Beginning Farmer Success Interview Series
This series aims to spotlight and celebrate Maryland farmers and inspire and offer farmer-to-farmer tips and advice to our readers.
Farmer Profile: Laura Beth Resnick, Butterbee Farm owner and farmer
Tell our readers about your farm. What does your farm grow? How did you get started?
We grow flowers that are distributed locally throughout Maryland and D.C. We started the business ten years ago at Whitelock Community Farm in Baltimore City. After about a year, we moved to the county to expand the farm. We got lucky because an old family friend allowed us to farm on their land in Pikesville. We transitioned the property out of commercial corn, and we're on four and a half acres growing about 200 varieties of flowers, flowering shrubs, woody perennials and ornamental grasses.
Who is your target client, and how does your business get its' products/services into customers' hands?
About 85% of our business is selling wholesale to florists, and the other 15% is direct customer sales. However, we don't design, make bouquets or arrangements. We have two heated greenhouses so we can grow year-round. We offer garden classes and have an online store, but most of our business is flower sales. We make our real money from the heated greenhouses and the flowers that come out of the greenhouses can be sold for a lot. Also, not many flower farmers have flowers in the winter, they are really expensive to grow.
How do you decide what to grow?
So, to back up for a second, over 80% of the flowers sold in the United States come from other countries and are shipped to wholesalers across the country. They are big warehouses, and the product doesn't hold up well. They've been packed in semi-frozen boxes and often have pesticides on them. So we try to grow stuff that can compete with the wholesaler. For example, geranium has really tender foliage and doesn't ship very well. It has to be grown locally.
We have winter meetings with our florists yearly, and we've been doing this for ten years. We have learned what flowers are popular based on the seasons and holidays. We know that our florists like unique foliage. The scent of things is motivating for customers. So the geraniums are so good for us and the eucalyptus. It's great. We don't grow a lot of carnations because there is too much crossover with the wholesalers.
How did you find florists to buy your product?
We were fortunate to meet a florist in Baltimore who buys 100% local flowers. It's called Local Color Flowers. We met the owner, and she convinced us to grow flowers instead of vegetables. However, we still needed more clients. In the beginning, we had to work hard to get them to buy from us because it's easier for florists to buy directly from a wholesaler, but we don't grow enough to sell to wholesalers. I would say close to 95% of the florists I would reach out to never got back to me. However, over the years, Local Color Flowers has been very influential in the local cut flower industry and has inspired a lot of other florists to buy locally. Having a champion is excellent for the industry.
Why is your farm business model successful? Why do customers choose to do business with your farm?
Our quality, people know us for our quality, and that's something that we've intended. We train our team intensively on harvests. We're meticulous when it comes to harvest, which is reflected in the product.
How many employees do you have?
There are three of us, but it adds up to two full-time, all women. In the morning, we harvest; in the afternoon, one of us goes out on delivery, and the other two stay on the farm and weed or attend to farm needs.
Tell us about your farming practices.
When we transitioned the land from commercial corn, we added a lot of organic matter. We still farm using a lot of organic matter. Also we implement organic no-till methods that do not spray herbicides. Occultation is another practice we use. What you do is put a tarp down on the ground that you want to prepare for planting. You leave that down so that it gets really warm. In the summer, it can happen quickly, even just a few weeks, and what is left is essentially just soil with lots of life. Then we use a broad fork to fluff up the soil and plant. After doing this for nine years, we have a lot of organic matter in our soil, and the nutrient levels are pretty balanced.
We have a rule that we don't spray anything in the field except for BT, an organic bacteria we use on our ornamental cabbage. It's very specific because we can't grow an ornamental cabbage unless we use it. Otherwise, we don't spray anything in the fields, so if we have a bad cucumber beetle year in the dahlias, we lose a bunch of dahlias, and it's okay. It's still frustrating.
In the greenhouses it's a different story because it's just such an unnatural environment. We're growing flowers in the winter, so bugs like to be there. In the greenhouses, we rotate using certified organic pesticides to treat specific spots with releasing beneficial insects. We work with a company that ships us parasitic wasps, ladybugs, and stuff like that. They are called IPM Labs, and they are great because we tell them when we have crops in the greenhouses, what crops, and the temperature, and they put us on a schedule according to our details. They are specific for commercial growers, but ARBICO is another company that anyone can order from online.
When you started farming, local cut flowers were a relatively new crop for Maryland farmers. What advice do you have for new farmers who are assessing whether a “trendy” new crop is a viable business venture or a passing fad?
Flower farming did get super popular with Instagram. There was a huge boom in the number of people quitting their jobs and starting to grow flowers for sale. This boom created an issue in the industry where many new growers haven't done their research and often don't know how much to charge, or they underprice, or the quality isn't that good, which then turns off customers. So I guess my advice would be to do a ton of research so that you are making enough, so you're charging the right amount, and that your quality is what it should be. One way to do research is to join the Trade Organization. It's called the ACFG, The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. Or, you can join Future Harvest Casa or get involved in your local Extension. But do the research. It's a gift to yourself and the community you're joining.
What tools have had the most significant impact?
We love the BCS tractor; it is friendly for smaller framed people, which is lovely. You can adjust the handlebars, and it is easy to walk behind. We don't till, so we use the BCS for mowing. We have the flail mower on it that I love because it can cut through brush and woody sunflowers. And then there's another attachment we use to build permanent raised beds. It's like a plow that flips all the soil to one side. So you can go down the aisle and put all the soil into the bed, and then you go down the other side and flip the soil the other way until you have a nice mounded bed. We don't do that yearly, only when beds need to be remade. Still, our bed prep is quite labor intensive.
Butterbee farm is transitioning to Harford county this fall. What are your plans for the new land? Will you need to prepare the land for growing?
The new land is very low acidity with no organic matter. So we have to do it all again. But we know how to do it now, so that's good. We brought in a ton of really expensive compost for our new greenhouses from Vermont Compost Company. They make the best compost on the Eastern Seaboard. So we got a huge shipment, and we're just going to spread it by hand and plant directly into it. It is critical for the business to have spring flowers ready. So after this push, we'll have many years to build organic matter on our own. We will also be farming on 4 ½ acres with multiple heated greenhouses.
We have a lot of interesting plants, burgundy foliage, calycanthus, Magnolia, mock orange, and lilacs. All these varieties are a tree that we can cut on. Over our nine years here, we have done a lot of experiments in the field. Some things worked, some things didn't, and a lot of it we're leaving behind for the next farmer on this land. Some plants we are going to dig up and transplant.
We also decided to stop growing in the summer and take some time off. Summer is often slower because people are tending their own flower gardens.
Looking back, can you share something you would have done differently as a farmer if you knew what you know now?
Yes. Perennial flowering, invasive weeds. Do not let invasive weeds flower, or your whole farm will be taken over.
Do you have any advice for beginning farmers?
Don't feel like you have to be an expert at everything. Farming can be overwhelming, and there are so many things to learn. Start small, get good at it, and then add something new.
You can find out more about Butterbee Farms by visiting https://www.butterbeefarm.com, or register for their November online class CROP PLANNING FOR FLOWER FARMERS and take a deep dive into the architecture of flower farming.