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Challenging times for U.S. industry, but "this too shall pass"

As everywhere, the COVID-19 crisis has also hit the flowers and greens industry in the United States hard. Growers, propagators and traders are feeling the impact of decimated demand, event cancellations and shop closures, but amidst all this, there are also feelings of hope, in the knowledge that we're all in this together, and we'll get out of this situation stronger.

Flower farming community pulls together
As President of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, Jennie Love says she's been incredibly inspired by the ingenuity and flexibility of small-scale flower farmers as they pivot their sales channels in response to the COVID-19 crisis. "Examples have been previously wholesale-only operations quickly developing an online shop and delivery route for retail, contact-less sales so they can continue to get their flowers sold even as all their wholesale florist customers have been forced to temporarily close", she shares. "Others who typically sold a great many stems at farmers markets that are now closed due to restrictions on gatherings have worked hard rapidly to set up farmer hubs that continue sales through an online portal and then gather orders for customers to pick up in one spot. Other ASCFG members are picking up new accounts with grocery stores in order to sell bouquets through those outlets which are allowed to remain open as essential businesses while so many of our cities are under shelter-in-place orders. I believe it is times like this that show the true spirit of farmers of any kind. We are a gritty group who, thanks to Mother Nature's fickle temperament, knows what it's like to face challenges head on. I'm deeply inspired by my fellow flower farming community!"

Debra Prinzing is seeing much of the same taking place in the Slow Flowers community, which has some membership overlap with ASCFG. "The COVID-19 crisis has coincided with the start of North America's spring flower harvest and the beginning of wedding season for many florists. The reality is -- flowers keep growing. And our members have to react creatively to find new channels to sell their flowers. Pivoting to grocery is a smart way to move those flowers, because grocery stores are considered essential services in every community. I think there is potential for flower growers as well as florists to expand their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and bouquet subscription offerings, and I've also seen a number of growers roll out new product offerings, such as cut flower seedlings collections for home gardeners."

Staying connected while isolated - and engaging customers
The Slow Flowers community of florists, designers and growers with businesses large and small is 700-plus member-strong across North America. Founder and creative director Debra Prinzing sees this group emulating the culinary world's inventiveness to stay relevant. "Here in Seattle, where I'm based, vegetable growers and restaurateurs are partnering to get fresh, basic food to those who need it -- even during shelter-in-place conditions. Flowers often follow food and in the climate of COVID-19, the same could be said. As consumers are relying on food delivery services and curbside meal pickup from restaurants, there is an opportunity for flower farmers and florists to piggyback on that model and provide add-on flower ordering."

Because so many of her members are solopreneeurs who work in isolation, Prinzing senses an immediate need to help people find strength through "virtual" connections. This past week she launched a feature on the Slow Flowers Podcast called "Stories of Resilience," inviting guests to speak about strategies of sustaining their flower farm or floral studio. Listeners heard from Celeste Monke, of Free Range Flowers, a board member of the Washington Young Farmers Coalition, as she discussed resources available to growers and tips for getting floral crops to market. Prinzing says next week's guest, Tammy Myers of LORA Bloom, an online and mobile selling app for florists, will share a social media calendar and discuss ways to be consistent in messages to customers. That message, by the way, ranges from "Stop & Shop our Flowers (Online)" to "Flowers are Always a Good Idea. Local Flowers for Your Community."

"Technology is helping all of us stay connected and social media can keep flowers top-of-mind for people who seek a sense of calmness, ways to stay rounded and basic reassurance that they are not in this alone," Prinzing observes. "For Slow Flowers members and followers, we're starting a 'virtual meet-up' on March 27th, which utilizes the Zoom platform and allows people to join a weekly roundtable discussion featuring experts and peers. While a low-tech idea, I think it will feel relevant and authentic."

Growers face uncertain times
No matter how resilient and resourceful American growers may be, the fact is right now they're experiencing difficult times. Jamie Rohda of Harvest Home Flowers hasn't started her season yet, being a grower living in a colder climate, but she does expect their sales will be affected once the season starts. "All of our customers are experiencing cancelations from their clients. How long all of this will last is the big looming question right now that no one has the answer for", she says. "I think those farms who are running a debt free business will have the definite advantage at this time as we all hunker down and wait for the air to clear, literally. I'm encouraged by the marketing creativity that I'm seeing from other small growers and we are considering several options for our own little farm this summer."

Rita Jo Shoultz, Certified American Grown Council Chair, is working round the clock trying to come up with ways to save member farms. She refers to SAF's daily WebBlasts on topics from how to write a contract during these times (HR) to bills going through Congress. "There is a lot of proposed help possibilities. Hopefully without a lot of time consuming red tape", she says.

Ko Klaver of Botanical Trading Company adds that the small farmer florist in a domestic and regional setting can still do business for bouquets and flowering pots. "The potted forcing bulbs and Easter lilies will have a challenging time finding their way to the consumer.
I have heard of a grower that is providing Easter lilies and forcing bulb pots to their churches still. Those orders were mostly prepaid, or deposit paid, and those churches are providing a drive thru system in their parking lot for their congregants to pick up a flowering plant for their home."

Debra Prinzing has heard from a number of flower growers who are shifting some of their production to food crops. "Even if it's just to feed their immediate family, crew or neighbors, there is a sense of optimism that flower farms have the infrastructure and the talent to grow food. Having dual offerings of food and flowers may be the saving grace, especially for smaller farms."

A mixed bag
The above examples show that there's no one way in which growers are affected. For some, business continues more or less as before, at least in terms of sales. Doug Cole of propagator D.S. Cole Growers shares that they're doing pretty well in the state of New Hampshire.  "We do not have large cities which may be the reason for few infected people. No one at our facility has the virus as far as we know. None of our colleagues in the industry has the virus as far as we know. Freight companies such as FedEx are moving goods. Our trucks are on the road delivering across state borders."

They've shipping young plants each week with very few cancellations.  Their biggest concern, says Doug, is guessing what will happen in each of the surrounding states. "For example, Connecticut has decided to consider garden centers an essential business that is allowed to stay open. That means the growers have an active market in Connecticut. Massachusetts on the other hand has decided garden centers are not essential and as of today, we have lost the ability to sell to those garden centers", he explains. "Every day brings new rules. Our spring in New England has not started yet. Maybe the situation will calm down when spring arrives and business will be great. We can only wait and see."

Rita Jo confirms that the rules right now are subject to almost daily change. "Farmers markets could be life savers for smaller farms, but it's a mixed bag. Today North Carolina says 'okay', but the next state says 'no'. There definitely is no 'one way' answer to this dilemma."

"The term that I keep hearing is 'ultra local,'" Prinzing notes. "And that bodes well for farmer-florists who offer both design services and fresh, local and seasonal flowers to their immediate community. As the global supply chain takes a hit from COVID-19, ultra-local floral crops can immediately fill that void and provide the floral marketplace with a way to keep operating until things stabilize and this crisis subsides."

Cancelled events hit home
In the US, many smaller growers are also floral designers, including Jennie Love, who says she's seen "some really heartbreaking scenarios. The event industry has been crushed by this crisis. Those floral designers, such as myself, who deal heavily in wedding work are hard hit as weddings here in the U.S. have been cancelled or postponed, in many cases all the way through until July now."

Even when events are being rescheduled, often the budgets are being cut drastically to accommodate either the fact that couples could not get back deposit monies already spent with vendors who could not continue to work with them, or because the economy has taken such a huge hit that couples are just incredibly anxious about spending anything more than they absolutely have to at this point, Jennie explains. "Additionally, corporate events have come to a grinding halt, and I do not foresee those rebounding for some time. Even funerals are not happening as usual. I used to say you can always count on weddings and funerals in the floral business, but apparently I was wrong.

"I'm not sure how this will all play out for our industry. I think at this point it is helpful to acknowledge that this is where we are all at and do our best to support each other. I've seen many support groups pop up in Philadelphia, with virtual meetings to brainstorm for new ideas and to review contracts and other documents that will help in the future."

Rays of hope
As Jennie love said, flower farmers are a 'gritty group', and even in times of crisis, they don't forget there's light at the end of the tunnel. As a farmer-florist myself and owner of Love 'n Fresh Flowers, Jennie's business has been heavily hit. "Approximately 90% of sales typically come from event work -- namely wedding floral design and also hosting floral design workshop at our flower farm in Philadelphia. Due to the restrictions on any gatherings at this time, all workshops have had to be canceled and all of our spring weddings have been postponed or canceled. This is a huge financial hit. Luckily, my farm has always had a small flower CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program and has also supplied bouquets for a few local grocery stores. With those two sales outlets in place already, we have been able to quickly push our spring harvests through those channels instead and will hopefully at least recoup the costs of growing the flowers and perhaps make a very small profit even during this crisis. I'm hoping it's at least enough to keep my employees paid. Each day is a new ballgame though as the restrictions due to COVID-19 change and shift. So I'll continue to be cautiously optimistic. One thing is for sure: my business will never look quite the same."

For Rita Jo's peony business in Alaska, they still have several feet of snow. "Hopefully by July when our season starts this pandemic will be under control. Again personally, with all the event postponements going on now, I think our Alaska peony growers will be very busy this summer." She also points to the generosity of other growers in these times. For instance, Benno Dobbe and his family from Holland America Flowers have delivered for free many thousands of tulips to workers in all industries on the front line. Among all the sad stories, there is also some pretty awesome stuff happening, Rita Jo says. "I believe there will be some good life changing practices coming out of this disaster."

"Things have changed so rapidly and radically in less than one month that many of us are still absorbing the reality that weddings are being postponed and conferences cancelled, and that may look like 'no flowers' right now," Debra Prinzing observes. "I don't want to sound naive. This is the worst possible scenario for all of us who base our businesses on flowers. The options available to flower farmers and florists and how they market and sell flowers varies widely from state to state, province to province, and there is confusion and uncertainty right now. But I do think society's newfound (or enforced) interest in slowing down, connecting with nature and becoming more self-reliant is ideally aligned with the Slow Flowers message of local and seasonal. I encourage everyone to broadcast that message to their communities and marketplace: Flowers can soothe stress and provide a sense of wellbeing in the midst of uncertain times."

Finally, Ko Klaver gives some advice all of us can follow: "In these times of uncertainties, it behoves all of us to bring home some flowers as cuts or potted plants to cheer up our day. Gardening is still a great option for your family activity This too shall pass, but in the meantime please adhere to your Federal and State government directives and guidelines."

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