News and blog
A bundle of happiness
Texas-grown blooms delight brides, chefs and hostesses
By Debra Prinzing
Rita Anders, a granddaughter of tomato farmers who says she has the "gardening gene," has paired her knack for growing vegetables with natural artistic talent to create a thriving cut flower farm in Weimar, halfway between Austin and Houston in Colorado County, Texas.
Rita took over her grandparents' tomato greenhouses in 1980 when she was a young mother, and since then, she's raised many types of edible plants. But this vivacious Texas native is at her best when she's up to her shoulders in luscious, fragrant blooms.
At Cuts of Color (www.cutsofcolor.com), flowers and floral ingredients comprise 70 percent of Rita's product mix. She produces hundreds of varieties of annuals, perennials, bulbs, vines, grasses and herbs in three acres of growing fields and in 24,000-square-feet of greenhouses. Her prolific floral enterprise thrives because there's something beautiful to harvest every month of the year.
In 2005, prompted in part by the rising price of fuel to heat her greenhouses, Rita began diversifying her farm with cut flowers -- and she has been greatly rewarded by the response.
"I wanted to grow something that I loved - and growing flowers just seemed so romantic to me," she says. Rita researched the industry, joined the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (ASCFG), a national trade group, and poured through the pages of Lynn Byczynski's book "The Flower Farmer," which featured the story of Texas Specialty Cut Flowers, a successful family farm in Hill Country.
Rita began sowing seeds of Texas favorites like sunflowers, cockscomb and zinnias. "I didn't plant rows of flowers, I planted entire gardens," she recalls.
The floral side of her business took off when a neighbor encouraged Rita to sell her bouquets at his farm egg stall at the Urban Harvest Farmers' Market in Houston. The first week, Rita brought 30 bouquets, along with baskets of lettuce
greens and just-picked tomatoes. "People who came for my vegetables bought flowers and the flower customers bought vegetables - the more I had, the more they wanted."
Cuts of Color was popular stall at the farmers' market for seven years. "Every Saturday, I got up at 4 a.m., loaded up my flowers and drove to Houston. I would arrive by6:30 a.m.and start selling by8 a.m.I usually sold out of everything I brought by10:30 a.m.," she recalls.
Bright buckets of colorful petals and lush, green foliage are hard to resist. Eager buyers snapped up her $5 and $10 bouquets, helping the tiny enterprise "grow bigger and bigger," Rita says. She intentionally kept the prices affordable because, "I wanted to ensure that people who couldn't afford to spend much were still able to take home a little bundle of happiness every week."
Her bouquet recipes are widely varied, but they can include everything from Agastache to Verbena, as well as fresh herbs for greenery. "African blue basil, and lemon and cinnamon basil smell wonderful with flowers," she says. "Everything is determined by season, so my bouquets are constantly changing."
Grown-in-Texas blooms are important to a wide array of her customers, including local chefs, supermarket buyers and wedding planners who value the intrinsic benefits of seasonal flowers grown close to home. "People want quality and they want flowers to last," Rita says. "That's what I specialize in."
Wedding and event planner Kristen Baumbach of Details, also based inWeimar, loves working with Rita and says her ingredients are popular with brides. "Rita grows beautiful flowers. They are the freshest available and definitely a better value because they are local. The happiest brides are the ones who trust Rita when she says, 'show me what you like and I guarantee you'll be happy.'"
Over the years, it has been important to Rita that people knew her story and where their flowers come from. "I made a connection with those farmers' market customers. They came back every week."
One of her regulars was Chris Shepherd, founder and chef of Underbelly, theHouston restaurant known for celebrating locally-sourced ingredients. "Chris walks through the Urban Harvest market to see what farmers have each week," Rita says. "That's where our friendship started."
Last year, when she was ready to leave the farmers' market, Shepherd promised Rita he would continue to buy whatever she delivered.
"For us it was a conscious decision," he explains. "At Underbelly, we source all our products from within 150 miles - including Rita's vegetables and flowers." Each weekly delivery includes seasonal vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, salad greens and cucumbers or whatever is growing at the time from Rita's farm, as well as bouquets that she makes for Underbelly's foyer and bar.
FROM SEED TO VASE
When Rita makes her deliveries to theHoustonrestaurant, she also brings a trailer-load of Cuts of Color bouquets and bunches to the floral department at Central Market, the popularHoustongrocery store.
Rita gains a competitive edge over imports by specializing in field-grown flowers that don't necessarily ship well. "Sunflowers, snapdragons, sweet peas, zinnias - these are popular. I really don't have to sell my flowers - they sell themselves. I offer a good, locally product at a fair price."
Lisa Wright, Central Market's floral department manager, raves about Cuts of Color bouquets, which she now stocks every month of the year.
"Our customers are definitely more aware of buying from local farmers. Rita grows many flowers that our customers haven't seen here in a long time -- like sweet peas, ranunculus, zinnias and french tulips.
The store has created special signage to highlight "Texas Grown" flowers, and its sales staff makes a point of educating customers, Wright explains. "You have to tell the story. We might have a bunch of sunflowers from Ecuador that cost a little less, but then we tell customers about Rita's flowers. We show off her photo and say, 'This is the grower. Her flowers were hand-picked less than two hours away. She touched this bouquet - and you can't get any fresher than that."
LOCAL FLOWER POWER
It's undeniable that the American grown movement is changing how consumers approach many of their spending choices, for food as well as flowers. Yet even the most resourceful florist finds it challenging to connect with local sources when wholesalers stock their warehouses with commodity flowers that are imported from other countries. Fortunately for Rita, the superior quality of her flowers are a calling card and the relationship with Central Market has provided an important endorsement. As a result, she has expanded the selection of flowers she grows and offers to independent floral designers who also buy her blooms.
About two-thirds of the flowers she harvests are sold at Central Market. The rest appear in bridal bouquets and as decor for special events throughout her region. Rita (and her farm) have attracted a new category of buyer - the do-it-yourself wedding party. The DIY bride is happy to pre-order blooms and personally pick them up at the farm, ready to gather into wedding bouquets, boutonnieres and centerpieces.
Rita believes that education is an essential tool to help customers value what she grows. "It makes me happy to sell to the customer who loves my flowers." While she doesn't overtly advertise that she supplies weddings, it's easy to understand why people contact her.
Rita jokes that she's still a "little country mouse going to the city," which might be easy to believe if you consider thatWeimar's population is only 2, 145. But for all Cuts of Color's success selling in Houston, 90 miles to the east, the homegrown bouquet delivered to a neighbor who needs a pick-me-up is still one of Rita's cherished acts.
At times, growing flowers feels quite isolating, although her involvement as a regional director of ASCFG keeps Rita engaged in the professional flower farming community across the country. Whether her bouquets go to Houston or are carried by the hometown bride who wants a Texas-centric wedding, they symbolize something much more than just their ingredients.
The flowers represent an unbridled passion, a calling, if you will. "I like growing vegetables," she says. "But I love growing flowers."
I really had good intentions of keeping up with this blog but after I wrote the last one in january of 2012, my life dramatically changed. My dad was admitted to the hospital in January and after going back and forth and couple of times into different hospitals, he settled into Methodist Hospital in Houston and that's where he ended up passing away on April 9th of 2012. I spent so much time at the hospital while trying to keep up with the farm. At the end of April, my youngest son married the love of his life and while we missed our dad so much , we had alot to be happy for also. Dad's passing let me look at life alot differently. I decided to change things up a bit and stopped selling at the farmer's market and was offered a great deal by a restaurant to by my vegetables and sourced out a buyer for a great deal of my flowers. Central Market in Houston has been buying most of what I am able to grow and I've been very busy doing alot of weddings. I feel so blessed everyday that I made those changes in my life. I miss all the wonderful customers at market where I was selling but so many called or emailed me that they wish me only the best and understand why I made the changes. My mom has been ill also with back troubles and heart troubles and this way I've been able to help her out also. As a farmer you get so busy taking care of the farm and everything else that you put yourself on the backburner. This change has given me the opportunity to take care of myself also. We also have 4 wonderful grandchildren and 2 on the way and now I get to spend alot more time with the kids and grandkids. In a couple of years my husband wants to retire and we've even managed to find a retirement place at the coast so when he does retire, we will have a place to go when we can.
I will always want to grow flowers as long as I can and these changes in how I do business will let me keep being a grower and still have time for my family. I so enjoy making arrangements for anyone that enjoys giving flowers to someone to make them happy. I like to grow happy flower sand I love seeing the face on my customers when they get that special bouquets. I've been so fortunate that brides have been flowers from me this past year and this year is looking even better. Yesterday made a trip into Houston to purchase vessels for a brides wedding and so much fun we had till I got that bad headache(wasn't the bride, something I ate had MSG in it) and it was a doosey.
I try to make each brides wedding to be origianl to her and have her likes all incorporated into how we decorate. Several brides book me months ahead so I can grow the flowers they would like for their wedding. Some flowers have to be ordered many months ahead of time to be able to harvest for the spring or early summer.
Right now we have Snapdragons, Ranuculus, Anemones, Dianthus, lupines, Stock, Sweet Peas, Dahlias, Scented Geraniums, Delphiniums, Campanula, Lilies, Tulips, salvias and ageratum growing. When the days get longer and warmer, the gardens and greenhouses will be overflowing with color.
I'm going to try an add flowers this year and not get sidetrack. Check back for new stories on my blog
Wow it's January and it feels like spring. Everything is growing and we've been able to bring alot of vegetables to the market. This past two weeks the Ranuculus have exploded and we are picking tons of blooms and having so much fun making colorful bouquets. All the seed catologs have been coming in and as if I don't have enough, I picked up a few more at the SAWG conference this past weekend. I enjoyed the conference so much and was pleasantly surprised to see so many young farmers at the meetings. This next week brings another week of seeding, transplanting seedlings and putting out young plants into the gardens. Rain is in our forecast again making a much different season than last year when we never got much of any rain except a few tenths here and there.
2012 is a new year and I hope to make it a good one. I have two wonderful new employees who started with me towards the end of 2011 and so happy to have them and they are both very excited about all the new flowers and vegetables. With their help, we should be able to offer more and more consistant supply of both flowers and vegetables.
We have been booking weddings for the 2012 year and very excited about that also. If you are thinking about using local flowers, let us provide flowers for your wonderful day. I post alot of pictures on my facebook page, Cuts of Colors. Check those out and give me a call and we can set up a visit for your special day.
Here's to a happy new year and happy growing,
After the hottest and dryest summer, I'm so happy that fall is here. You wouldn't know it though looking at the temps and weather forecasts. We still havn't had any rain at our farm and are depending on our 2 wells for all our water needs.
Our Fall crop of tomatoes are planted and some are flowering but without temps going below 70, I don't think we will have any tomatoes anytime soon. Hoping for tomatoes sometime in November. Our Arugula, lettuce mix and spicy green mix are putting out lots of salad mix and our cucumbers are finally starting to produce fruit. Our basi is still going crazy even in the heat. Peppers have all ceased to exist in the extreme heat. Just couldn't keep up watering them. We've planted spinach but havn't had alot of luck yet getting it to sprout because of the heat. Broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce plants are growing and waiting for them to size up to be transplanted out into the gardens.
Our biggest obstacle at the moment is keeping the deer from eating everything we plant. The birds are coming in and pecking at the ground and eating the seed in the trays. The armadillos invade the freshly watered beds at night and squirels are eating our pecans from the trees. We are having a new deer proof fence put in sometime starting this week and that will keep out the biggest nemice.
Some of the flowers are still growing in this heat like the zinnias, sunflowers and celosia. Dahlias are in their new beds for the fall and winter and hoping for a boutiful harvest of beautiful stems. We have started sowing seed for several of our early spring flowers and our ranuculus and anemone bulbs are due to arrive at the first of October. It seems like their arrival is like our new start for the next year because they are usually the first thing to start blooming in late December to early January.
After a summer like we've had this year, I have never looked forward to winter more than this year. I vow I will never complain about the cold again. Weather forcasters are saying it will be a warmer than normal winter and not much rain till next spring. I hope they are wrong but only time will tell.
Despite the weather, I am very optimistic about a good fall and winter crop. As long as my wells keep working, We will keep growing. I'm also very excited about 2 new employees to the farm and look forward to their imput to this next growing season.
From our farm to yours, Rita
Our farm liife has been a blur since August. My dad was diagnosed with Non-Hodkins, Lymphoma and has been receiving very good medical care at Methodist Hospital in Houston. The entire family has pitched in to ensure his care and he is on the road to recovery. We were blessed with the birth of our new grandson, Aiden Jeffey Glueck on November 2nd. My husband had a cancer spot removed from his eye and when healed from that, he had a hernia surgery that he put off. Back in November, I went and had my knee looked at that had been bothering me a whole lot and just seemed to be getting worse. The outcome was that I needed a total knee replacement. Being that we are in to our slow time of the year, I decided to go ahead and have it fixed. My surgery was on Dec 2nd and now 10 days later, I am recovering but have to say that it is a very painful surgery.
I am using my couch time to reserch, order seeds and do a whole lot of planning for next year. On the night of Dec. 4th, we had a hard freeze of 19 degrees, the first of the season and it was a surprise . All of our annual flowers including the house of zinnias that were suppose to take us to Christmas with flowers, froze and left me with no flowers till the early spring flowers like ranunculus and anemones start blooming.
We were very busy the month of November planting all of our greens and lettuces. Amazingly the tomatoes did not freeze. The days have consisted of clouds, rain and cool temps as of late and the tomatoes are not growing . We have decuded this year not to purchase propane and heat the greenhouse and if they freeze, we will just replant in the early spring.
In preparation for spring, we have all of our ranunculus, anemones, delphiniums, dianthus, bells of ireland, campanula, snap dragons, freesia up and growing. Normally we are able to start picking some of the flowers before Valentine's days,
I can't wait to be able to go out in the garden and get my hands dirty and back to work. I'm excited about 2010 and have alot of ideas to implement to bring new and exciting products to my customers.
I don't know the exact date of temps over a 100 but I know there were too many to count. Yesterday the 12th, we finally received an inch and a half of rain. That was the first measurable rain we received since mid April. Everyone is in such a better mood and you at least feel like going out in the morning and working but now in the afternoon temps are near a 100 again but everyday we know it is one day closer to fall. I hope we don't skip fall and go straight to winter.
I'm just itching to start some of the fall crops but with temps being so high, I'm a little hesitant. Most of our crops are making it through the summer thanks to alot of drip irrigation. Two saturdays ago when we were coming home from market in Houston, I saw what I thought was a huge flock of birds ahead and as we got closer, realized it was a huge heat twister. We slowed down to let it go in front of us because it took up all four lanes of the interstate and was as high as you could see and what I thought were birds, were actually corn leaves and other debris. I remarked to my husband, I hope we don't get one of those through our greenhouses. The next afternoon as we werre taking a nap, we heard a loud noise and went out to see what the rucus was. Well it was another one of those huge heat twisters and it took the plastic off one of my greenhouses and ripped a shade cloth off another. It was the same greenhouse that was damaged in April and was going to be repaired anyway and it just did some of the work for us by taking the plastic off. I had a beautiful crop of celosi in the house and when the plastic came off it was hit by some high winds and knocked and broke alot of the celosia down and then the high heat burned some of the plants that wern't use too the heat. It always something and keeps life interesting.
Next week we will start transplanting our fall crop of tomatoes into our beds and the start to alot of work. We also will be transplanting another fall crop of zinnias and as always lots of sunflowers. Our youngest son who is home from college for a couple of weeks between semesters is doing alot of repairs and some new construction for us so we can concentrate on growing. One of his biggest projects is building a cooler for keeping flowers and maybe vegetables also at different times of the year.
Erin our daughter and her husband Jeff are anxiously awaitiing the birth of their 3rd child in late October which will be welcomed at home by Avery who is 3 and Chase who is almost 5 and will be attending pre k . Our oldest son Jim and his wife, Nikki are pregnant and expecting their first born in March. We are anxiously awaiting the births of more grandchildren.
Here is a site that I wanted to share on flower care.
Today we prayed for rain in church. The fields are very dry and there are huge cracks in the ground. The last major rain we had was back in April. There is a saying here in the Weimar area, We have continous drought and occasional floods. What happened when we never worried about getting rain. As I was growing up, I never remember my parents discussing how bad it was because of drought conditions.
Eventhough we have had such an extended drought, our crops seem to be doing okay because we use drip irrigation and water only at the base of the plants and don't waste any of the well water. Can't wait to see my water bill this month.
Saturday was a good day at the market. We harvested alot of cucumbers and basil this week along with all the flowers that are blooming away. Celosia just loves our hot summer are blooming away. We should have plenty of cucumber, basil and celosia next week at the market again. The heat has kept some away from the market but I am very thankful to the customers that come out and brave the heat. The weatherman is forecasting rain for next week and hopefully it will come.
We have started our seeds for our fall tomato crop and germination was good and hope the grasshoppers and worms don't get to them before they grow a little. We just planted another planting of cucumbers and will be replacing our tired plants with new ones. The summer heat of 100 degree temps everyday is really taking a toll on the greens crop and before we know it will be fall and they will kick in and grow like they are suppose too.
The deer in our area are also very hungry and we have had to put up fences to keep them from eating our sunflowers.
Farming isa challenge and we just have to rise to the challenges to be sucessfull or learn more of life's little lessons.
I'm sure some of you are unclear on the meaning of the term "blog". It is a rather fluid term that is a shortened version of "weblog." In my mind, it signifies a webpage that displays content of varying lengths in chronological order and invites readers to interact in the form of comments. Often, blog postings are categorized or tagged by topic so that users can navigate through related blog entries by the tags, such as "farming challenges" or "farmer's market." Blogs take many different forms from personal, public diaries to political commentary to blogs that are published by businesses themselves. This is the most popular form of content generation and information retrieval on the Internet today and the very website you are looking at right now, Small Farm Central, is a blog-style site. If you have heard of the term "Web 2.0", blogs are big part of the Web 2.0 movement.
Your farm should blog because it is an easy and time-effective way for you to get your story out to customers. Repeat customers come to you because of the relationship that they have with you and a blog is a perfect way for you to start and augment the real-world interaction that you have with the customer. Granted it does take some time, energy, and thought to produce effective blog posts that communicate the farm experience, but that post will easily be read 100s or 1000s of times over the life of your blog. That works out to be an extremely time-efficient way to build a consistent and faithful customer base. Customers that read your blog will be more understanding of blemishes or crop shortages because you can explain the exact cause of the problems. This becomes a story that they can take home with their produce and they will feel more connected to the farm and the food if they know some of the challenges that went into growing it.
The complaint I hear the most is that farmers don't have time to be writers as well as producers. Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo dedicates one afternoon every two weeks to writing six blog articles. He then releases one each Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. There are other techniques of course too: get a trusted intern to write an article each week, find a very enthusiastic and involved customer who will volunteer to write a blog article every once and a while, or just commit to posting a short update once each week. There is no right way to write or schedule your blog, but post on a regular schedule and write with passion because passion is infectious.
At this point, if you are considering a farm blog, start reading a few established farm blogs and get some general advice on how to write blogs. I have discussed some aspects of blogging at Small Farm Central in Farm blogging isn't always literature, but this is and What I learned during an interview with Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo. Blogging will be a topic that I come back to over the next few months because I believe it is the core of any modern farm web marketing strategy.
Some farm blogs to get you started:
- Eat Well Farm Blog : recently discussing problems with the Med Fly and how they are certifying their packing shed as Med Fly-free.
- Life of Farm Blog : this blog is sponsored by the Mahindra tractor company. Perhaps the writer got a free tractor for writing the blog?
- Tiny Farm Blog : wonderful photos and at least a post a day.
- Rancho Gordo Blog : this popular blog receives 300-500 unique visitors a day (which is impressive for a farm website) and even helped the author secure a book deal.
Read about the process of writing a blog and more:
- Blogging Your Way Into a Business
- Business Blog Case Study: Stonyfield Farm
- Blogging for your customers versus blogging for your business
- How to Write Great Blog Content : Great advice from the #1 blogger.
Spend the next few weeks reading farm blogs and exploring some of the resources listed above. Then when you think you know enough about blogging to start, you will probably want to go back to Hosting Options to get your blog online. Not coincidentally, the Small Farm Central software contains all the features you need to get your blog (and farm website) up and running within a few days. I know that not very many farms are taking blogging seriously as a marketing tool, but I have a strong feeling that every serious farm will have a blog in five years.