Flower market blooms as Maryland farmers turn to petal power

July 02, 1991|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Evening Sun Staff

Maryland farmers have raised tobacco, corn, soybeans and berries, but now another business is budding.

A growing number of farmers, like Virginia Garnett of Upperco and Todd Butler of Germantown, have turned to flowers as a cash crop.

In the past five years, the Maryland cut-flower industry has grown from a $1-million-a-year back-yard business to a $7 million industry for more than 150 farmers throughout the state. Most of those in the business today were not growing flowers 10 years ago, said William Healey, an assistant professor of horticulture at the University of Maryland.

Virginia Garnett of Upperco had tried dairy goats, chickens and vegetables. But when she went to farmers' markets, she noticed customers were clamoring for flowers rather than her specialty produce. In response, she began growing flowers on her 10-acre farm about five years ago.

Garnett has added new varieties each year, and flowers make up two-thirds of the products she sells.

Butler's family had been growing vegetables for years, but a few years ago his sister experimented with flowers as part of a high school project. Now alongside the family's strawberries and blueberries are zinnias, gladiolas and lilies.

The flowers still make up only a small part of the 300-acre farm, but Butler noted, "We're making a bigger pitch toward marketing it."

During the 1980s, fresh-flower consumption burgeoned following the example of the Reagans who decorated the White House with massive displays, Healey said. Now, even though the style in the Bush White House is more restrained, flowers still are in demand across the country.

The demand for bouquets has increased at farmers' markets in Maryland, where growers bring flowers for sale at $2 to $5 a bundle, depending on the variety.

"Because we stay home during a recession, we tend to spend more on a florist," he said. "When you're down in the dumps, people buy flowers, candy and clothes."

The most popular flowers are roses, gladiolas, snapdragons, and chrysanthemums. Most of these flowers sold in the United States are grown in South America. Domestically, the major producers are Florida, California and Pennsylvania.

Healey believes that Maryland, because of its location, water supply and other characteristics, can become one of the top 10 flower-producing states.

Within the region, many wealthy, stylish people want to decorate their homes with fresh flowers, he said.

Although the industry is still small in Maryland, the state has a history of flower production. Before World War I, the state was a prime supplier of flowers to New York. But the labor shortage in World War II forced many of the flower growers out of business.

Now as urbanization encroaches on the state's farmland, farmers are looking for more profitable products to grow on the remaining acres. They are turning to zinnias, asters, larkspur, and more exotic plants used for crafts and dried flower arrangements.

Healey is leading a research effort at the University of Maryland to figure out exactly what kinds of flowers grow best in the state and how to grow them. So far, researchers have evaluated more than 400 annuals and perennials and developed a list of five plants that they advise farmers to start with. By growing these plants -- larkspur, statice, zinnias, snapdragons and celosia -- the experts can evaluate the soils and conditions on each farm.

"We can pretty much guess how successful they will be," he said.

Healey is convinced that the flower industry could help preserve the state's farms. "Flowers can allow them to maintain an agriculture lifestyle."

Although cut flowers require more labor than do field crops, they have the potential to be more profitable, he said. Farmers have been reluctant to grow flowers, however, because the idea is new to them and some of the processes are different than other kinds of farming. Because a marketing network has not been well established to sell flowers wholesale, many growers take their flowers to farmers' markets. But that market can quickly become saturated.

The state's potential also is limited by the length of its growing season. Flowers can be grown from March until frost, but the season is not 12 months as in California and Florida.

On the positive side, Maryland can offer the market the freshest flowers and, Healey said, the quality is as good as any. He also said the state has the potential to produce unusual flowers.

"In Maryland, we're trying to supply the market with really fresh, high quality and different flowers," he said. "If you want to say where is the cutting edge of unique and different flowers, Maryland is it."

Introduction to the flower industry frequently comes in stages. Usually farmers start with outdoor cut flowers. The next step is to raise flowers in a greenhouse. Then farmers progress to potted plants, which can bring the highest income but require the most labor.

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