Pleasant Prairie Farm

Well I knew once school got going I’d be hard pressed to keep up posting regularly and I was right.  Between school and family its been tough going.  But I have managed to go on some very interesting trips with students that I will share here today and over the next few weeks.

In Sept my Horticulture Marketing class visited James and Karen Odorizzi at their Pleasant Prairie Farm where they have a thriving field grown cut flower business.  I first met Jim about fifteen years ago when he worked in landscaping and sold nursery stock on the side.  He has about fifteen acres in Pleasant Prairie, close to the Illinois border.  The nursery business was soon overtaken by cut flowers as his wife became increasingly successful at growing cut flowers and selling them at local area farmers markets.  The Odorizzi’s  sell at about three markets each season with the northern Illinois markets being their primary outlets.  Farmers markets in the north Chicago suburbs of Evanston and Lake Bluff  serve a very sophisticated and upscale client.  These markets provide growers a consistent outlet for their high quality, unique, locally grown and/or organic products. Jim told us that selling at farmers markets can provide a reasonable income for a small grower and has the advantage of giving growers direct contact with the consumer and  instant feedback into consumer demand and trends.  While the north Chicago markets are often the most profitable for small growers, Jim says growers need to weigh strong sales with market fees. market fees can range range anywhere from $800/yr to rent a seasonal stall at some of the busiest markets to only $150/yr at some of the newer ones.  It does seem that every year more farmers markets pop up in communities.  There aren’t always enough growers to consistently support them throughout our short growing season. 

Jim also discussed the hard work involved in being a cut flower grower and pointed out the very long hours he and his wife work in spring and summer. In spring they are busy sun up to sundown planting the seedlings and plants that will become the seasons cut flower crop. Every weekend, all summer until mid Ocotober, they sell the flowers at farmers markets.  The farm produces a wide variety of cut flowers from perennial plants, summer annuals, bulbs and woody plants. 

The first big crop of cut flowers to be ready for sale in spring are peonys and lilies. Jim pointed out that they have over 600 peony plants as they produce huge, beautiful flowers that are easily stored.  Peonies can be harvested as a bud and stored for several weeks in a cooler.  Lilies also store well at cool temperatures and cna be brought out of cold storage a few at a time over an extended period.  Both of these flowers are considered high value or focal point flowers thus bringing higher prices.  

The markets begin in mid May and the Odorizzi’s usually go to three markets on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  The rest of the week is spent caring for the flowers – weeding, watering, succesion planting, harvesting and processing the flowers for the coming week’s markets.   They have a large commercial cooler to store flowers and a couple ex-bread delivery vans.

Jim says the their specialty at market is hand selected and tied bouquets.  Buckets of fresh flowers are simply displayed at their market booth.  Customers will stand in line for 45 minutes to have Karen Odorizzi hand arrange a bouquet for them.  Jim says they also offer pre-made bouquets  but they sell far less the hand tied bouquets.  So what makes people stand in line for a hand tied bouquet rather than just purchase the convenient and quick pre-made bouquet?  They seem to do it in the supermarket all the time.  Perhaps people visit a farmers market not just to buy things but also to socialize.  Standing in line with a cup of coffe is a social act that gives poeople a chance to stop and visit without actually appearing to do so, to see and be seen.  Purchasing the hand tied bouquet gives people the feeling they are buying something unique and especially created for them alone.  They get to choose the flowers and colors for the bouquet, flowers they like, and ones they don’t.  Customers are able t0 customize their purchase for their home, another person or an event.  Making this customer feel special definately works! Perhaps its Karen Odorizzi herself and her ability to talk to people and develop a special relationship with her customers. This relationship marketing  makes people  want to visit her each week and and buy her beautfiul, fresh flowers.   

The Odorizzi’s also have standing orders with about 25 business’ that order a  bouquet each week and pick it up at the market.  They tried working with wholesale florists in the past but were not able to serve the advance planning and quantities needed.   The Odorizzis  are successful at what they do which is serve the farmers market niche so that is where they put their energy. 

The Odorizzi’s operate the farm with the help of their children and two full time field workers although the children are increasingly off to college and other pursuits.  The markets don’t wind down until mid October so much of their summer is devoted to the cut flower farm and earning a living.  In fall and winter they can relax a bit but soon plans must be made for the coming year, ordering seeds and supplies, keeping up with new trends, scheduling planting dates and repairing equipment. 

Its really great to see a small urban grower be succssful!  What started as a small business for Karen Odorizzi that allowed her to stay home and care for her kids gradually became the family business it is today.  However before deciding that this looks like a great business plan, keep in mind the hard work and fifteen years it has taken the Odorizzi’s to get to this point.  Consider the long hours and physical labor in the heat of summer.  Keep in mind the cost of land, water and equipment needed for a new business to start up.  So what does it take to start an agriculture  home based business like this? If you already own a piece of property or have one with a low martgage, that is a big bonus.  If you have access to good and cheap water another big bonus. Have you ever worked on a farm or do you know how to operate  farm equipment?  Give yourself another bonus if so.  Do you know  someone who you can aprtner with.  Most of the successful business’ I see involve 2 or more pertners.  One partner knows the horticulture part – the plants,  while the other knows the business end – banking, finance or marketing.   From husband and wife, to 2 friends and brother/sister combinations, if you look around  this is the model for just about all entrepreneurs! From the Wright Brothers to Donny and Marie, partnerships work. Two heads are way better than one!

The beauty of selling at farmers markets however is that you can start small and work your way into something more. Jim mentioned that in five years he would like to sell the cut fower farm business and retire. Hopefully someone will purchase it  and Pleasant Prairie Cut Flowr farm will continue to grow and prosper into the future!

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