by Sally Colby
Just over one year ago, Stephanie Thompson and her husband were living in an apartment in Tennessee. Although Stephanie had always been interested in flower farming, the extent of her knowledge and experience was from working in the perennial department at a nursery. That turned out to be a perfect learning experience.
“I was the only person working with the head person in that department, and she had been there for 19 years,” said Stephanie. “She trained me really well so I could run it in her absence.” Stephanie wanted to try growing flowers on her own, realizing that fulfilling that dream would require a move. The Thompsons looked at various properties, but nothing worked out.
“Both my family and my husband’s family are in Tennessee, so we were looking in Tennessee,” said Stephanie. “But we didn’t find what felt like a good fit. One day I said, ‘This isn’t working – I’m going to take the Tennessee search off the filter and open it up to America.’”
On the second day of her expanded search, Stephanie told her husband she had found the right place. “It was a property on the tail end of another property,” she said. “They had a barn-shaped building where they had a fall farmers market indoors. They also had a fall festival with apple cider and apple picking.”
Stephanie saw the potential for growing flowers on this property, inquired about purchasing it and the Thompsons’ first offer was accepted. “Then we had to tell our family we were moving to Missouri,” she said, adding that the farm is close to Branson. “We were used to the Smokies so we were worried that the mountains would seem small or not as pretty, but it’s gorgeous here – just in a different way.”
The Thompsons worked on converting the barn-shaped building to a home and started preparing the ground for flowers. They promised the owner they’d learn how to maintain the bees that were already on the property.
Stephanie knew she had to learn more about growing annuals and running a cut-flower business, so she spent every possible minute pursuing information. “I spent more time online than I anticipated,” she said. “I wrote content, advertising and blog posts. Once I had that ready, I kept the information updated.”
She said while she still doesn’t know as much about annuals as she needs to, she’s learning. “I’ve included a lot of flowers that are cut and cut again, like dahlias,” she said. “I’m trying lots of other flowers too.”
Despite a relatively short amount of time to plan the business and grow flowers last year, the venture drew customers in its first year. To attract and keep new customers, Stephanie took photographs throughout the growing season to show the progress of flowers as they grew and bloomed.
The Thompsons were pleasantly surprised to receive so much positive community feedback during their first season. One event last year – a free movie night under the stars – was especially popular. Stephanie said the people who came out appreciated visiting the farm. Although the movie night wasn’t designed to sell flowers, Stephanie said it did because having people there introduced the community to what the farm was becoming. More people started asking about flowers for showers, weddings and other events.
In addition to constructing a farm stand close to the road to display flowers, the Thompsons built a white picket fence for dahlias, which quickly became a customer draw. “Without even realizing it, we made a really nice photo op,” said Stephanie. “Behind the white picket fence, there’s a wide-open area that isn’t being used, so we’re planting hundreds of sunflowers there. We’re going to put a swing there too, and in summer, people can pay ahead, reserve a date and that will be just theirs for photos.”
After the celosia were finished blooming last year, Stephanie collected seeds and sent them to people who wanted to start their own plants. “I’m going to do a video,” she said, explaining her “Grow With Me” concept. “We’ll seed and grow them together, and people can ask questions along the way. They can also post pictures of their project.”
As Stephanie planned the growing season, she also came up with ideas to draw customers throughout the year. The season will open with an Easter egg hunt (which had to be cancelled this year), and Stephanie is pre-selling Mother’s Day bouquets. In June, there’s a tea party for fathers and daughters, followed by a farm animal day in July. Orchard Day in August will feature seasonal flowers along with live music, apple picking and apple cider. September will feature bonfires, live music and celebrating the Little Farmers Club – an area for children to sow and tend their own plants in a small-scale garden on the farm. Stephanie anticipates having flowers through October, and in November and December will offer wreaths and related holiday items.
Although the current season has presented more challenges than Stephanie could have anticipated, she has come up with innovative ideas for marketing flowers. As tulips and daffodils blossomed, she created bouquets and placed them at the roadside stand to sell – and they sold well. She also opened the farm to families who needed a break, and allowed children to pick one free flower. Stephanie said customers are respecting “one person at a time” shopping and appreciate being able to purchase fresh flowers.
“I’m going to start flowers and veggies and put them in one-gallon pots,” said Stephanie, “then I can have a drive-up service. A lot of people like to pre-order, so they can do that and find their name on pots when they arrive. I’ll also start some popular vegetables, and maybe they’ll also buy flowers when they’re here.”
If social distancing continues longer than anticipated, the sunflower event can still go as planned because it’s already designed for one person or one family at a time. Stephanie said that after Mother’s Day, the sunflower event is what people were most interested in. She’s planning to ask customers to sign a waiver she’ll leave on the porch, then they’re free to spend time enjoying sunflowers.
While last season’s flower selections were limited, Stephanie plans to grow about 50 different flowers. “We’ll have lots of greenery for filler,” she said. “We’ll also have lots of focal pieces. I’ve also had people call about weddings and events. People love the flowers, but they also love having an outing.”