Holidays in American culture are complicated and most are not coordinated with my growing season in Upstate New York. People want to show their love according to the expected time table. To make our customers happy we must provide flowers when they want them, even if that’s the middle of February at 4º F.

People generally want flowers available four times a year: birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. (When I say flowers, I mean grand gestures.) We need to channel those sales into something available in our growing season with something tangible out of season in the colder months. They want a wow factor and we can provide that with some ingenuity and skillful marketing.

Understanding how gift givers shop is vitally important to surviving this challenge. They are looking for fullness, lushness or fanciness and they will choose by a dollar amount to achieve that. Many men just want dazzling – so I created a club for husbands and sons. They provide the dates of birthdays and anniversaries and I contact them 10 days ahead as a reminder. For these special customers I have in the past brought in flowers out of season to create arrangements.

There are multiple ways to sell flowers and services ahead of time. The concept of community supported agriculture gives us a guide for helping our customers to become more invested in our farms, thus making them more likely to buy regularly.

With flowers, a member buys a set number of bouquets during the cold months when the grower needs cash flow and is rewarded in some way for the purchase. The reward includes a bonus for paying early in the form of an extra bouquet, a dried arrangement now, a class during the season or some other special promotion.

Bouquet subscriptions come in several forms. Because we are selling subscriptions months ahead we need to be able to deliver on what we promise. This is where we need to excel at specific vagueness. We’re selling the size and scope of the style of bouquet. This breaks down generally to a bouquet per specific time period. There are multiple versions of this that can be adapted to your farm’s needs: one bouquet a month for four months; a full or half season of mixed bouquets; or a seasonal subscription (four to six weeks) based on a focal flower (usually tulips, peony, sunflower or dahlia).

Keep in mind you are only promising something worth that dollar amount for a time period. This gives you plenty of leeway on how you deliver those flowers. Sometimes I don’t have all the ingredients for a mixed bouquet, or I have excess of something, so I will substitute a bunch of sunflowers or an arrangement that I made as a sample for a class. The recipients love these upgrades. A seasonal subscription does not mean a bunch every week. With dahlias, for example, one week is a bunch, another is a mixed bouquet with one large dinner plate dahlia and another could be a hybrid version of both. The sky is the limit in these adaptations but remember to not give away the store.

As I’m pricing, I calculate each bouquet per the time period, then bump it up one nicer bouquet. Your subscription customers must be rewarded for purchasing early in some way. I charge for the multiples of a $20 bouquet, but each week during the season they receive a $24 one.

When determining how many shares I offer per season, I am limited by the flowers available each week. Crop planning is always important, and even more so here. I don’t recommend first-year farmers try a subscription initially. I started my first subscription my second year with four participants over six weeks of tender annuals. I learned my limitations without having to scramble. I now limit it to 20 a season as a one-person operation. Fortunately, no one is going to see the other bouquets, so there is little reason to worry that they are all identical. That takes some pressure off crop planning.

Using her other set of skills, Betsy cuts flower shapes from fabric scraps and sews them together. When a customer comes to redeem for a bouquet, she cuts out a notch on each petal. Photo by Betsy Busche

The most important part of selling a CSA is a deadline. The reason for selling ahead is receiving money to cover early expenses like seed, supplies and plants. I offer a shifting payment schedule for subscriptions so it goes up in increments after each holiday. I’ve found that women who want to buy for themselves often wait until June. I’m gently nudging them to purchase sooner when I need the money, but this year I’m setting a hard cutoff of May 15. Adding more while harvesting just increases the amount of juggling subscriptions without any real benefit. I do offer a standing order during the season with no discount. Tracking each week is critical.

Not everyone sees the value in the upscale subscription, so we offer a lower quantity and value option with a prepaid punch card for our Everyday Bouquets. I sell a six-petal fabric flower that the recipients bring to market to pick out a bouquet. It’s priced for five bouquets, so they get one free. The biggest difference is that these are only redeemable at farmers market or my studio. I would never ask my stores, even though they are CSA pick-up locations, to accept and track these. These ebb and flow in popularity. One year I sold 10, another two. I cannot sell more coupons than I have flowers per week. This becomes critical in September when people realize they have petals to redeem. Because of this, there is no expiration on the coupon. They can roll it over to the next year.

Experiences as gifts have ballooned into their own industry. Each season I offer two levels of flower classes. We offer them Saturday mornings at the farmers market. These are already scheduled and ready to enroll now. “Play with Flowers” is the value version: I set up a flower bar, they bring a vase, I give general instructions and they make an arrangement to take home. Along with that I teach a basic design class that provides the vase, mechanics and flowers plus more guidance with design. Both are hugely popular. What is interesting is that most tickets for these are sold in multiples, as it’s something to do with friends and family.

An important note is that the gifter needs something tangible to give. For all our options we offer a card with an envelope along with a sheet explaining how the subscription, coupon or class works, where they will redeem and for how long. I use floral fabric cards made by a local artisan to make it even more special.

Make it easy for people to invest in your farm by offering grandiose gift options when they want to give gifts that last all season long. This is what we have tried on our farm, and there are many variations for your niche.