How does an idle, 200-acre dairy farm reinvent itself into a thriving cut-flower business in a matter of four short years?
That’s a very good question! The Caswell Messenger went out to nearby Blanch on a rainy Tuesday to find the answers from co-owners Sarah Shumaker and her daughters, Hannah Lynch and Rachel Manning of Carolina Blooms.
“Actually, Rachel and Hannah started it three years ago and basically didn’t know about gardening or anything, before that,” remarked their mother, Sarah Shumaker.
“But Rachel and Hannah had the idea that they wanted to start a business.”
Daughter Hannah explained, “We thought flowers were something we both enjoyed and wanted to learn more about. So, after hundreds of different ideas, we decided on what we wanted to do together. We started this in 2018 and this is our fourth growing season. My mother (Sarah) joined us a year later.”
Ms. Shumaker explains that the property used to be a dairy, so she was involved in that and hadn’t had a public job in about eight years. “When Hannah and Rachel started the business, I was their reference because I’d always gardened, and I’ve grown flowers and done all that!”
“She’s a real green thumb,” added a smiling Hannah.
Rachel started growing some flowers for practice at her house and Hannah was living in that double-wide next to the Shumakers. She took over some of her mother’s vegetable garden to grow flowers and basically get the “hang” of it. She continues, “My husband’s dad bought this farm back in the 30’s and my husband John and I took over in 1980 and it was called Shumaker Farm. It was a dairy farm. We were a Grade A dairy (meaning fluid-grade milk, safe for consumption) that sold retail milk. We milked 125 cows, twice a day, and we had up to 300 cows, and grew 500 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans, which was feed for the animals.”
When the farm went out of business in December of 2018, the Shumakers kept all these land resources, this manure, the compost, but sold most of the cows in December. That left about 50 cows that weren’t milking so they gradually got rid of those, too.
Ms. Shumaker added, “We’re sitting in the original room where we had the milk tank. And you see that hole in the wall right there? (About 8 inches wide) That’s where they would put the hose in here to pump out the milk. And right next door to us where we do a lot of flower “work,” was a six-stall stanchion (holding) barn where the cows were milked. In the early 90’s, we modernized this building over here and had a “modern milking parlor” where we had 16 milking stations and built a modern “tank room”, too.”
“So, now,” chimed in Hannah, “We’re re-purposing everything.”
As far as the flower business, they all have kind of different roles and they’ve been changing. They did a lot of reading about people who are well-known for growing ‘cut-flowers’ like author Lisa Ziegler. The nationally known author is their number one resource and lives in Norfolk, Virginia.
Hannah went on: “When Rachel and I started, we had basic flowers that were very easy to grow like sun flowers and zinnias. Anything that’s not potted, we were growing specialty-cut flowers, so they had to have long stems. We also used ornamental basil (lemon and cinnamon) the first year. Basil gives a bouquet fragrance, color, and is an attractive filler. We grow oregano, too, and that can add a different, sweet fragrance to our bouquets. I think that honestly the reason we’re still in business is that we tried to budget ourselves and use the money that we saved from our first year to help double production for the second year.”
At this point, they have quadrupled the number of flowers, but also increased the varieties of which they have grown. Another thing the girls have learned about cut flowers is what to use for greenery (background accent for bouquet presentation) so now they are using small eucalyptus tree cuttings.
“Just over these three years, we’ve figured out what works well in bouquets, what works well for us to successfully grow, and some things we just tried to figure out,” said Ms. Shumaker.
On building business: “Right now, the main ways we have marketed our business have been social media (Instagram, Facebook, our website and YouTube), word of mouth, markets and getting our name out there. We have and value all our repeat customers, which also generates referrals. The local Caswell Farmer’s market is open in the afternoon and our flowers didn’t do too well in all that summer heat. We have had better luck up at the Danville Farmer’s Market because it’s held on Saturday morning when it’s cooler and you’re selling indoors. This year, we’re the only ones selling cut flowers there, so it went well!” Suppling theirflowers in different venues is helping them to find out their niche in the market.
“We’ve kind of done whatever the customer wanted: We’ve done weddings, events, birthdays, and dance recitals (providing bouquets to a recital at Jodie Carroll Dance Company). The larger markets for cut-flowers like Trader Joe’s are something we have thought about, but we don’t have the volume of flowers (‘yet!’) to get into it. Basically, I’m growing the flowers by myself. Hannah comes and helps but she works full-time at Agricultural Research in Cary and works from home. She also has a one-year-old, Waylon” explained Ms. Shumaker.
Rachel also has a full-time job, works at Dewberry’s in Danville and has two young children. She’s an environmental scientist. “This whole family is science and ag people, even though I was a nurse. My oldest daughter, Lucia, lives in Seattle, Washington and went to Duke; she’s also a marine biologist. And my other daughter, Katherine, works at Dewberry’s, too, and she’s another environmental scientist!”
All this scholarly talent from one dairy farm! Can’t be just the milk!
“Another thing I would say about how we have grown is that we now have a high tunnel ( also known as a cold frame) this year. It provides much more versatility in our growing capabilities. We started with germinating all of our seeds under the tank room lights, which is a home-made incubator and our germination center. We make soil blocks, ourselves, to put the seeds in and we keep them watered and warm. We’ve got a heater, thermostatically controlled, and when they start germinating, we put them right here in these racks. The lights are ordinary florescent and not grow lights. They aid the plant in photosynthesis.”
The huge six-foot stainless-steel grow rack was loaded with the germinating seeds for future flower production.
“Carolina Blooms doesn’t use chemicals as an insecticide, but hang down strips of sticky flypaper over the growing seedlings for our pest control. In some cases, we use an organic pesticide, Neem Oil, which is a vegetable oil made from an Indian fruit. We use it to spray for Japanese beetles. Actually, we don’t really have much of a bug problem.”
From the growing rack, the seedlings are transferred to the tunnels or to grow outside in natural elements.
“Just these last couple of years we’ve started to grow our favorite specialty flowers, which are snapdragons. We start those in January. We now have an abundance of snapdragons so we’re switching our focus to other spring flowers, where we’ve had the most success. Right now, we’re having more business than we’ve ever had. That’s good because I don’t really want to get out and garden when it’s 95 degrees.” said Ms. Shumaker.
“Actually, I’m going to start some snapdragon seeds in a little while and over-winter them. We put them in the tunnels and even when the temperatures get down to twenty degrees, the roots continue to grow. Our mentor, Lisa Ziegler talks about doing this in her book, ‘Cool Flowers’ (St. Lynn’s Press, Amazon. $16.99). That is our flower bible!”
She explains that she moved here in the late 70’s and back then, it was the whole sustainable thing where she had sheep and goats, did her own sewing, canning and produced everything themselves. “That was definitely what I was into,” said Ms. Shumaker, sounding a little like a tie-dye “hippy chick!”
“We call her the Pioneer Woman! She can do anything!” laughed daughter, Hannah.
“We’re not really florists. We’re more flower farmers! We have learned and have done some flower arranging, but you have to have patient, relaxed customers for that! We’ve done classes here at the farm, too. We supplied the flowers for Carolyn Brackin over at a Milton (NC) Historical Society ‘flowerpot.’ She’s the floral arranger for Averett University in Danville.”
They started in March with Easter tulips with Mother’s Day being the biggest revenue-maker and they’re trying to figure out how to get more flowers ready before the big spring events hit.
“It would be great if we could cut flowers in February for Valentine’s Day, but it’s just too cold around here. We’re trying to find our balance between Hannah and Rachel working full time at other jobs and having to watch the three grand kids (Waylon, Rhett and Riley), too. Right now, we have little or no extra free time. We think about growing the business and we could do all kinds of things, but is that what we really want to do right now?”
queried Ms. Shumaker.
Sometimes finding the right yin and yang in a business model can be elusive. Sarah Shumaker and her daughters at Carolina Blooms seem to be getting close.
They just need a little more time and light.
For more information;
1246 County Home Rd., Blanch, NC 27212