sunflowers

2020 in Review

2020 was weird. I’m going to assume that all of you have been going through it, too, so I won’t summarize the massive impact covid has had on all aspects our lives last year, but for my little farm it basically boils down to two main phases:

PHASE ONE of 2020: ALL IS LOST AND THIS IS GOING TO SUCK! The weddings got cancelled, changed, and moved, so I was certain that I would make no money in 2020. I started my farm in earnest 4 years ago and within 2 years it was clear that wedding florals would be the best way forward for me in terms of a sustainable business model. The year – 2020 – that I thought was going to be a break-out (meaning I’d make a decent salary and be able to invest in the final bit of infrastructure I needed) was sure to be a dud. The buzz in the flower farmer groups was that we were in for it and as nonessential workers everything would have to be shut down, no one would buy flowers, and for many farms this was the end of the road. There was a lot of scared talk, particularly from farms who had several employees and who were agro-tourism destinations.

AND

PHASE TWO: IT DIDN’T SUCK AFTER ALL. The community came out for me, I continued to grow, and while some of my income was gone from weddings, more of my income came by other means. In fact, financially things are ahead of last year (though probably not where I would have been) AND it was a great year for learning, thinking, growing, and connecting. And I got my infrastructure. I increased planting, I had a lot of failure (per usual)…and I had some really great help. I am very, very thankful that I am tiny, this year more than ever. I’m especially thankful that I don’t have big loans for land or equipment or space. The stress that I’ve had has been largely based on my own physical limitations and the need to respond to the changing market. If anything, my business has grown this year. So 2021 should be very interesting!

PHASE ONE of 2020: ALL IS LOST!

April, May, and June of this year were pretty panicky for everyone involved in weddings – vendors and venues, to be sure – but most obviously the soon-to-be-married couples!  My heart really goes out to them and I hope all my clients feel they made the best decision for them – almost no one cancelled, but everyone had to adjust their plans.

wedding couple looking at computer screen
Anne and Jesse completely reformatted their wedding.
Photo by Shannon Giselle Photography.
Location: The Boylston Rooms

My main income from 2020, as it was in 2019, was projected to be mostly wedding florals. 2019 was actually my first year focusing almost exclusively on weddings (I’ve been doing weddings since 2017, but not a super full schedule until 2019; my earlier focus was on farmers’ markets.) I felt like I’d learned a lot from that year that would help me use my time, growing space, energy, and money better in 2020. I planned on turning a very nice profit, giving my clients exactly what they wanted, and sourcing more of my flowers from my own farm, vs. buying it from other farms and wholesalers. That was the goal for 2020.

I planned on turning a very nice profit, giving my clients exactly what they wanted, and sourcing more of my flowers from my own farm, vs. buying it from other farms and wholesalers. That was the goal for 2020.

But then the reschedules started, and the revisions, and the changed locations, and the cancelled plans. That was very stressful, but also completely understandable. Amazingly, I’ve been able to fit in the reschedules for every single wedding that needed to shift! Some are now scheduled for the same day, which is something I avoid, but since I have really great help I am confident we will be able to give everyone their dream florals, when and where they want them!

My infrastructure plans for 2020 included a pavilion/outdoor workspace next to my studio and a seed starter/season extension greenhouse. The budget for these two was $4k (labor not included). My own renumeration included…SOME.  I didn’t have a set number, exactly, but I intended to pay myself a monthly salary to add to our family’s income. I have another small business which doesn’t take up a lot of time, a third small business I put on hold for the year but which normally takes up a lot of time (am rethinking this!) and I have a very supportive and well-employed spouse. These other businesses and my family support has allowed me to reinvest most of the money I’ve earned back into my flower farm, but after 4 years of full time work during the season I am ready for the business to start paying me a steady paycheck.

The financials of my farm/florist operation are probably the subject of another post, but I know I’m not alone in working really, really hard in a field that doesn’t always pay very much. Then again, I was a public school teacher/librarian in the state of North Carolina for 14 years so I’m used to it.

When the weddings changed I figured I’d have to wait on the infrastructure, and I’d for sure have to wait on the salary.

But guess what?

PHASE TWO of 2020: It didn’t suck after all!

So – let’s revisit my main goals for 2020: (1) turning a very nice profit, giving my (wedding) clients exactly what they wanted, and (2) sourcing most of my flowers from my own farm, vs. buying it from other farms and the wholesalers.

Goal 1: Turning a very nice profit. Now, I can’t say that I made as much money as I would have should there have been weddings, because it’s possibly that I would have made what I did PLUS whatever I would have made for weddings, but my 2020 profit was about the same as 2019, which is not too shabby.

women in roller derby gear with a "just eloped" sign
Weddings got changed and cancelled and there were lots of elopements and microweddings instead!
Photo of Hannah and Pauline’s fun elopement in Look Park by Novella Photography.

I ended up doing 16 weddings; 4 covid reschedules that were much smaller than then original, but still more than just your basic personals, then 12 microweddings which usually were a bouquet and boutonniere, or 2 bouquets, or some combination thereof plus buckets of flowers or maybe an arch installation. While these 13 weren’t nearly as profitable as the typical weddings I flower, they kept me in good practice and they were really pleasant, as they were quick to complete and I pretty much talked most of my couples into giving me the reins when it came to colors and flowers. That is my favorite! Everyone should do that!

So – less money from weddings, but way, way more money from custom orders than I’ve had in years past. I have yet to do the math, but I’m going to guess that that kind of order – the vase of arranged flowers, delivered locally – increased by about 4x, maybe 5.

I have three theories as to why this might be:

  1. People sent more flowers in general because they weren’t in person to go to parties or to take their mothers out to lunch, or to say happy birthday to their best friend.

    flowers in vases on a bench
    Custom arrangement orders were 4-5 times higher than in 2019.
  2. A cultural emphasis on supporting local, small businesses. When it’s growing season, buying from a farmer florist is about as local as you can get! I know a lot of small businesses suffered due to lockdown, but where I live I also know certain kinds of businesses thrived as long as they were able to adapt. Mine was one of those. It very much helped that my website and social

    I like your website. It looks different. I can tell you really care. I can tell you use “high end” flowers. You are an artist. 

    media presence looks very different from the standard FTD stock photo-decorated websites of some of our other local florists. In western Massachusetts every single florist I can think of is owned by a single family or even a single person, yet many of their websites look like they’re an offshoot of 1-800 blah blah blah. I’m not going to tell them how to run their businesses, but I can only report what people have said to me: I like your website. It looks different. I can tell you really care. I can tell you use “high end” flowers. You are an artist.
  3. I added online ordering to my website this year. I’ve always tried let folks know that they can order special arrangements over the phone, but the online ordering made it so much easier for people to just click and buy, and I imagine that for folks who live far away it made me seem more legit.
    flowers on a bench
    These flowers definitely don’t look like they come from an FTD service, do they? People really seemed to like that what I post looks unique and authentic.

    What’s funny is that the reason I added this is that in January sales reps from Barn2door started calling me, trying to convince me to use their website. Barn2Door creates websites for farmers with online ordering. The person who called was super chipper and was like: you need a website and we can help you with that, but when I directed her to my website she was like: oh, yeah, this looks good. Better than most, actually. Then she suggested that I use them because they could help me with online ordering. I was resistant. One, because of their fee, which seemed like a lot given that I already know how to optimize my website for online sales, but mainly because at that time I didn’t really want people to order from me online. In the winter I didn’t regularly visit the wholesaler and it seemed like a giant pain, for one, and for two, even during growing season I felt like I needed to tell people in person that I was a farm and that they wouldn’t get exactly what was in the picture blah blah blah.

    But because of this phone call I started to think, and the more I thought about it the more I figured I might as well try it, and it’s actually worked out great. No one expects that they’ll get exactly what’s in the picture. Turns out most folks already understand that it’s MY CHOICE what flowers they’ll get. People seem to like that they can just leave it up to me.

    Flowers in winter are still a challenge, but I’ve been exploring various wholesale outlets (which was a little dicey when my closest wholesaler up and closed with no warning in May!) and it hasn’t been that bad. I’ve still not really figured out exactly what I need to have in stock to keep up with orders, but one of my wholesalers tells me that covid has screwed everything up and there’s no way to really predict this year anyway. And I like being part of these everyday celebrations, to be honest. Covid has been tremendously isolating for everyone and showing up on folks’ doorstep, masked and distant, gives me a tiny touch of human contact that I’m missing most of the time.

Now, this is not to say that I didn’t have a lot of failures, specifically growing failures. I’ve written about this here. I also spent most of the year feeling like I was frantically doggy-paddling to keep up with demand and only just keeping my head above water.

I spent most of the year feeling like I was frantically doggy-paddling to keep up with demand and only just keeping my head above water.

Between Passalongs and my other business (which increased 30% over the year before, vs. a steady 10% increase/year the previous 15 years!) I quite literally worked every single day from when the pandemic hit in March until Christmas eve. Most days I worked at least 10 hours/day. That’s almost 10 months of working every single day, at least 10 hours/day. And this is without any weddings bigger than 50, and without the traveling I had planned for yet another business I run. I consider this to be my biggest failure of 2020, honestly, as this is not a sustainable way to live. I’ve been thinking really hard about what to do about this.

One way to remedy this problem of overwork is to hire more people, or employ my current people (er, person), more hours, of course. The person I did have working for me (hi Gabby!) was a major plus and bright spot of the year! She worked really hard, seemed to have boundless energy, and had great enthusiasm for pretty much anything I asked her to do, from spreading chicken coop contents to planting to greening up vases to whatever.

Woman holding flowers
Gabby was an enormous help this year. As a former professional athlete she ran circles around me.

If weddings actually happen for 2021 as planned and I have the same (or more) business in custom orders then I will definitely need to do that, for sure. I will have to think more about training and systems, as well as figuring out how to run my non-farm business in a way that’s more efficient as well.

Goal 2 was to give my wedding clients exactly what they wanted while sourcing mostly from my own farm. In this I was very, very lucky that most of the weddings got cancelled or changed or rescheduled. This was a tough year for me when it came to blooms. In 2019, when I had almost more weddings than I could handle, I ended up buying a lot of flowers from other farms and from the wholesaler. I was determined that 2020 would not be like that…and if all of the weddings had gone forward as scheduled, it would have been exactly like that.

There’s no shame in buying from a wholesaler, mind you. When I first started this business I was determined to be seed to stem, but the fact is that the demand for my design services has grown (no pun intended) faster than my gardens, and I’ve decided that blending me-grown and sourced is just how it’s going to be.

vase of flowers
This is an example of a “smaller” custom arrangement. I was surprised to find out that most people wanted more expensive arrangements than this one!

That said, if I’m working so hard to grow and produce amazing local, unique, sustainably grown blooms and then I end up spending hundreds of dollars on flowers that have been flown halfway around the world and look like any old flower from the grocery store – that is not good. I spend thousands of dollars each year trying to grow my own flowers for the weddings, so when I have a serious growing failure like I did this year, this is money, energy, and effort lost.

Despite my failures, I had some growing successes, too – the perennials I’ve been cultivating for several years, or planted in 2019, or started from seed this past year and planted this summer look amazing and I am very excited to see what the spring brings. I’ve learned (hopefully) from the growing failures of 2020 and have already made changes that should create abundance in 2021. I’ve used what I’ve learned to really focus my seed and plant purchases for 2021, and while no doubt I’ve bought way more than I actually have space for, I feel like the varieties I’ve bought are based more on what *I* use them for than on what I see in the pretty pictures folks post in Instagram or what seems most trendy.

Finally, despite the loneliness and isolation of this year I feel like I made more connections than ever. It was so great to have Gabby here a couple days a week, and more people messaged me on Instagram and Facebook and via email than ever before. The wreath workshops were very fun and I’m so excited to plan more activities like that now that my outdoor covered workspace has been built and I can provide both shelter and safety in the spring. My roadside cart continued to supply flowers to the neighborhood and I got amazing feedback about it through social media. I’m considering an expansion! Or not. Maybe it’s nice the way it is…

flowers on a bench
Roadside mason jar arrangements lined up in the flower cart.

And while driving around to deliver flowers is not my favorite thing to do, handing a bouquet to the recipient and seeing how happy it made them, well, that IS my favorite thing, and I got to do that a lot this year.

And finally, to end, I’ll leave you with what more than one person told me as I was dropping off flowers this weird, difficult year that has been 2020: you have the best job in the world! People are so happy to see you!

If I keep that last bit in mind, then 2021 should be great, indeed!

 

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