Locally Grown, Not Flown: The Maine Flower Collective

March 1, 2024

By Jennifer Wilhelm

Did you know that most flowers found in grocery stores are from outside the country? In fact, according to Floristry and Floriculture Industry Statistics & Trends, the United States is the largest importer of flowers in the world. Most roses are grown in Ecuador. Eighty percent of the world’s tulips are grown in the Netherlands. Most carnations are from Columbia … you get the idea. Of the flowers grown and sold in the United States, 76% come from California. Retail flowers can have a big, big footprint.

In addition to the distance most imported flowers travel and the associated greenhouse gas emissions, the growing conditions most often rely on large-scale, industrial agriculture techniques that are more likely to degrade soil, pollute waterways and overuse synthetic chemicals than small-scale, diversified operations. Post-harvest, flowers are often treated with chemicals and wrapped in plastic sleeves to lengthen their shelf life to withstand shipping and retail.

The good news is that many beautiful flowers grow well in Maine, from the elegant to the hardy. Flowers as decadent as dahlias and ranunculus and as simple as black-eyed Susan and zinnia are commonly grown throughout Maine. With organic farmers adding cut flowers to their crop rotations, seed companies are diversifying their selection of organic flower seed.

Maine Flower Collective ranunculus
The United States is the largest flower importer in the world, but many beautiful blooms — including ranunculus — can be grown locally. Courtesy of Andrea Ault

Every year, more and more local growers are planting flowers as they see the benefits to pollinators, wildlife and people. With bee colony collapse, widespread use of pesticides and habitat loss, adding flowers into crop plans can be a boon to food production. Incorporating flowers into fruit and vegetable production can attract native pollinators and honeybees, who in turn pollinate food crops and increase yields. In the United States alone, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 150 food crops require pollination to reproduce, including almost all fruit and grain crops.

Despite the increase in local flower production, demand outweighs supply. The wedding industry drives much of the demand for flowers, and with the increase in local flower production, more wholesale buyers are seeking out locally grown flowers. However, with limited options for one-stop flower shopping, wholesale buyers resorted to driving to individual farms or florist shops to find the varieties and quantities of floral products needed.

Enter the Maine Flower Collective, a member-owned and -run cooperative that aggregates Maine-grown flowers from around Southern and Midcoast Maine; from Kittery up the coast to Bar Harbor, northwest to Dover-Foxcroft and south to Farmington and Lewiston. The collective was born out of a desire to increase the availability of locally grown floral products to wholesale buyers.

“It all started from a Facebook post,” says Mary Lou Hoskins, of Cedar Mill Farm in Exeter, Maine, and Maine Flower Collective board president. “When the floral wholesale store in Bangor closed, growers and buyers shared their frustration. That was the only local place anyone could go to buy and/or sell floral products.”

With the help of staff from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, University of Maine and Cooperative Extension, that Facebook thread turned into action. First, a survey was conducted to better understand the needs of wholesale buyers and flower growers. The survey data made concrete the anecdotal evidence, which led to an application for a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant. There were many steps between the initial frustrated social media post and the formalization of the collective  including conversations, new partners, meetings, and starts and stops (COVID-19 set the timeline back). In 2023, the collective celebrated its first year up and running.

Maine Flower Collective warehouse
The Maine Flower Collective, launched in 2022, is a member-owned and -run cooperative that aggregates Maine-grown flowers to increase the availability of locally grown floral products to wholesale buyers. Courtesy of Mary Lou Hoskins

In their first year, the collective included 27 growers and 52 buyers, and sold 98,000 individual flowers (“stems” in flower parlance). A full-time, year-round staff member was hired in March to help manage all of the day-to-day logistics including serving as a liaison between buyers and growers.

“The focus of the collective is sustainability and supporting our local agriculture movement,” says Sofia Oliver, operations manager for the collective. “We provide a centralized network so that growers can focus on what they do best, which is growing their products. We handle the logistics and customer service aspects of things so they can streamline their business.”

The Maine Flower Collective is set up as an online storefront, where each week growers update their available offerings and buyers then place their orders. There are costs to become a member-owner, which include user fees for growers and buyers, as well as transaction fees to cover the costs of maintaining the online storefront, coordination and aggregation of product, and delivery.

Maine Flower Collective flower buckets
In their first year, the collective included 27 growers and 52 buyers, and sold 98,000 stems. Courtesy of Sofia Oliver

Hoskins found the membership costs a worthwhile investment. “I didn’t put nearly as much in the compost pile in 2023, and I saw about a 10% increase in sales.”

Financial benefits aren’t the only advantages of being a member. Buyers found the products to be higher quality, and they were able to select from a greater diversity of unique varieties.

“In the past I would have to drive all over the place to get what I wanted,” says Andrea Ault, of Honeysuckle Way Flowers in Gardiner, Maine, and Maine Flower Collective board secretary. “Now all of the different orders get consolidated into one order and one delivery, and I have access to more products.”

So far, the response from members has been overwhelmingly positive. A survey conducted of members’ experience during the first year showed the majority were satisfied with how the cooperative operated, and there is a desire to see it expand. With a successful year under their belt, the collective was able to secure additional funding to support the expansion of their cooperative and plans to open a brick and mortar storefront for wholesale buyers.

“This past season we had the issue of not having enough volume listed by the growers. It was all sold out each week, so we need to increase the number of growers,” Oliver says. “Next year we are also opening a hub for in-person market days to give growers another opportunity to sell excess product. It also will give buyers an opportunity to see products in person.”

Maine Flower Collective campanula
Flowers, such as these campanula blooms, sold out quickly during the collective’s first year. They have plans to increase the number of growers to keep up with demand. Courtesy of Andrea Ault

As a cooperative model, the collective also aims to build community and create opportunities for growers and buyers to connect. By offering educational opportunities to its members, they can provide them insight from buyers about what they are looking for in the product. This more direct connection between growers and buyers can help ensure long-term success for the collective.

“It’s such a great opportunity for growers and buyers, and there is a great community aspect to it as well,” Ault says. “I’ve gotten to know other growers and buyers by participating on the board, and we plan to host more member meet-ups. The collective has been a great way to bring people together through business, without viewing it as competition.”

Flower production is an important part of agriculture worldwide. The Maine Flower Collective is doing its part to support local agriculture, while raising awareness about the quality and availability of beautiful flowers grown right here in Maine.

This article was originally published in the spring 2024 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

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