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Farmers Can Tap Into New Market With Flower Crops

Cindy Spence

Dan Mullins, (850) 623-3868

MILTON—Panhandle farmers can trade in snap beans for snapdragons in a move to boost their earnings. University of Florida extension specialist Dan Mullins says adding sunflowers, zinnias and verbena to fields of corn, cotton and beans could make a big difference in the bottom line for farmers.

“We became interested in cut flowers because we’re always looking for alternative crops,” said Mullins, a horticulture and vegetable specialist with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “Diversity is the name of the game these days. Growers, even successful growers, are always looking for alternatives so they can spread out the risk and avoid investing their resources in only one crop.

“With cut flowers, we believe we’ve found an alternative crop with good potential in North Florida,” Mullins said.

The demand for the crop is high, as indicated by the presence of more than 300 retail florists and two large wholesale florists in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties alone. Most flowers sold in the region are being imported from the western United States and South America.

“We asked ourselves, ‘Why are we growing such a small percentage of the flowers used in our state,’ ” Mullins said.

Mullins started the three-year study when he realized there was little information available on varieties, plant spacing, fertilization, harvesting and marketing of cut flowers for the northern Gulf Coast region.

A local strawberry producer offered land for the trials, and Mullins was in business. Santa Rosa County Master Gardeners, volunteers trained to assist extension agents with gardening projects, pitched in to seed, transplant and maintain the plots, and two 4-H members helped by delivering flowers to florists and seeing that the evaluation forms were completed and returned.

During the trials, Mullins tried to determine if marketable cut flowers could be produced under field crop conditions. His second goal was to screen as many species and cultivars as possible so potential growers would have plenty of options.

Fifty-seven species were tried, with cool season flowers planted in mid-October and warm season flowers planted in mid-March.

The flowers were evaluated for stem length, number of flowers and quality. Flowers were delivered to wholesale and retail florists after harvest, and an evaluation form was provided so they could answer questions about the locally produced flowers.

“Florists were surprised at the size and quality of the locally produced flowers,” Mullins said. “They were especially impressed with the freshness and encouraged us to proceed with other studies and with production for the local market.”

The florists were unanimous in saying the trial produced beautiful flowers but said they needed longer stems for floral arrangements. Still, about 75 to 80 percent of the flowers tried in the field were acceptable to florists, Mullins said.

“We had some nice surprises. Verbena and sunflowers did beautifully, as did the zinnias. And blue spirea, we found, held its color and freshness a very long time,” Mullins said. “The flower that got the most attention might have been the lisianthus. It bloomed a long time, but again, the florists wanted a longer stem.”

Fertilization requirements for cut flowers were relatively low, when compared with vegetables. Fertilizer injections were provided only once during each crop cycle for the flowers, as compared with weekly applications for vegetable crops.

Out of the 57 varieties tested, 27 performed well under field conditions. The remaining species would require temperature and/or light control and would have to be grown in a greenhouse.

“While many can be grown under field conditions, extreme weather — hail, heavy rains, high winds and freezes — affects the quality and consistent quantity required by florists,” Mullins said.

Bugs were another problem encountered with field flowers, Mullins said. He recalls taking a crop of perfect sunflowers to a florist only to have them rejected.

“There was a bug on the flowers, and any insect, even a beneficial insect, is bad news for florists,” Mullins said. “If just one bug crawled out of an arrangement and across a dining room table, the florist would lose a customer.”

Mullins said the input from florists helped the study succeed.

“That was a big part of the project, actually taking our flowers to florists and getting advice from them,” Mullins said. “It’s been a real learning experience, but now we know this is a market our growers can tap into.”