Fralick Farm – Photo by Emily Barbee Photography

By Eva Moore

For Melissa Smith, it’s dahlias. At her Upstate farm, she farms cut flowers full-time on an acre of land, while her husband raises pigs. She’s grown a lot of flowers in the past 12 years, but dahlias are what she loves most—and where her expertise really shows.

Smith is one of five founding members of a new agriculture cooperative in South Carolina that is working together to market wholesale cut flowers to the floral industry.

Along with Smith, who owns Fraylick Farm, the co-op members are: David Blue of Farmer Blue, Linda Bradley of Purple Tuteur Farm, Lisa Rudick of Clear Spring Gardens, and Julie Rainey of PearlGirl Flower Farm.

With members in the Upstate, Lowcountry, and Midlands, these five farmers are already selling to florists throughout the state. Working together, they think they can leverage their experience and locations to serve more wholesale customers.

South Carolina’s geography and diverse climate works in their favor, Smith says. Lowcountry producers can grow flowers through the winter, while the Upstate can grow through the summer, with the Midlands filling in throughout the year.

“One area might have a crop for four weeks, but if you look across the state, you can take that four weeks and turn it into three months,” she says.

As with many crops, extending the season helps farmers build a market for the product.

“If your customers know that crop is going to be there for a long time, that’s so important, because then they can plan for it,” Smith explains. “If customers know they can count on a crop, they’re likelier to buy it locally versus ordering it in from a national wholesaler.”

The cooperative was formed with the help of the South Carolina Center for Cooperative and Enterprise Development (SCCCED), a collaborative effort between the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, Clemson University Cooperative Extension, the South Carolina State Small Business Development Center, and Matson Consulting. The SCCCED is funded through USDA Rural Development’s Rural Cooperative Development Grant.

Steve Richards is the center’s director.

“I think one of the big benefits of co-ops is scaling up your activities,” Richards says. “With one person doing it on their own, or five doing it on their own, it’s hard to get to an efficient size.”

The co-op’s founding members are all experienced flower growers who already work with commercial customers. This was a conscious choice, Richards says. The state’s cut flower industry is booming, and there’s broad interest among local flower farmers in working together—one early co-op interest meeting attracted 80 people. Ultimately, the eventual co-op members decided to limit their membership to experienced commercial growers in order to achieve their specific goals in the short term.

“Just like with produce, you have to meet certain standards to sell to florists—flower quality, how long the stem is, all sorts of things,” Richards explains. “It was too big a lift to try to train newcomers on those unwritten industry standards.” (That’s one of the cooperative’s next projects: to create a wholesale readiness training guide for newer cut flower growers so they can join the co-op in the future.)

The co-op’s long-term goal is to have distribution hubs with cold storage in the state’s three metropolitan areas. For now, they’re starting with coordinating distribution, picking up from each other’s farms as part of their delivery runs. They’ve also applied for a Specialty Crop Block Grant to buy a truck and hire a driver for the co-op.

“The goal would be for the farmers to focus on growing, and then for the co-op to be facilitator of moving and distributing those flowers,” Smith says. “That way farmers can do what they do best.”

“A whole new world of possibilities suddenly opened up,” she says.

To get in touch with the co-op, email info@scflowers.coop.