My Story by Debra Prinzing
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."