By Nicolas Lindholm
Supported primarily through a grant from the Maine Dept. of Agriculture, this is the fifth in a series of five articles covering some of the most commonly produced and potentially most profitable seed crops currently being grown by small-scale organic and biodynamic farmers in the Northeast. As cofounder and Executive Director of the Maine Seed Saving Network, I studied almost 30 farms in New England and New York, including large retail and small farm-based seed companies, market gardeners and family farms, CSAs, nonprofit groups, and a USDA farm that is part of our National Plant Germplasm System. Other articles in the series cover cucurbits, tomatoes, brassicas and lettuce.
Introduction and Overview
My study and these articles are meant to promote dialogue and develop interest in a niche market opportunity that a growing group of farmers and industry supporters has been developing quietly over the past 10 to 20 years: that is, seed crop production on small farms in the Northeast. This includes growing and marketing seeds of vegetable, herb and flower varieties for other farmers and gardeners to purchase, plant and grow. Small-scale organic farmers can market these seeds either directly to the retail consumer or wholesale them to regional seed companies. Current popular interests and trends, including preserving genetic diversity, growing and saving heirloom varieties and open-pollinated varieties, organic gardening, and even anti-GMO concerns, have contributed to the rise of this largely untapped, potentially profitable niche market for small, diversified organic farms.
Most of the research and development in organic seed crop growing and marketing to date has been done by the seed companies in the Northeast and by a few farmers, mostly isolated from one another, each independently testing production and marketing techniques and overcoming challenges. I believe that this is the first economic viability study of seed growing for small farmers in the Northeast, and the first attempt to draw together the independent findings of all of the experienced growers and producers. The results are encouraging, at least for entrepreneurial farmers who are interested in exploring new markets and growing new kinds of crops, are able to remain diversified, and make sound marketing decisions based on economic analyses.
Getting More Than Bouquets From Your Flowers
Ask any small-scale grower in the Northeast what types of crops tend to be popular, profitable, and yield the most per square foot, and invariably that list will include flowers. Our culture adores flowers in the landscape and on the table, in many colors, shapes and sizes, and our climate is well suited for a huge variety of species; thus, most vegetable farms have at least a small patch or garden with at least a small selection of flowers for market. Consumer demand is high for locally-grown blooms and flowering plants. Whether for large centerpieces at weddings, bouquets on restaurant tables or simple bunches to take home, cut flowers provide a premium for growers in an array of markets. Dried flowers, or everlastings, are commonly grown to extend the fresh season into the fall and winter. Also, seedling and bedding plants serve many small-scale producers for spring and early summer sales.
Uses for flower crops include ornamental, culinary and medicinal, with some species (such as calendula and Nigella sativa) covering all three of these traits. Fresh blossoms, full cut stems, even leaves or roots, are all potentially marketable products from flower species. Current market prices, coupled with typically high productivity per plant and the high consumer demand, lead to favorable economic returns for most flower growers. However, many growers have neglected to take advantage of another product from flowers: seeds. The selection, variety, uses, types and markets are as broad and diverse as they are for fresh flowers, and the demand presently runs similarly high.
Just as most fresh vegetable growers grow and sell at least a few flowers from their farms, so too do most vegetable seed growers grow and sell at least a few flowers for seed. It is not uncommon to see a variety of sweet peas for seed growing along a trellis between two varieties of shell or snap peas for seed, or plantings of such annuals as Calendula, Cosmos or sunflowers in a field of mixed vegetables, all for seed. Many farms also have perennial flower beds, borders and/or wild places that can produce crops of seed for market. Both annual and biennial/perennial flowers are currently being produced and marketed by numerous seed growers in the Northeast.
One of the most favorable characteristics cited by growers who successfully save flower seeds is the relatively large volume of seed typically produced by the plants within a relatively small space; as with brassicas, flowers are prolific seed producers, often yielding thousands or tens of thousands of seeds from one seed in one season. Unlike some domesticated and bred varieties of vegetables (such as some paste tomatoes and “seedless” watermelon and other cucurbits), flowers tend not to have genetic traits that limit or restrict the amount of seed produced. Quite the opposite: flowering plants have the genetic ability to set lots of flowers that produce lots of seed.
Flower seed is usually very simple to see, identify, observe and select. It is not considered a wet-seeded crop (like tomatoes), where the seeds are contained or hidden inside the moist flesh or a fruit. Rather, most flowers produce fruits that are indistinguishable from the seed, with the seed being visible and somewhat exposed within the flower head; or, as in the case of sweet peas or poppies, a few types produce a dry-seeded pod. Hence, growers often cite the ease with which the mature seed is harvested and threshed from the flowering plants. Whole plants can be cut and piled on tarps, pulled inside under cover, and once fully dry and mature, shaken or stomped on or otherwise threshed to be ready for winnowing.
Indeed, most flower species have evolved or adapted themselves to spill their seed relatively easily. However, growers need to be aware that some species dehisce or spill their seed so readily that much seed can be lost during harvest. Growers usually can minimize this problem by cutting the entire plant in the morning with the dew still on it when the seed or seedpods are not quite fully dry; once inside on a tarp under cover, the seed will continue to fully mature and spill out onto the tarp.
The flower seed crop can double as a cut flower crop. Most growers utilize the high productivity of flowers to their advantage by using the plants for many different markets. Harvesting blossoms of many annuals, such as Cosmos and Calendula, actually encourages the production of more blossoms or more branches and stems. A perennial such as Echinacea purpurea can be harvested first for some cut flowers, then for some seed, then roots can be dug for medicinal uses. A grower need only plan the amount of seed that is desired, and the amount of time in the season required to set and mature the seed crop, then balance these parameters.
Selected varieties of most flowers can set and mature seed in our climate. Most areas of the Northeast fall within Zones 4 to 6. For many annuals and perennials, the cool springs and temperate summers with moderate rainfall are ideal. Seedlings frequently must be started indoors, particularly since many plants we can grow as annuals are actually perennials in their warmer native homes and require a long growing season to mature their seed. Also, most perennials that are hardy in our climate need at least several months of growth from seed in their first year to have a large enough root system to survive their first winter.
Perennials, of course, typically grow from three to five years before a planting needs to be renovated. Most growers avoid varieties, strains or species that are marginal or tender in our climate, simplifying the care required for overwintering the plants. Some plantings don’t even need to be mulched, though even a light layer of straw, pine needles or pine boughs (which come off in the spring) provides adequate winter protection. One planting of a hardy perennial flower can produce several crops of seed before renovation is necessary.
If a perennial flower seed crop can be interplanted with some other cash crop in the same bed that first year while getting established, then the costs of the first year of growing can be “subsidized.” An early planting of lettuce between plants or rows of perennials is a good option. Some biennials and perennials can be sown or transplanted into place in mid- to late summer, perhaps after an early crop of lettuce, spinach or other cash crop has been harvested.
One source cited a benefit of flower seed production in relation to water use. Many flowers tolerate drought or moisture irregularities better than most vegetables do. Irrigation needs are minimal, often unnecessary (though certainly beneficial at planting or transplanting times or during extended drought). Overwatering can actually result in excessive plant growth, at the expense of flower production, thereby lowering seed yields.
A common mistake is to assume that flowers need minimal fertility as well as watering. Yet the opposite is true. Flowers need sufficient, well-balanced fertility to produce high yields of healthy seed. Too much nitrogen can produce excessive vegetative growth at the expense of flower production, but too little nitrogen keeps plants small and reduces productivity. An adequate supply of nitrogen and phosphorous together gives the best results. Organic growers should prepare their flower beds as they prepare their vegetable beds – particularly with ample compost and the proper pH.
The biggest challenge for the flower seed grower is isolation. Almost all species of flowers commonly grown in our Northeast gardens and farms, as well as our wildflowers, are cross-pollinated, often by insects and birds. A seed grower needs to isolate each variety from others. Of course, some growers do collect several commercial varieties and intentionally grow them together to create their own mix, and save that as a unique mix developed, selected and adapted for their own farm. There is no harm if that is the intention.
However, if growing a flower seed crop of a variety that is to be marketed to consumers as that variety, then most growers rely upon physical isolation. As with brassicas and cucurbits, growers need to ensure that a different variety of the given species is not growing within a mile of the planting. Such barriers as tall buildings, hedges, tree lines or woods – anything that might be an obstacle to a pollinator – allow some flexibility. Generally, with barriers, most sources recommend an isolation distance of 1/4 mile.
An alternating schedule – either alternate-day caging or alternating years – can enable growers to raise more than one variety of a species. For example, if you have two varieties of bachelor buttons and you want to keep them from crossing, you can cover them both before they flower with an insect-proof barrier, either a cage with a frame and screening or a fabric row cover like Reemay. Once flowering begins, uncover one of the varieties on a given day to let the pollinators work the flowers, then cover it that evening; the following day, uncover the second variety. The third day, uncover the first again. Continue until the plants finish blooming or you are ready to harvest.
The other option is to grow one of the varieties one year and the other the second year. This usually is successful with flowers because they generally produce enough seed in one year to meet your needs for several years.
Sweet peas are one of the few self-pollinating flower crops. They pollinate themselves without crossing and without experiencing genetic inbreeding depression, so different varieties of sweet peas can be grown relatively close to each other (15 feet is commonly cited as an isolation distance). This allows the seed grower to grow and maintain many varieties with relative ease.
Many flowers need to be trellised, staked or fenced. Many tall and/or leggy flowering plants, such as hollyhocks, Delphinium, Cosmos or Nicotiana sylvestris, are susceptible to lodging or being knocked down by wind and rain. A simple system of stakes, placed every three to six plants, and twine, in a basket-weave, can be used. True vining plants, such as morning glories or sweet pease, can most efficiently be grown on fine-mesh chicken wire. At harvest time, either the seed pods are picked by hand or the plants are cut at ground level and pulled off the fencing. (The finer the mesh, the less the vines will twine around and around, and therefore they will come off more readily.) Then, the chicken wire can be rolled up and tossed onto a bonfire or other burn pile in the fall or winter to remove and destroy residual plant material. Such fencing is reusable for years.
Many species of flowers are very susceptible to common pests that can create great challenges for the grower. Aphids, bacterial blights, powdery mildew, and rust are a few problems that affect flower seed crops. Sometimes growers lose a crop and decide not to grow or save seed from that species for years to come. Before selecting a species or variety to grow for seed, research the disease susceptibility and determine if your farm offers an appropriate, well-protected site for prevention. Some species to be wary of include perennial Phlox, hollyhocks, Delphiniums, stocks, asters and Zinnias.
Many species of flowers have seeds that are rather tedious or difficult to clean. Tiny particles of dried seed heads, feathery tails that stick to the seed, or immature seed totally mixed with mature seed are potential hassles. Some species to be wary of include bachelor’s buttons, Cynoglossum, and some marigolds. Some sunflowers, Tithonia and Echinacea, hold onto their seeds rather determinedly and much physical abrasion is required to remove the seeds from the flower head, which can introduce a lot of debris. Besides being undesirable for wholesale markets, this sort of trash can harbor moisture, disease and/or insects and can throw off the accuracy of germination tests. Harvest, winnow and thresh in a way to keep the good seed as clean as possible, and not contaminate it with stuff that you will have to remove later (even if this means not collecting all of the mature seed. Still, growers should consider species that are moderately difficult to clean. Most seed companies that purchase seed from regional growers have their own seed cleaning equipment and allow growers to use it for a surcharge or reduction in the purchase price.
A final challenge is protecting the seed or the seed pods on maturing plants from excessive moisture. The Northeast typically has a rainy season in September and October, when many flowers are maturing their seed. Not being protected within a fruit or shell, flower seed can be damaged, especially by disease, during long wet periods. On the other hand, wind and dry periods can cause flower heads to shatter and spill seeds onto the ground.
Timely and regular harvests are essential, especially as most flower seed matures unevenly. Some growers expect at least three separate harvests from a given variety: first when the biggest branches are dry enough (before shattering), then when a large proportion of seed is ready, and then once or twice more when the last of the branches on the plants are ready.
Yet, as with lettuce and brassicas, the preferred method is to clip the plants using scissors or pruners and take the clipped branches inside under cover on a large sheet or tarp to continue to dry and be stored until it is time to thresh. Harvest in the early morning with the dew still on the plants to minimize shattering.
For threshing and cleaning, many growers use simple hand tools at home, while others rely on mechanical seed cleaners, like small, electric winnowers with adjustable wind and screening capabilities that some seed companies in the Northeast have.
Harvest quality seed and try not to get the seed too mixed up with chaff, dirt and weeds to begin with. Threshing can be quick and rustic: done by stamping, jumping, dancing or walking on the dried branches and flower heads on a large sheet or tarp. After most of die flower heads have been crushed and their seeds released, the bigger chaff can be gathered and lifted off by hand, then the small chaff can be screened and winnowed off.
Getting Seeds into the Soil
Economic analyses of an annual (Calendula) and a perennial (Delphinium) are presented in Table A. This example is a generic, readily manipulated model for adaptation and comparison. A reader can look at this “budget’ and make changes pertaining to his or her own farm.
In the model, this hypothetical farm has 2 acres in cultivated production, managed by two full-time employees with some basic equipment, including a rototiller, hand tools, and a hoophouse. These flower seed crops will grow in two beds, each measuring 4′ x 100′. The Delphinium crop will be grown in one of these beds from early summer of the first year until the planting needs to be renovated (possibly two to five years). Calendula, an annual, will be grown in the second bed from May until October of a single year.
Both crops are planted with two rows per bed, the rows being 24″ to 30″ apart. Calendula plants need be planted only 12″ apart in the row, which allows 200 plants per bed, while Delphinium is spaced 15″ between plants in the row, giving 144 plants per bed. Both crops are started in flats in the hoophouse in the spring. Calendula, being a quick germinator and fast grower, is sown and grown in a single tray, relatively late in the spring (early to mid-May). Delphiniums, on the other hand, will be sown in early spring and then potted into other trays before final transplanting to the field by early summer.
Calendulas usually prosper in our climate with few difficulties and set their seed (from transplants) long before fall rains and heavy frosts. The plants receive cultivation and some limited irrigation. At harvest time, the plants are cut near ground level when most of the crop is mature. (Fully mature Calendula seed heads shatter easily, so cutting the seed heads when they are slightly immature is recommended, and most of the seed will ripen and have good germination.) Cut plants are gathered onto a tarp and pulled inside to continue to dry, mature and cure for several weeks. Threshing and cleaning are done by hand.
The Delphinium crop is grown quite differently from its annual counterpart. The seed germinates slower and may require stratification, and the young transplants may need some extra care when hardening off and transplanting. Many diseases affect Delphiniums, including bacterial leaf spot, bacterial blight, crown rot, powdery mildew, fusarium, pythium and botrytis, so the farmers in this example have a clean protected site selected and prepared for this crop. Time is allowed throughout the season not only to cultivate but to scout and rogue out problems and prepare the plants and the bed for the first winter. The plants would most likely have produced small stalks with some flowers, and these get cut down; mulching would probably not be needed in a well-protected site.
In the second and subsequent seasons a simple trellis is required. Many Delphinium varieties can reach 5 feet or more when fully loaded with blossoms. The most common system is a stake and twine tie-up, similar to a basket-weave technique frequently used with tomatoes in a field, where stakes (in this case, pieces of rebar or thin wooden stakes) are driven into the ground every 6′ to 10′, then a heavy twine (such as masonry twine) is tied from one post to the next, down both sides of the plants, thereby holding the plants gently but securely within a brace of twine.
Lower seed pods on the flowering stem of Delphiniums mature and shatter before the upper ones do, so the stems are cut as soon as the lower pods start to open. They are brought inside to continue to dry on a tarp. As with lettuce (described in a previous article in the series), Delphiniums may be threshed best simply by turning the fully dried plants upside down and shaking out what seed will fall out; attempts at crushing, stomping or otherwise threshing can produce more debris and require more cleaning – for very little extra seed.
These two crops show the importance of developing clear goals and plans before attempting to grow a flower seed crop. Trial and assess each species and variety to become familiar with the plant and to determine a balance of varieties and techniques that work. Low-yielding or less popular or otherwise challenging varieties can be grown successfully if, in advance, the grower has arranged for price premiums or selected other more profitable varieties to “subsidize” the other. Seed companies must have varieties that they know will sell.
Looking at the Numbers
In looking at the economic viability of flower seed production, I have used three sets of figures each for the Calendula (annual) and the Delphinium (perennial) crop, representing a range of yields that reflect harvest data gathered in this study. As with most seed crops, yield figures and wholesale prices vary widely among varieties, species and seed companies so predicted profits can also vary widely.
Table B shows a simple cost/benefit analysis for our flower seed crops. The fixed and variable costs of our hypothetical farm (from Table A) for Calendula and Delphinium are added together respectively to determine the total cost of production for each crop. Individual costs per square foot and per plant are then made proportionately, reflecting those actual costs for each crop.
The expected income is calculated using the three different yield figures and typical, current wholesale prices for organically grown seed of specialty varieties. (In either case; these represent premium prices.) The flower seed industry does produce seed of standard varieties very cheaply, so growers need to offer a very different product to get a premium price at this scale. Nowhere in my entire study is this case clearer than with the flowers. (As an example, particular Calendula varieties can wholesale for under $10 per pound, $50 per pound, or $100 per pound. Using the wholesale prices of $100/lb. for Calendula and $600/lb. for Delphinium, Table B shows the total gross sales, the gross sales per square foot, and the gross sales per plant for each possible yield. Yield-to-sales relationships help define what can be profitable. The net income (the last three columns in the benefit tables) is calculated by subtracting the respective costs from the gross sales.
For Calendula, a low yield of 1.38 pounds of seed from our bed (which falls on the low end of the range of yields identified in one of my primary texts on commercial flower seed production, and reflects the equivalent of 150 lbs./acre) will be unprofitable, as costs outweigh gross sales, resulting in a total loss of $88.64. For good yields of 2.3 pounds (a median yield equivalent of 250 lbs./acre), we see a near break-even level of profitability, where gross sales almost equal costs, resulting in a $3.36 net (which can still be viewed favorably, for the costs covered here include all fixed and variable costs, including labor). Yet yields as high as 2.75 pounds (the equivalent of 300 lbs./acre) are most profitable under this model, as gross sales are well above costs, resulting in a $48.36 net.
For Delphinium, the lowest yield generates gross sales below total costs, while the highest yield demonstrates a highly profitable net return (the range here reflecting the equivalent of 50 to 90 lbs./acre yield). In the middle, a moderate yield of .63 pounds (or about 70 lbs./acre) will be economically successful, covering all costs with a $14.36 net.
Table C shows a simple break-even analysis, which is used to calculate a selling price (given the yields and the fixed and variable costs) at which the grower will “break even” (i.e., cover all those costs, but not make a profit over and above those costs). Then the formula is used to calculate the quantity needed to be sold at a given selling price (in relation to the fixed and variable costs) to just break even. A higher selling price and/or yield will provide a profit for the farm for that crop.
The break-even selling price calculations for Calendula show that a yield of 2.3 pounds is near the break-even point for the wholesale price of $100.00/lb., as the calculated selling price is $98.54. A lower yield of 1.38 lbs. would be unprofitable if the wholesale price is $100.00/lb.; however, if the grower can get a wholesale price of $164.23/lb. or higher, then the crop will break even or be profitable at this yield. For a good yield of 3.21 lbs., the calculated break-even selling price is well below the premium $100.00/lb. wholesale price, indicating potential for profit, starting at $70.60/pound.
For the Delphinium crop a low yield of 0.5 pounds requires a selling price of $739.38 to break even, while the better yield of 0.64 pounds can provide a modest profit for the farm if sold at $600.00/lb., and the high yield of 0.83 pounds will provide excellent potential for profitability, with a break-even selling price of $445.35. These calculations should be used to determine any appropriate selling price, higher or lower, than stated here, whichever may be required or desired by the grower and/or the buyer.
The final analysis, the break-even quantity sold, suggests a range of possible profitable models based on three selling prices. The current premium wholesale prices for the flower species in the example are sufficient to make modest yields of about 2.3 pounds of seed (or 250 lbs./acre) for Calendula and 0.62 pounds of seed (or 68 lbs.,/acre) for Delphinium economically viable. These yields are well within the range of data attributed to these crops by industry sources. Higher prices allow a grower to break even at lower yields (1.8 pounds per plant for Calendula and 0.53 pounds for Delphinium), and yields above these figures should be quite profitable. Lower prices than the premium, however, will require a yield of at least 3 pounds for Calendula and about 3/4 pounds for Delphinium to break even.
Conclusions and Further Pursuits
Annual and perennial flowers can offer a challenging yet rewarding seed crop to produce in the Northeast. With many varieties of flowers from which to choose, and the popularity of these crops, entrepreneurial farmers have many possibilities to explore when considering flower seed crop production..
Like no other crop, flowers offer several marketable products, from seedlings to fresh cut flowers to medicinal tinctures to mesclun mixes to seeds. Growers who serve a variety of markets, particularly farmstands, farmers’ markets and small retail and specialty food stores, can introduce flower seeds in the off-season to their customers who are familiar with the flowers from the summer season. One niche market can be used to open another niche.