Tips on Expansion from a Central Illinois Flower Farm
By Maggie Taylor, Delight Flower Farm
“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” says Desmond Tutu. While I’m not eating an elephant or even growing veggies, I am taking on a project that is seemingly huge, heavy, and overwhelming, so this metaphor rings true for me. My “project” is a cut flower farm.
In 2011, I had a backyard flower garden and a few people that handed me some money to start bringing them amateur floral arrangements each week. By 2015, I had enlisted the help of a couple of friends, leased an acre of land and together we enrolled in the “Farm Beginnings” course led by The Land Connection. This course helped us write a business plan, learn some practical skills like fence-building, and farm tax law basics. From there, we formally filed as a business through the State of Illinois and started paying insurance. The spring of 2016 had us taking a longer than expected trip to Wisconsin to buy a walk-in cooler off craigslist. This was also the first year we got paid to do someone’s wedding flowers. In 2017, we received a grant from the USDA to build a high tunnel to extend our growing season and started wholesaling flowers to large grocery stores in the area. By the fall of 2019, I had closed on a five-acre farm of my own just a few miles west of Champaign: the exciting new home of Delight Flower Farm! We currently harvest flowers eight months of the year, provide flowers to local florists, grocery stores, farmers markets, and to 90 CSA members annually. We also lead farm tours and teach workshops throughout the growing season.
Upon reflection, each of these little milestones seemed huge at the time, and now are mere steps along the path which continues to unfold. However, perpetual growth is not my aim (and a capitalist mindset I find problematic if I’m being honest). I do aim to grow this farm to a point where we can: 1) adequately meet most of the demand for fresh locally-grown flowers in our CU community, 2) enable a few hardworking people to have fulfilling and financially sustainable jobs, 3) allow me to continue a lifelong study of learning and living in harmony with the seasons.
Thinking back on this journey, so many wise teachers along the way helped us to get here. I’d like to pass on some of these bits of advice for other aspiring farmers looking to grow.
Go slow. Taking on too much at once is a sure recipe for failure, and disappointment. Get to know your own capacity and take it to the limit, but not beyond. Each year, hopefully, your capacity will expand, but if you grow too fast you’ll burn out quickly. *According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics only ~55% of new businesses make it five years.
Build Relationships. Other farmers, business owners, and supporters are excellent mentors, resources for problem-solving, cheerleaders, and friends. Learn people’s names and get to know them. Potlucks around backyard fires are where I have learned so many of the things I can’t look up in books or watch on instructional YouTube videos.
Skin in the game. This is a phrase I learned from my brother. It means you are invested/risking some of your own finances in the farm’s success. Once you’ve started paying rent, staff, or insurance, your expense columns really start to add up. This additional pressure (good pressure!) can help you to take the business seriously and incentivize accomplishing your financial goals.
Eat the Frog. This phrase originates from a book by the same title about ending procrastination. Many farm tasks bring joy: transplanting on a warm spring morning, harvesting the first Dahlias of the season, or perhaps even power washing the walk-in cooler. It’s easy to find motivation for things you enjoy. Inevitably, there are things that have to get done that you just don’t want to do: responding to emails, hauling sandbags around the farm to weigh down tillage tarps, fill-in-the-blank for your own farm. However, I’ve found if I can tackle the worse things first, the rest of the day is even more enjoyable and I feel like I’ve got a clearer mind for other thoughts.
Lean Up. If you haven’t read the book Lean Farming by Ben Hartman, rush to the library and read it now. Adapting this philosophy of tool and space organization has saved our farm countless steps, minutes, and money. As a bonus, it keeps the farm looking neat and tidy to visitors!
Put First Things First. This is habit number three from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, introduced to me as a kid on audiotape from my dad on family road trips. It’s a concept of categorizing how you spend your time/focus. There’s a chart that accompanies this idea that is worth looking at. It helps to visualize your activities and rank them according to these groups: urgent and important, not urgent but important, urgent but not important, and not urgent and not important (this last category are things you should really stop doing!). I love this because as a farm owner or manager you’re usually the only one who is responsible for big picture thinking. If you don’t do it, no one else will. Which means, if you don’t make time for it, it won’t happen and then the growth of the farm will be stunted. If winter is a slower time of year for your farm, take advantage of that downtime to get fresh perspectives.
Lastly: Keep Learning! Learn from books, podcasts, conferences, classes, the plants and animals. Learn from the soil. Learn from your customers, your family, the people you work with, your friends, yourself, and learn from the earth. This process never ends. In my opinion, education is the most superior kind of growth there is.
Best of luck to you. Here’s to growth! -Maggie
All photos by Erica Peters Photography