Erin Benzakein of Floret, a family-run flower farm & seed company in Mt. Vernon, Washington
To get to Floret you drive along country roads lined with sprawling fields of tulips, daffodils, berries, pickling cucumbers, potatoes, apples and more - the crops that the agricultural community of Skagit Valley of is know for. Floret's fields, with a colorful diversity of seasonal blooms, call to you from the roadside. Floret's thriving research and education farm has become an inspiration for aspiring small-scale flower farmers far and wide. Floret started and operated on two acres for over a decade. Last year Floret expanded their farm footprint by purchasing their next door neighbor's 24-acre property. People tune in from all over the world to take online workshops with Erin Benzakein and over 600k people follow @floretflower on Instagram. Featured in hundreds of magazines, Erin’s best-selling book Floret Farm's Cut Flower Garden: Grow, Harvest & Arrange Stunning Seasonal Blooms has sold over 100,000 copies. And her second book, A Year in Flowers: Designing Gorgeous Arrangement for Every Season releases this month to much fanfare.
Seeing what Erin has built with her family, you might be surprised by their humble beginnings. Floret was built by necessity, passion, trial and error and sheer determination. Looking back at their journey, leaving Seattle was the best decision this family of four could have made but that wasn't to say there weren't bumps along the way. To tell the story of Erin and Floret you must start at the beginning of the journey.
In 2001, as a new mother living in Seattle, Erin felt lost. She stayed at home with their young daughter while her husband Chris worked long days as a mechanic, but Erin felt restless in their city environment. She knew firsthand what her kids were missing out on by living in the city. She would find herself drifting in and out of fond memories of her times as a child on her grandmother’s country farm in eastern Washington. The days were slow and long, and she was surrounded by wheat fields and sky. Her great-grandmother, “Grammy,” would tell stories of her famous garden, plotted out painstakingly on a barren plot of desert land in Nevada. With enough patience and persistence, the garden blossomed, and she was known all around for her little oasis in the desert. During these years, Grammy was mostly bedridden, but entrusted Erin with the task of collecting flowers from the garden for her bedside table. Erin dutifully accepted this role with the utmost care, spending her childhood summers in the garden lovingly clipping her grandmother’s beloved blooms. With these memories beckoning, along with a growing desire to raise their children surrounded by nature outside of the concrete confines of the city, Erin and her husband Chris decided to move north to the Skagit Valley.
Chris continued commuting 3 hours a day to Seattle, while Erin stayed home to take care of their now two children – Elora and Jasper. Having made the big move to the country Erin tried her hand at multiple home-based businesses – growing vegetables, raising laying hens, making candles, but nothing felt quite right. The idea of working with flowers actually came a couple of years later when she read an article written by a floral designer about how to cut and arrange clematis. This struck a chord with Erin and brought her back to the days she would spend on her grandmother’s farm during her childhood summers. Grammy passed away the same year her and Chris bought their first house in the country. Erin took some of the ashes home with her, and scattered them in her new garden. She planted sweet peas there in her memory. That summer, the flowers she grew were abundant, and word spread in their tight-knit community about her thriving blooms.
After delivering her first order, and seeing the transformation on her customer’s face when she presented a bouquet, Erin knew that she had found her calling. In the early years, her business struggled to get its footing, but Erin persisted. She hesitantly took advice from another business owner to make herself the face of the farm. Though not completely sold on the idea of placing herself in the spotlight, Erin took a chance and shared her family’s story on her website. She hired a photographer to take pictures and crafted an autobiography that felt honest and personal. She became the face and the name of her business. Things were never quite the same after that, and her venture blossomed.
Erin now teaches budding and established flower growers small-scale, high intensity farming through her popular 6-week online course. Her aforementioned book on the subject has been published in five languages already and has become the bible for aspiring flower farmers. Erin has also become a spokesperson and champion for organically grown flowers - a rarity in the largely conventional flower market. In an increasingly impersonal and industrial world, Erin has shown that by giving a face and story to her business, she was able to connect with customers on a personal level and reach a level of success she never even imagined. Looking back, their move to the country was the catalyst that helped Erin find her passion, start a business and build something meaningful and lasting. Through hard work and determination, she has created both a beautiful and sustainable business.
Q & A
What inspired you to move to the country?
My husband, Chris, and I wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and raise our family surrounded by nature. Even though I grew up in the city and suburbs, my childhood visits to relatives in the country were some of my fondest memories. The first opportunity we had to escape the city, we made our move.
Did you research a lot of potential locations before you moved? What made you decide to settle in the Skagit Valley?
We started our home search as close to Seattle as possible since my husband Chris worked downtown, but prices were so high and we were poor, so our search parameters expanded farther and farther north.
How did your friends and family respond to your plans of leaving the city and moving to the country?
Thankfully our family was very supportive and even helped us gather a big enough down payment to be able to buy our home. They wanted us to have room for the kids to run free and for me to finally grow the garden of my dreams. Their only concern was the long commute that Chris had to make everyday, which was 3-4 hours round trip with traffic.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
When we first moved to the country we didn’t understand how different the two worlds would be. In the city, people go about their lives independently. Even though everyone lives very close together, there’s strangely a lot of privacy and no one really cares what you do. In the country, it’s exactly the opposite. Since there’s not much going on, your neighbors want to know what you’re up to and everyone keeps a watchful eye on everything. At first it was tough adjusting to the constant scrutiny, but eventually we learned that country neighbors are the best kind of neighbors. They come over after a storm and help you clean up your yard, they let you borrow tools, they bring you extra tomatoes from their garden and they always make time to chat, usually about the weather or the garden.
When we arrived, we were they youngest family on our road by several decades and quickly got dubbed the “City Slickers” because we let our manicured lawn grow long, had chickens everywhere and two muddy children running around.
It took years for the nickname, and the judgement to fade, but eventually it did and we were finally accepted into the fold. We recently found out that it was watching our wild, half-naked babies grow up into sweet, respectful kids, and Chris and I working so unbelievably hard for years on end that eventually won them over. Two of our harshest critics became good friends and last year they sold us their 24 acre farm. A twist of fate I never could have imagined!
How did you learn to grow flowers on a commercial scale? Did you have any mentors along the way?
A lot of what I learned about flower farming I gleaned from reading organic vegetable farming books and the few cut flower publications that existed. I also scoured old message boards (this was long before Facebook Groups) and experimented a lot in my backyard. It was a frustrating and time consuming way to learn but over time I eventually figured it out. I didn’t participate in any formal training programs because there really weren’t any at that time.
I took what I learned about vegetables, organic agriculture and intensive growing, and adapted it to develop our own small-scale, high intensity growing techniques for flowers. One of the biggest breakthroughs I made was that you don’t need a lot of land in order to produce flowers “commercially.” For many years we farmed on just two tiny acres and supplied 16 Whole Foods stores, dozens of wedding and high end floral designers throughout Washington, plus ran a thriving flower CSA in the city.
After a decade of growing on a postage sized plot we recently bought the farm next door so we finally have space to spread out as our business grows. Going from 2 to 24 acres has been quite the adjustment and I’m still getting used to the idea of having so much land to work with.
What do you appreciate the most about living in a more rural area?
Being surrounded by nature. From our property, we have the most incredible views of the mountains, the sweeping fields and the Skagit River. The sunsets over our flower field produce a gorgeous golden glow that makes everything look like its dusted in glitter.
Walk us through a typical day at Floret?
I get up super early, between 4-4:30 am so that I have time to think, write and prepare for the day before it actually begins. The farm crew rolls in around 7:00 am and we walk the farm and go over the tasks for the day which range from weeding, planting, collecting seed, working in the greenhouse etc. Once they are set up, I shift my attention to the shipping team and we go over the days orders. Depending on the season it could be anywhere from a few hundred, to a few thousand. After everyone on the farm is set up then the calls and meetings begin. Part of our team works remotely and we do alot of our project work through video and phone conferences. We usually focus our project time to the front of the week and then Thursday and Friday are devoted to writing and shooting for our blog, newsletter and/or book.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
Thankfully I get to live surrounded by so much beauty and finding inspiration is as easy as taking an evening stroll through the flower field. Nature is a huge source of inspiration for me.
If you could time machine back to the early stages of your business, what advice would you give yourself?
I’d definitely give myself more grace. When I think back to my early years of flower farming, it is with a mix of heartbreak, regret and compassion. I made so many mistakes, which is normal and to be expected when you’re learning something big and new. But I was really hard on myself through the learning process. Those early years were lonely, and scary and I felt really insecure. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. In addition to feeling completely lost when it came to growing flowers, I was spending long, backbreaking hours planting, weeding and battling insects that I couldn’t even identify. All with two small kids in tow while Chris was at work. I felt like a failure on every front. If I could go back and tell my younger self anything, it would be to lighten up and fail proudly! It was through making all of those mistakes that I learned everything I hold dear today.
How did you/do you overcome any feelings of uncertainty and fear when it comes to making decisions and taking risks?
I don’t know that I’ll ever escape feeling uncertain when it comes to taking risks or the next big step. I actually think that exercising a bit of caution is a healthy approach to business. Over the years I’ve learned that it’s ok to change course when something doesn’t feel right. Trusting your gut is scary, especially when it doesn’t match what everyone else is saying, but it has rarely let me down. I’ve been known to make a big decision and then part way down the path change course because new information surfaced. It’s ok to change your mind and listen to that little whisper in your ear. If you have a bad feeling about something, don’t ignore it.
How have you handled scaling up and diversifying your business? Did you feel any growing pains? If yes, how did you navigate through them?
Our business has grown in ways that no one could have predicted. For example, there was a point in time when I thought we’d simply need to expand our acreage in order to grow our business. We tried to buy numerous properties over the years, including the field that we have rented for years, but each and every one fell through at the final hour. This forced us to be innovative on the land we did have and grow our business in other ways. We did that initially by offering on-farm training workshops and starting a seed company. A few years later, the demand for our on-farm workshops was impossible to meet, which forced us to switch gears and get creative once again. In that case, we converted our workshops into an online, video-based training program that was more accessible and scalable. This format now allows us to reach flower farmers all over the world.
We are still experiencing a lot of growing pains as our online shop is expanding. But in the grand scheme of things, they are all “good” problems to have.
How important has expanding your reach beyond your local customer base been to your success?
It was a total game-changer. (see answer above)
What techniques and channels have proven the most successful in marketing to new customers and growing your business?
We have an enthusiastic fan base and our largest reach, by far, is on Instagram (600,000+) but we’ve actually found email newsletters to be the biggest driver of sales. For example, we sold out of all our tulip and daffodil bulbs within a few hours of sending out an email.
What has been the most challenging part of running Floret? What has been the most rewarding part?
The biggest challenge of running the farm and the business is managing a growing team of people both on the farm and those that work remotely.
The most rewarding part has been the ability to introduce so many people to the beauty and magic of nature. When I get a message from someone who tells me they’ve been inspired by my book or one of my Instagram posts to plant flowers for the very first time in their life or grow a garden with their children, it makes all the effort worth it. It is so incredible to see the ripple effect that has come from our tiny farm and sharing snippets from our flower-filled life.
Do you have any advice for people considering getting into commercial flower farming?
Over the years, I’ve worked with thousands of people who are considering a career change to flower farming. The process of taking your passion and hobby and turning it into something that can not only sustain itself one day, but also generate a profit is an amazing experience, but it is no easy task. Farming is hard work and so is running and growing any business. Give yourself a huge amount of credit for even trying! If I had known how many times I would fail before I got the hang of it, I probably would never had ventured in. Luckily a few very wise and patient souls mentored me in the early years. If you can find a mentor, someone who has actually done what you want to do, I highly recommend investing in this relationship and listening to their hard earned wisdom.
How do you balance work life and home life when operating a family-run business?
The truth is, I don’t. With the tremendous growth our business has experienced in the last few years, I have devoted nearly all of my time to Floret. Thankfully I have a very supportive family and my mom and husband have both kept our home life stable.
Figuring out how to accomplish everything that needs to be done has been a tremendous challenge. But this next year I’m focusing on assembling my management “dream team”, to help run the day to day operations so that I can slow down a little and focus on what I do best, which is creating.
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel rejuvenated after a hard day?
Few places calm my nerves like the rose patch, especially at dusk. When I start feeling intense overwhelm creeping in, I head to this corner of the field and just sit quietly until the emotional storm passes.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
The first part of next year will be focused on launching our expanded line of Floret Seeds and running the Floret Online Workshop, a course on small scale flower farming. Editing and pre-promoting my next book also will be a big part of the coming year. While my first book focused primarily on growing flowers, the next book will explore creative ways to incorporate homegrown and seasonal flowers into everyday life. The next book is more design-focused, but I am approaching it in a very practical and easily accessible way. In it I will share simple, inspiring ways to bring the beauty of flowers into our everyday lives.
About a year ago we bought the farm next door and we’re in the midst of a big renovation of the barn. The new space will house our seed company and shipping department, which is very, very exciting!
We’re also expanding our field production to include a lot of new seed varieties and this winter we’ll be planting a huge peony patch with over 100 beautiful varieties for cutting.