Small growers fill niche with designers, planners and sellers
By STEVE BROWN
SEATTLE -- After three months in business, the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market Cooperative has transformed a historic brewery into a beehive of activity.
And cooperative members say their hard work has paid off.
Three times a week, co-op president Diane Szukovathy brings loads of flowers from her farm, Jello Mold Farm in Mount Vernon, about 70 miles north of Seattle.
She said she's seen a 50 percent increase in business over last year, "and it's an easier dollar. We don't have to travel all around. Instead, we go to the city, where the volumes of buyers are."
Other growers -- who come from as far afield as Walla Walla in Eastern Washington, the Canadian border and Tillamook, Ore., on the Pacific Coast -- are equally enthusiastic.
The busiest part of the day is the first two hours, from 6 to 8 a.m. At 7:30 on a recent Wednesday, Chehalis, Wash., grower Janet Foss said, "I've already sold $1,000 worth of stuff."
A couple of dozen people bustled about, many of them with armloads or cartloads of flowers and decorative foliage. Any residual brewery aromas were overwhelmed by the smell of roses, lilies, peonies, mint and lavender.
The idea is to connect small growers directly to florists, event planners and merchandisers, Szukovathy said.
"We had a pretty good idea it was a good idea. But we didn't know it would be powered by rocket fuel," she said.
Attracted by that energy, a film crew for the public television show "Growing a Greener World" came for a visit. The Atlanta-based crew visited Jello Mold Farm, then followed freshly cut flowers from harvest to the co-op market to the store and ultimately to the buyer.
Szukovathy said the chance for the floral co-op to get national television exposure will help revitalize the domestic industry.
"Over 80 percent of cut flowers in the U.S. are imported, and that trend is increasing," she said. "But floral designers want interesting and unique material. We small farmers can get that to them."
"I love to farm, but I get to spend maybe one an d a half days a week farming," she said. The rest of her time is spent at the market, doing books and dealing with management issues.
But that time is paying off, she said. "We're in a recession, and we're experiencing growth. This co-op has created six full-time jobs in these three months."