Friday, 21 February 2014

West Midlands Meet Up - Flowers from the Farm

We came, we saw, we ate lots of cake. And along the way we discovered that most of us were career changers with a major crush on flowers.  Some had started from the flowery end and got into growing, others from the growing end and had got into arranging but we all ended up here in the Tuckshop today, swapping tips under broad golfing brolly otherwise known as the network of British flower growers, Flowers from the Farm.

I'll try to sum up the wide ranging discussions under a few broad headings, or this post could stretch on into late summer….

Social Media
The topic that seems to preoccupy every business these days.

One key discovery:   before you do anything else, make sure you set up Google+ page as this is the first step to getting ranked by search engines. No Google+ page = invisibility for you and your website (otherwise known as appearing on page 27 of search results).  Even without a website or any other online platforms, you can set up a Google+ page and personalise it with photos of your flowers and a profile of yourself and what you do. Lots of people leave theirs as the generic map  and headings only, so make yourself stand out by making the effort to make it look great. It's no harder than putting pictures into a Word document and makes a much better first impression.

Joining Google+ will also give you access to the Britishflowers Google group.

SEOs and Keywords
When choosing keywords for your website for Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), check Google Keywords to inform yourself about what search terms are the most commonly used by potential customers.

Website packages
You can build a reasonable website using one of the many readily available templates available out there. Webs, a sideshoot of Vistaprint, have a reasonable selection and offer regular cheap deals for their premium packages which also get you a domain name.  Other suppliers are, of course, available and a quick online search will probably give you plenty of options.  But they do take time to build, and you do need to be comfortable with writing copy and to have an eye for what is a good quality image to use.

Image Tools

I shared my recent discovery of an cheap app called 'Rookie' which is great for adding text, frames or various sticker details to photos - great for sharing or for quickly creating promotional materials.

Another issue which came up in various forms was the need to develop a consistent online presence.  This means using the same name, logo etc across the whole range of social media platforms.  Choose which furrow you're going to plough and stick to it - make sure potential customers know who your are and can find you on twitter, Facebook, on your website etc.  Don't appear as different things in different places (says she, Tuckshop Gardener and Tuckshop Flowers!!!! - think this may be a bit of a giveaway as to which path I followed to arrive at my current position)   

Following other people is one possible way to find new leads. Follow local organisations and businesses and if their ethos is similar to yours, think about following some of their followers too. Think of it as marketing, rather than...well...stalking...They may look you up to see if they want to follow you back, and you're waiting there with lovely photos etc to just drag them into your network. And of course, you can follow other flower growers -  a welcoming bunch of other flower powerers in the form of #Britishflowers hour on Mondays 8-9pm.  

There is a big buzz around British flowers in the media at present, and people get very excited when they discover they have a local person involved in this broad movement.  If you are a member of Flowers from the Farm, make sure you display the logo prominently on your market stall, website or wherever else you are selling from - it generates lots of positive feedback and interest.  Also don't forget you can also download the Great British flowers logo from the FTTF website.

We also discussed the role of packaging in positioning ourselves in our markets - do we want to be Skoda, VW or Audi?   We can't compete with supermarkets so we have to be careful about defining who we are and what we do if we are to gain a return on our work. 

For classy packaging, consider getting boxes printed - Atlas Packaging design bespoke boxes and offer alternative artworks based on your designs for you to choose from.  The Carrier Bag Shop offer a range of strong twist handled paper carrier bags in a range of colours which can be used to gift package jam jar posies with a little ingenuity - they may need a snip  down the sides for more floriferous things, but come in a great range of colours.

Farmers markets and fairs
These were discussed as a way of getting out and making a name for yourself in your local area, but it was generally agreed markets alone will not generate enough income to be the sole source of business success. However, always presenting a lovely stall can be a great way to pick up wedding and other work and will make local people aware of you as 'that one who does the nice flowers'.  Add a website so that people can find you outside market times and they could be a good place to start. But... and there is a but... make sure your pricing is right from the start and factor in your packaging, overheads, time and all the other sundries.  You don't want to price so highly that you won't sell, but you do want to be generate some income and can't expect to sell every item on your stall.  Don't sell off cheaply at the end, or everyone will soon start coming to you five minutes before you pack up every month! Better to do a 'lonely bouquet' with leftovers and leave them around locally with all your details attached!

Pricing in general, and for wedding work in particular, was a topic we discussed at some length and it was very useful to have a florist to hand to gain her input into this.  A useful link on this topic was also highlighted as it discusses the benefits of being transparent with clients about how costs are calculated - not only have you got to cover the flower costs, but you have also got to charge for the time spent consulting, cutting, conditioning, arranging and for being available to see to the details and clear down on the day of the wedding itself. 

Participating in wedding fairs may be a cost effective way to market as you don't have to make a tableful of flowers - just a few stunning arrangements to display your wares.

This is a tricky area for flower suppliers to get into as most funeral directors seem to work closely with a specified florist and often there may be percentages to be paid for referrals.   We thought that for what we do, green funerals and natural burials might be the best market to target and that this could be one thing to promote on our websites and to try to create links with via social media.

As small growers, we all need to embrace the fact that at some points in the year, or for very large events, we will need to buy in British flowers.  Now we have each other to turn to for local flowers and discussed the issues of how to price - most of us plumping for a 'by the bucket' appproach.  Other suppliers we'd had positive experiences of were of the Cornwall based Clowance (who have the benefit of allowing small, mixed orders rather than having to go for boxes of one variety) and Tregothan who are said to be particularly good for foliages. Locally, Birmingham Horticultural Market is home to Vitacress who seem to carry a larger range of British flowers than most other wholesalers.

We also talked flowers (of course) and it's that time of year when dahlias are very much on our mind.  Judith, the florist amongst us, uttered an "ooooh" at the thought of Cafe au Lait, and we looked at pics of other varieties we'd enjoyed last season - amongst them Witteman’s Best, Peaches, Rip City and the Karma series.

Sweet peas are also pre-occupying our cold frames etc and Owls Acres was recommended (via a Green and Gorgeous flower growing course) as a supplier of tried and tested cutting varieties.

How to keep our flowers looking lovely, once cut, came up - all of us agreed that whenever we sell them, we condition them properly for 12 hours before selling or arranging and had a bit of a debate over whether to use chemicals or not. Some people opt for a sterilising tablet or a spot of bleach, others for fresh, clean water and a care recommendation to customers that they change the vase water daily to keep the flowers looking their best.

We also discussed results of our accumulated September sowings, and the consensus was that in recent winters, only seeds sown under cover have been successful. Amongst these were ammi, cerinthe, cornflowers.  The unpredictable nature of spring has made these early sowings invaluable though, so busy greenhouses will abound later in the year.

The ranunculus debate rumbled on from last week's #britishflowers hour about whether they grow better under cover or outdoors. We thought we'd just monitor them and report back on our findings later in the season then compare notes again.

The majority of this West Midlands meeting had done floristry and cut flower growing courses – arranging largely at local colleges, and further workshops at Green and Gorgeous in Oxfordshire, which were highly recommended.

And this was just some of what we discussed.....

Taking a deep breath and clutching our notebooks to our chest, we decided to aim for quarterly meet ups, with the next one taking place in May. We decided to take turns in hosting meetings so that we get to see the scale of different operations and hope to visit experienced growers as part of this.

We did a broad brush plan for future meetings and decided that vase life trials, 'making' workshops as well as visits are on the hit list.  But most of all, by the end of the meeting, we'd made new contacts who we can call on for extra help, support and spare hands and flowers for big jobs. Invaluable for us one-woman bands.

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