Jello Mold owners
Diane Szukovathy and Dennis Westphall of Jello Mold Farm in Skagit County. Diane is a founding board member of the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market Cooperative.

Local blooms: the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market Cooperative

Sound Consumer | May 2012

by Jodie Buller

Beginning this month, in time for Mother's Day, PCC is selling local flowers from a new, local floral cooperative.

Flowers are years behind food when it comes to consumer awareness about origin and growing practices. The same consumers who take care to buy organic, local food often are not aware of the impacts of monoculture and chemical use in the flower industry, or that most flowers are imported from faraway places.

Some may lament that the flowers they buy no longer smell as sweet as those from their grandparents' gardens, or get tired of seeing the same basic bouquets at stores all year. Floriculture has grown anonymous. The flowers have lost their stories.

That's about to change. A group of Northwest cut-flower growers has teamed up and started a cooperative wholesale growers market to meet demand from florists and store buyers who want greater seasonal diversity and options.

"Local flower farmers have an heirloom body of knowledge that comes from understanding what varieties grow best in their region, and in each season," says Diane Szukovathy of Jello Mold Farm. Diane is a founding board member of the Growers Market Cooperative. She and her husband, Dennis Westphall, are featured in a new book, "The 50 Mile Bouquet: Seasonal, Local and Sustainable Flowers," which highlights the emerging Slow Flower movement. (The book is available at PCC.)

Szukovathy and Westphall's Jello Mold Farm is a seven-acre operation that grows field and hoop house annuals, perennials and woody crops in Skagit County. Their riverside land is certified Salmon-Safe and, like many co-op growers, they're committed to sustainable stewardship.

They set aside acreage for wildlife habitat, use compost to build healthy soil, minimize water usage with drip irrigation and mulching techniques, and they recycle ... everything. The co-op plans to develop a certified Salmon-Safe bouquet program for PCC by spring of 2013.

That's a contrast to prevailing practices in the cut-flower industry, where most big block wholesalers get cheap imported flowers from the auction block in Vancouver, B.C., and aren't motivated to develop and hold relationships with local growers. In the 1970s, 70 percent of the cut flowers sold here were grown here. Flower growers could make a living growing and selling to local wholesalers. But after 40 years of free trade, prices have been driven down so low that local growers can't compete.

Currently 80 percent of cut flowers sold in the United States are imported, primarily from South America. The cut flower industry has lost its incredible botanical diversity, reduced to 30 to 40 products that grow at the equator and survive shipment around the world. They carry a carbon footprint up to 16 times heavier than regionally produced flowers.

Portland, Ore., has supported a producer-owned-and-operated market since the 1940s, but Seattle florists and retailers have relied upon the wholesale network and close proximity to the Vancouver, B.C. auction. The B.C. auction opened in the 1960s and now is the second-largest flower market auction in the world.

The "farm to florist" co-op conversation began in 2010 at a meeting of local growers. They talked about how hard it was to reach markets in the Seattle area so decided to team up and try to sell their local flowers through a cooperative growers' market.

Modeled after the Portland market, the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market Cooperative runs year-round, three days a week in the Georgetown district, and sells direct, wholesale to florists, event planners, caterers and stores. Part of the Growers Market Cooperative vision is to cultivate a northwest floral industry that values and supports local growers. The co-op currently comprises 20 farms — 11 in Washington and the rest in Oregon and Alaska.

"Our co-op is great because consumers can support local agriculture while finding great quality and seasonal varieties unavailable through the importers," says Diane, adding, "our farmer members benefit from efficiency in sales and increased access to customers."

The model is working. Jello Mold Farm has more than quadrupled its customer base in a year and nearly doubled its revenues — without adding miles on the truck.

Diane and Dennis grow 150 to 200 kinds of flowers, "because we're nuts and we can't help ourselves," she says. "Most farmers involved in this cooperative do it because they can't help it. Some specialize. Some are more diversified. When you combine the palette of local products together, it's so inspiring!"

Jodie Buller is marketing and outreach coordinator at the Skagit Valley Food Co-op.