Bringing Fresh Cut, Field Grown, Buckets of Color to Market

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There is no doubt that economic development in rural communities is changing. The prospect of bringing large industrial firms into small, rural communities becomes ever more elusive. Eisinger (1998) said that "third-wave economic development strategies have emphasized the need for locally led development efforts that build from within instead of depending on attracting from outside the community."  In southern Illinois, flowers once growing decades ago on the Harvey Hartline farm in Makanda, Illinois have given rise to the Peony Hill farm of today. Here is their story by Susan Odum, CED Educator.

Bringing Fresh Cut, Field Grown, Buckets of Color to Market

David Hilliard, and his wife Julie, live on Zola Road in southeastern Illinois, just outside of the city of Harrisburg. As you leave the commercial sector of the City behind and drive up the lane to their farmstead, you suddenly find yourself in the midst of rural America complete with barns, grain bins, and fields that will soon be planted in traditional row crops. While just minutes from town, in April the farm is peaceful, quiet, and serene.

David grew up on the farm and has lived in the house that he and Julie now share since he was six years old. Corn and soybeans are still very much a part of their traditional farming operation, but during an intense three-week period in late spring, twelve acres of the farm come alive with color – white, pink, and coral to be exact.

In the mid-1990s, corn was selling for under $2 a bushel, so David and Julie began looking for ways to diversify their traditional farming operation. Diversification came in the form of shrubs transplanted from an old nursery in Union County once operated by the Harvey Hartline family.

As outlined in a March 25, 2007 article by The Southern Illinoisan, "decades ago, Southern Illinois farm fields produced daffodils, peonies, lilacs, and other colorful, fragrant blossoms that were carefully picked, packed, placed on train cars, and transported by the tons to distant cities." The article further outlined that "May shipments were primarily peonies, with the largest shippers including Harvey Hartline of Makanda." The transplants from the Hartline nursery gave rise to Peony Hill Farm.

Initially, the Hilliard's worked exclusively with a floral wholesaler in Chicago. Understanding the "lingo" and how the floral industry thinks has been instrumental to the Hilliard's as they have grown their floral business over the last twenty years. As a result, they know when to cut, how best to present, and the best way to pack their peonies for shipment. Their exclusive arrangement with the wholesaler continued until a couple of years ago, when they begin to reexamine their marketing and distribution strategy.

Fast forward to 2017, and Peony Hill Farm consists of 20,000 plants on a twelve-acre hillside of their family farm. While the Hilliard's continue to sell to wholesalers, a large percentage of sales are now direct to consumer – at farmer's markets and through on-the-farm sales. The Hilliard's attribute their success in the direct to consumer market to Nadine Williams with Flower Ridge Farm, as she helped them make connections and understand the nuances in marketing direct to the consumer.

Today, the Hilliard's rely heavily on social media marketing to promote their gorgeous blooms. With Facebook they can quickly let customers know when they will be at a market, such as the Harrisburg Area Farmer's Market. In addition to the local farmer's market, they also host on-the-farm sales on select days during the harvest season. Selling peonies locally is a win-win for the consumer and for Peony Hill Farm. Customers enjoy the benefits of having fresh cut flowers straight from the farm, and the Hilliard's enjoy the farmer's market scene and have a new found respect for the retail market.

The direct to consumer market also offers intangible rewards not possible when dealing exclusively with the wholesale market. David and Julie find it rewarding when people say "we bought your flowers last week at the market and we loved them so much, we are back for more." While the ultimate customer in the wholesale market may have also enjoyed their beautiful blooms, sadly, growers don't get feedback from the wholesale market like they do when selling direct to consumers. In addition, Facebook posts, like the following, offer customers an opportunity to share their experiences with Peony Hill Farms – "Beautiful fragrant flowers grown by caring compassionate folks" – Donna Mitchell Apple, March 24, 2016

Peonies are viewed as an impulse purchase. For the Hilliard's, when they arrive at the farmer's market, they typically are the only vendor there selling the fragrant flower, so their beautiful bouquets are not viewed as a commodity, which allows them more control over pricing. While the Hilliard's are pleased to have the opportunity to sell their fragrant flowers at the market and on-the-farm, they simply can't move all of their volume locally and still rely on the use of wholesalers and other venues.

Diversity in talents is important to Peony Hill Farm's operation. Together, David and Julie make a good team. David is quick to note that Julie is much better at the retail side of the operation, as she has a talent for visual arts. So in addition to packaging and presentation, she is in charge of their social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram. David, on the other hand, prefers to stay home and focus on the production and care of the flowers. He is in charge of the cutting and walks the flower field and breaks off the side buds to make the stems grow stronger and allow for bigger blooms.

Given the intensity of the three-week peony harvest season, the Hilliard's enlist help from a group of high school students who help David with the cutting, a group of ladies that assist Julie with the sorting and packing, and a crew to help out at the farmer's markets.

While David indicated that peonies have provided a nice way to diversify their farming operation, he was quick to point out that raising the gorgeous blooms is physically taxing. Every bloom is cut by hand at a point of "marshmallow consistency", so the economies of scale that farmers find in planting more and more acres, simply doesn't translate into the floral industry. Raising flowers is not only labor intensive, but it is a huge commitment of time over an intense period of a few weeks, as you can't afford to let a flower go even a half a day too long in the field.

Aside from what David has learned from his contacts with the wholesaler, the majority of the knowledge he has gained on growing peonies, has been self-taught. With new plants, David learned that it is best to just break the buds off for the first few years, rather than pick the blooms too early. David also learned that peonies respond pretty well to the soil here in southern Illinois, however, they don't like it wet, so David chose to plant his peonies on a hillside.

While peonies grow best in full sun, they fare well in regions that have cold weather, so southern Illinois is really about as far south as it is feasible to grow the beautiful blooms. Growing peonies doesn't require a lot of specialty equipment, but, like every other crop, you have to deal with Mother Nature. In 2012, southern Illinois experienced the "mother of all droughts" and the hot and extremely dry weather was very hard on the plants. In contrast, the winter of 2016-2017 was extremely mild followed by an early spring, so peony season came about two weeks earlier than normal, and they began seeing the first blooms of the season around April 18th.

Beyond the intense three-week harvest season, peonies don't require a lot of maintenance, which is good because it allows David to quickly turn his focus to the more traditional farming operations at the end of the floral harvest. While peonies have provided David and Julie with an opportunity to diversify their farming operation, at times, peonies can be a terrible fit with corn and soybean production. For David, he may find that he needs to be running a corn planter; however, circumstances demand that he is in the flower field cutting blooms for market. As with all cold hardy plants, fall is the traditional time to transplant, so Peony Hill Farm will once again be selling roots in September.

David and his crew of "peony wranglers" pick the blossoms as real tight buds, so the ultimate consumer can enjoy the flowers as they come into full bloom. Once they are picked, the flowers are stored in a cooler at the farm to keep them fresh until they are ready for market. While peonies have a relatively short vase life, changing the water and re-cutting the ends helps keep the blooms fresh for an extended period.

Peonies, pronounced "pee-ah-nees", are perennials with large, showy, "softball-size" blooms. The hardy plants can last indefinitely as some varieties on the farm are from the early 1900s. If you Google the words "peonies and grandma", you will find stories depicting a fondness for the gorgeous blooms, mostly associated with pleasant memories from their childhood, and how the showy blooms make them think of their grandmother.

The Hilliard's grow several varieties of the fragrant flowers at Peony Hill Farm including: Sarah Bernhardt; Shirley Temple; and Mon Jules Elie. The pink and white varieties seem to be the most forgiving. Some varieties are best suited as cut flowers, while other varieties are best for planting in the yard or the garden. Some varieties bloom early, while others are late bloomers. Some are more fragrant, and some have more beautiful blossoms. The Hilliard's have learned that wholesalers obsess over stem length, florists typically want white, pink, or red, and the unique varieties sell best at the farmer's market. White peonies are a favorite among brides for wedding bouquets, but as with any flower, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Given the unpredictability of when the crop will be ready for harvest, it can be difficult to commit the flowers for special occasions, like Mother's Day and weddings. A bride may have her date set and plan on having a certain color of flower available for her bouquet, which may not be possible, due to the uncertain timing of the floral season. Last year, peony season coincided with Mother's Day, so Child of Mine Flowers & Gifts in Harrisburg offered beautiful bouquets of locally grown peonies from Peony Hill Farm as a very special treat for Mother's Day.

In addition to our local florists utilizing locally grown peonies in their floral arrangements, the beauty of Peony Hill Farm and the floral design talents of Nadine Williams with Flower Ridge Farms were captured by Stephanie Susie Photography in a 2016 styled shoot published in the photography magazine, Mozi.

"It is so uplifting to have the opportunity to share the stories of our small businesses and entrepreneurs with our followers. By thinking beyond corn and soybeans, Peony Hill Farm is not only delivering beautiful bouquets, but helping to create a stronger, more sustainable, regional economy for Southern Illinois" – Susan Odum, Extension Educator, University of Illinois Extension


Susan Odum

Extension Educator, Community Economic Development

University of Illinois Extension