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Researchers eye cut flower possibilities

Say It with Flowers — from Mississippi?

VERONA — If you “say it with flowers” and purchase floral arrangements in Mississippi, most likely the flowers have come from California, South America or even Europe.

Few cut flowers are grown in the state, but the North Mississippi Research and Extension Center in Verona hopes to change that, and is currently doing field applied research into the possibility of developing a flower-growing niche in state agriculture.

“We want to start a preliminary look at which species and cultivars might perform well here outside,” said Dr. Crofton Sloan, a researcher with the horticulture research and education unit of the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. “Growing the flowers outside is more economical than having to purchase greenhouses. This research is being done with the small acreage, part-time farmer in mind. A guy growing 10,000 acres of soybeans probably won’t be interested in it.”

Sloan has been growing different types of flowers, and working with local wholesale and retail florists to get feedback and suggestions.

Brock Bishop, president, Magnolia Wholesale Florist Inc., serves customers within a 120-mile radius of Tupelo going to Memphis and all parts of North Mississippi. Bishop sees some potential advantages to having local flower suppliers including timeliness.

“It takes me four days to get my flowers from California,” Bishop said. “I order on Mondays and it gets here on Thursdays. I would love to use local vendors. The best thing would be the freshness. And, the transportation costs would be lower. Our climate season kind of limits what they could grow. But during the spring and summer months, they could raise a crop. Certain things would grow here and certain things wouldn’t.”

Bishop said the advantage to a farmer would be that it would make more money per acre than traditional row crops. But there are disadvantages, too, he said. Growers would have to buy a cooler to store the flowers in and have refrigerated trucks to deliver the flowers.

Although the Agriculture and Experiment Station project is currently just looking at growing flowers outdoors, which is less expensive than greenhouses, Bishop believes there are also good possibilities for greenhouse-grown flowers.

“Greenhouse potentials are endless,” he said.

Sloan said people most likely to be interested in the potential niche opportunity in agriculture would be those with small acreages.

“It just isn’t feasible to farm cotton or soybeans on a small acreage,” Sloan said. “Economically it isn’t very good. With a specialty crop the potential is there for high value per acre. But is like a lot of things. It is very much a human labor-intensive operation. As you know, most people in today’s society aren’t really interested in doing field work. The flip side of that is you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment.”

As well as supplying florists, another possibility on a small scale would be going to a farmer’s market to sell the flowers.

Mississippi’s climate isn’t as advantageous as the cooler weather found in California and certain areas of South America. So Sloan is looking for varieties that tolerate warmer, more humid conditions. Sunflowers tolerate the heat well, and are popular in the floral trade. Celosia is another species that does well in the heat, and is popular for use in floral arrangements.

And although he isn’t exploring greenhouse options at present, Sloan is planning to look at the potential for using unheated cold frames (small greenhouses close to the ground) to see if the growing season can be prolonged. That way some flowers that don’t tolerate the heat could be started earlier in the year before the heat becomes too intense.

One challenge is that growers need to be able to produce for a large part of the year. If someone wants to get into cut flowers, they probably can’t be profitable by doing it just three or four months a year.

Sloan said there is potential to make $5,000 to $8,000 per acre gross return. Prices could go even higher selling on the high end of the market. Part of the profitability would depend on location. Being near a metropolitan market selling to upscale markets would bring the largest return.

Sloan plans to continue the research, and hopes to bring in an agricultural economist at some point in order to get figures on production costs, potential returns and potential markets.

“The florists I have worked with have said if local flowers were available with sufficient quality and steady supply, they would be glad to purchase locally rather than out of state and out of country,” Sloan said. “You may not get into the business as big as in California and other places. But regional and local sales are possible. You could find a niche where you can compete, like anything else.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.


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