Flower market blooms as Maryland farmers turn to petal power


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.

Healey said at least five acres are needed to earn a living -- three acres to grow the flowers and the rest for packing sheds. But people with as little as one acre are growing flowers to supplement their income, he said.

Dave Robbins is growing cut flowers on three acres in Sykesville. He said he became interested in selling flowers to farmers' markets eight years ago. "I like the market atmosphere," he said. Now he is selling snap dragons and marigolds.

Garnett said few people realize the work involved in raising flowers. "People think it's beautiful because I'm out working with pretty flowers all day. But during the summer, I work an average of 70 hours a week."

Between Friday and Sunday, she works 35 to 40 hours, cutting and bundling flowers and traveling to farmers' markets in Takoma Park, Columbia and Arlington, Va. She raises 30 kinds of perennials, and 15 to 20 kinds of annuals.

"I almost always sell out of flowers," she said.

Competition has become more stiff at the markets this year as more farmers try to sell flowers, she noted. Always she is at the mercy of the weather. Too little rain can kill her plants. But rain on market day drives away customers and sends her home with buckets of unsold flowers.

"There's a lot of hard work and no guaranteed payoff," she said.

To market, to market . . .

Farmers' markets in the Baltimore metropolitan area selling cut or potted flowers:

Baltimore * Highlandtown Farmers' Market, 3700 Fleet St., Saturdays, 9 until 2 p.m., June 15-Nov. 2.

* Howard Park Farmers' Market, 3500 block of Woodbine Ave., Saturdays, 7 a.m.-1 p.m., June 15-Dec. 21.

* Baltimore's Farmers' Market, Holiday and Saratoga streets, Sundays, 8 a.m. until sold out (or noon), June 23-Dec. 22.

* Gardenville Farmers' Market, 4400 Frankford Ave., Saturdays, 7:30 a.m.-noon, June 29-Nov. 23.

* 32nd Street Market, 400 block E. 32nd St., Saturdays, 7 a.m.-noon.

Anne Arundel County * Annapolis Farmers' Market, Calvert Street in front of Arundel Center, Thursdays, 8 a.m.-2 p.m., June 27-Oct. 31.

* Anne Arundel County Farmers' Market, Riva Road at Harry S. Truman Parkway, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 7 a.m.-2 xTC

p.m., April 16-Nov. 30.

* Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers' Market, Annapolis Harbour Center, Md. 2 at Patuxent Blvd., Thursdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Fridays, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturdays, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.

Baltimore County * Essex Farmers' Market, 512 Eastern Blvd., Tuesdays, 10 a.m.-2 June 18-Oct. 29.

* Owings Mills Farmers' Market, Owings Mills New Town Visitors Center, Tuesdays, 3 p.m.-8 p.m., June 25-Oct. 29.

* Towson Farmers' Market, Allegheny Avenue between Washington and York roads, Thursdays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., June 27-Oct. 31.

* Amish Farmers' Market, Dundalk, North Point Plaza, Fridays, 10 a.m.- 7 p.m.; Saturdays, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Carroll County * Carroll County Farmers' Market, Westminster, Smith Avenue at the Westminster Agricultural Center, Saturdays, 8 a.m.-1 p.m., June 22-Sept. 7.

* South Carroll Farmers' Market, Eldersburg, West Hemlock Drive, next to library, Wednesdays, 3 p.m.-7 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m., June 26-Oct. 20.

Harford County * Bel Air Saturday Farmers' Market, Bel Air, Bond and Thomas streets, Saturdays, 7:30 a.m.-noon, May 4-Nov. 9.

Howard County * Oakland Mills Farmers' Market, Oakland Mills Village Center, Columbia, Thursdays, 3 p.m.-7 p.m., May 23-Oct. 31.

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