The Star Valley Story
Two hours southwest of Madison, Wis., tucked away in a town called Soldiers Grove, is a cut flower operation that grows anything but the ordinary. We have found our niche by producing specialty cut flowers, especially woody ornamentals and perennials.
Today, 165 acres are in production, and products are shipped as far west as Honolulu and as far east as Boston. We are the largest field-grown cut flower producer in the Midwest. Eighty percent of product is shipped to wholesale florists. The remaining twenty percent is sent to bouquet makers, wholesale brokers and high-end retailers.
Not an easy start
We started out small on 2 acres in 1986. Owner John Zehrer has always had a love for horticulture. Even as a child he sold plants he propagated himself. John first dabbled in bee-keeping and dairy farming in California and Wisconsin before realizing that profits in these endeavors were difficult to achieve.
With the goal of pursuing a horticulture degree, he sought admission to the University of Minnesota, but was denied enrollment. Not to be easily discouraged, John contacted Horticulture Department head Harold Wilkins, who was very encouraging and provided John with the information he needed to start a flower business on a dairy farm he previously operated.
Star Valley began, like many other cut flower farms, by producing annuals and perennials, which were sold to wholesalers in Minneapolis. The early years were not easy, with John facing numerous obstacles such as drought, irrigation problems and marketing disadvantages caused by his lack of familiarity with bunching, quality standards and pricing. But persistence and advice from friends and business contacts helped him overcome these hurdles.
Crop selection expands
The early crops, including sunflowers, zinnias, ageratum and amaranthus, which were sold at farmers' markets, provided John with a base income that enabled him to branch out and try more unusual plants. He added willow varieties, hydrangeas, lilacs, bittersweet, peonies and more. We quickly gained a reputation as a source for hard-to-find and novelty items.
John continues to look for new and unusual items to add to his assortment. Well over 150 acres are planted with deciduous shrubs such as spirea, lilacs, hydrangeas, snowball and cranberry viburnums, numerous willows, twig dogwood, Ilex verticillata, mock orange, ninebark and forsythia. We are the largest bittersweet grower in the world with about 40 acres.
Although cut annuals are not our main stay any more, we still sell them under the Star Valley name by contracting with four local growers. With Star Valley's production and the marketing agreements with other local growers we carry well over 100 crops.
We choose items that are easy to grow and thrive in our area, because if a crop doesn't grow well here, somebody else will grow a better crop somewhere else.
Another big consideration is the harvest window. Cranberry viburnum, hydrangea and bittersweet are examples of crops that can be harvested when the market demands, instead of having a distinct time when the crop is ready and all the product comes to the market at once.
By growing woody branches with attractive bark like dogwoods or berries like Ilex, bittersweet, and snowberry, we are able to extend our growing season into fall and winter, which also allows us to keep more employees year round.
Berried and other fruited branches have a big market in the United States because they are difficult to import from Europe and South America due to USDA restrictions. These woody ornamentals also take longer to grow. For instance, willow takes three years and Ilex takes seven years to reach full production.
We continue to look for new crops to grow and search for ways to improve our growing techniques. Our goal is to stay ahead of the curve.
We are located in USDA hardiness zones 4b to 5a with fields of clay based soil. Most of our acreage is on slopes, but we have valleys and ridge tops, which give us a wider range of microclimates and ideal growing conditions for our various crops. The valleys for example, are moist and ideal for growing willows. Another advantage is the constant airflow over the ridges reduces fungal disease problems.
All shrubs are planted 3 1/2 feet apart in rows 14 feet wide, with white Dutch clover planted between rows to minimize weeds. A Weed Badger, a tractor attachment that allows tilling between rows, and herbicides are used for weed control.
We use and experiment with various growth retardants and hormonal treatments to stimulate flower initiation and to reduce vegetative growth. Defoliants are also used to speed leaf removal of crops grown for their fruit, bark or decorative branches.
John is not the only great mind behind Star Valley Flowers. A few years ago John convinced longtime friend Phil Mueller to move from Puget Sound in the Northwest to join him again on the farm. Phil had previously sold flowers for Star Valley during the first two years it was a business. John handles the production and Phil does the marketing.
Phil has been a repeat guest on Martha Stewart Living television shows, demonstrating specialty cut flowers and their uses.
More info needed
One of our biggest challenges is the lack of information for growing shrubs as cut flowers. One of the best sources of information, besides our own research and experiments, has been the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. John has been an active member for many years and has served as director of the association's Midwest region. The association and it's annual conference is a great forum for meeting other growers and buyers, learning new techniques, sharing information and getting questions answered.
Story adapted from an article that appeared on the September 2002 issue of GM Pro magazine.