that you’re going to want on your dinner table. It’s the same with flowers. The flowers that have been grown organically and are fresh . . . they aren’t going to (last) as long as these chemically-treated ones.
A (Christina): We pick flowers for the use. For our daily arrangements, we use hardy flowers. Our bouquets last a long time. We buy the flowers fresh that day; we use them that day, which is how we keep our waste where it is. We’re very fortunate in that we’re at the San Francisco Flower Market, so getting flowers is not an issue; we don’t have to buy a huge excess and then not sell it. But we won’t use garden roses in our daily arrangements because we know better. We know that we’d get complaints if we did that. But we do use garden roses a lot in our event centerpieces, because they’re for that day. We do a lot of restaurants, reception desks at law firms and now as people’s budgets are being pinched more, they want the flowers to last not even one week anymore, but 10 days. We all hang up the phone and we chuckle . . . and then we call them back and say: OK, you’re going to have sunflowers every week in your office or in your restaurant . If you’re okay with that, we can do that. It will last for 10 days but you’re going to have sunflowers. They usually do it for a month and then they usually cancel the account, sadly. Or, they say they’re going to do it twice a month, but they’re going to throw away the flowers the second week. Because also, as you know, they’re not going to clean the vases, clean the water, cut the stems or do any maintenance whatsoever. So then they send a picture and say, “they’re not living as long as I like.” But the water looks like mud.
So I definitely think it’s about educating the consumer. It’s about us being very honest with our clients, when we have to say: Sunflowers or nothing because we need to make sure that we’re meeting your expectations. We have a weekly skin care line customer and they want roses to last two weeks. There’s no way that you’re going to get hot pink roses in your showroom to last 10 business days or two weeks. So we just have to be very clear and set expectations. We’d rather not miss their expectations than to do it at all. So then we offer them living plants for a better option.
Q: Moving flowers – transportation – is very important for large commercial nurseries . How do you see that production moving (to other climates) and what would your advice be to those trying to find balance in pricing when some flowers can’t be local because they only grow in certain areas or certain climates?
A (Christina): Do you mean if they want to grow a type of flower that doesn’t naturally grow in that habitat versus import it? Do they have to grow that type of flower? That’s what I ask. At the San Francisco Flower Market you would expect it all to be local product, but 80 percent of what is at the flower market isn’t local. It’s imported. So my question to the local growers there when we banter back and forth is “Why do they have all the imports?” Do they have to have one hundred different varieties there? Personally, I don’t understand why you have to have one hundred different varieties. People call and ask us for peonies in January and we say “no.” We say: “We can’t get them right now but what we can do is make a really beautiful bouquet of these flowers instead.” We just did a big wedding last week where the bride was adamant about wanting peonies and we told her when she booked it that we’re not going to have peonies for you, so you’re going to get garden roses that were beautiful and looked like peonies, and dahlias. We have no problem saying no to people that they can’t have the type of flower they’re asking for. And (what we do create) will still be beautiful.
Q: I’m not advocating importing flowers. But how do large commercial growers move forward and I think part of the answer was said – that it needs to be fresh, it needs to be sustainable.
A (Debra): And also seasonal. If you can lead with seasonal, and I know consumers don’t understand that – but that’s the education part, (for example) with the peony story. It’s happening in food and people are beginning to understand those buzz words, so I think we can co-opt it. We were talking about the transportation footprint. The “food mile” concept is so popular so I’ve just started using the term the “flower mile.” And people instantly know what that means because they’ve heard it for so long in the food industry.
Kasey Cronquist: Please join me in thanking the panel. I hope everyone feels a little more informed. There’s a special opportunity in the cultural shift we’re seeing. This is going to be something that we can all take back (to our own businesses) and do something with. That ambition to change the industry is an individual effort on all our parts. I serve as the CEO and Ambassador of the California Cut Flower Commission. I don’t have any Secret Service or special license plates, but I certainly feel like I can deputize all of you in my role to go out and help us to bring American-grown flowers to the fore and that field-to-vase movement to be an important one.
If you’d like to follow this ongoing topic, subscribe to Kasey Cronquist’s blog: Field Position: Advocating for America’s Flower Farmers