Eye on Agriculture: It's all about fresh and local at Take Your Pick Flower Farm

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By Sue Henninger

Tompkins Weekly

 

There’s no question in Linda VanApeldoorn’s mind that she’s a farmer. “Flowers are a commodity crop for beauty and enjoyment,” she explained. “You start the seeds and prepare the ground, the same as you would for vegetables.” VanApeldoorn, who was voted one of the top 10 U-picks in the United States by Birds & Blooms magazine, began growing flowers for her own enjoyment. In 2006, she decided to give flower farming a try for two years to see if she could make her passion work as a fulltime business.

Though many people had told her it was a great idea, she soon realized she wasn’t getting enough U-pick customers to meet her goal of making a profit. This might have deterred someone less determined to succeed, but VanApeldoorn is made of stronger stuff. “When you reach that point you need to get in the trenches, figure out what’s wrong, and ask yourself ‘How can I change it?’” she observed. Talking to others and looking around her Brickyard Road farm she realized that potential customers couldn’t see her business from the road and were often reluctant to come up her long driveway if they weren’t sure it led to the flower farm. She and her husband pruned vegetation back from the end of the driveway and added more signage which helped. “Once they come up the driveway they always come back,” she stated. A chance remark by her chiropractor sparked another idea. “She said that she’d never pick flowers herself but that she’d buy them from me because she knew me and would like to support my business since I support hers,” VanApeldoorn recalled. This prompted her to establish a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) where people could buy flower shares and pick up their weekly allotment either at the farm or at several other pickup locations around Tompkins County. This has been a highly successful endeavor. Her CSA customers are satisfied and loyal and she draws more each year. Weddings provided another income stream and brides seeking to plan destination weddings in Ithaca make up a large portion of her clientele.

Because her business is a seasonal one, a huge challenge is keeping Take your Pick Flower Farm in the forefront of customers’ minds, no matter what month it is. “I have to put myself out there year round and remind them that I’m still here,” VanApeldoorn noted. Joining a local BNI (Business Network International) group has been a worthwhile investment of her time, allowing her to network with other entrepreneurs. Social media has been a cost-effective marketing tool as well. VanApeldoorn has a website and is also active on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook. This summer she participated in Cornell Cooperative Extension’s (Tompkins County) Open Farm Days which she found to be an enjoyable and worthwhile way to educate visitors about what she does. Additionally, she’s a longstanding member of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, a professional organization that advocates for American-grown flowers, including pushing for them to be used at events like White House dinners.

Like other farmers, VanApeldoorn has parts of her job that she loves. Delivering flowers is high on that list. “When someone says ‘Oh my God, this is just what I wanted’ it fills me with joy,” she said. She finds the physicality of her job rewarding as well. “I thoroughly enjoy being outside, especially in good weather,” she asserted. Somewhat surprisingly, one of her very favorite chores is weeding. “There is such a sense of satisfaction in hearing the noise the roots make when I rip them out,” she confessed, smiling. “And when I’m done, everything looks great-just the brown dirt and the plants, no weeds!”

There are parts of running an agriculture business that she doesn’t like as much. In fact, VanApeldoorn has already met one of her short-term goals which was to begin outsourcing things she can do but would prefer not to. Accounting was one of the first to go. “What a stress relief that was!” she observed. Her hope is that this will free her up to do more of the activities she finds gratifying like partnering with “Ability in Bloom”, a horticulture-based program run by Challenge Workforce Industries and providing fresh-picked garden flowers for more local brides. Leading flower-related workshops is another thing she’d like to do more of. The “living jewelry” she provided for a Lansing Library fundraiser, “Cocktails and Costumes,” last fall was exceedingly popular and this spring she’ll be collaborating with Shepherdess Cellars in Interlaken to help participants create grapevine wreaths with dried flowers. “I’m all about teaching people to appreciate flowers in different ways!” she declared.

On of VanApeldoorn’s goals is to have the public begin to see fresh flowers as an important part of the farm-to-table movement. “Restaurants often promote fresh, local foods but then will have store-bought flowers on the tables instead of locally-grown ones,” she contended. She feels that an ever-increasing number of people today think about where the food they’re eating comes from, but don’t think to extend this to other parts of their dining experience. Most flowers come from South America, she added and have been exposed to growth regulating chemicals to make them last longer. Fresh is always preferable, she said, “If you see a big bouquet of locally-grown flowers next to commercial flowers you’ll clearly see the difference.”

Sometimes people will see her flowers and wistfully remark that they wish they had someone to buy them for. VanApeldoorn would love to shift this paradigm. Flowers have no calories, are relatively inexpensive, and are beautiful and make you feel good she said. Therefore, her response is always, “You deserve flowers. You deserve to do something for yourself!”

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