Jillian Kubala owns Nestledown Dahlias, her roadside dahlia business that she operates from her home in Westhampton. NewsdayTV's Arielle Dollinger reports.  Credit: Randee Daddona

Flower farms once dotted Long Island like freckles. Local growers produced roses in glass greenhouses and populated acres with mums for cutting, the vase-bound flowers a major commodity in the region.  

"That's completely vanished," said Krystyna Read, president of the Long Island Flower Growers Association, of the industry fallen victim to high production costs and rapid shipping of cheaper imports, primarily from year-round growers in South America. "Some people are growing some boutique roses, but there's not the mass production like there used to be on Long Island for roses and cut-flower mums." 

Instead, most large horticulture operations on the Island now produce bedding plants, perennials and shrubs, leaving the cut-flower business to a growing number of small farmers who are passionate about producing specialty blooms for a niche, mostly high-end market. 

Read's late grandfather, Edward Reckner, began Reckner Greenhouses and Farms LLC in Melville as a vegetable farm in 1951, and transitioned to flower farming two decades later. Today the business, run by Read and her brother, Alexander Reckner, still grows two acres of dahlias and another of assorted flowers "to maintain income during the summer and because it’s a tradition in our family to grow them," she said.  But the business has pivoted away from flowers, with its primary income coming from bedding plants and vegetable and herb plants.

Long Island "used to have ... back in the '70s and the '80s, a lot more [rose and cut-mum production], because there wasn't so much being brought in from South America," Read said.  More than three-quarters of the cut flowers sold in the United States are imported, with Colombia by far the biggest producer, according to federal data.  

For small local growers to compete directly with those selling hardy, lower-priced imported flowers is challenging if not unrealistic. In many cases, the Island's growers cater to an audience that appreciates locally grown flowers and is willing to pay more for them. 

Co-owner May Zegarelli harvests flowers at Ocean Fog Farm in Eastport on Aug. 11. Credit: Morgan Campbell

"There's two ends of the spectrum in the market: There's the people who buy the grocery store flowers or the 1-800-Flowers stuff, and they look to us and they think that we're jaw-droppingly expensive; and then there's the people who understand everything [that goes into this]  and they think that we're reasonable," said Jaclyn Rutigliano of Huntington, who buys from local growers as the co-owner of Hometown Flower Collective.  The florist business designs arrangements for weddings and other events and also sells bouquets by weekly, biweekly or monthly subscription, ranging from $45 for 8 to 10 stems to $180 for approximately three dozen stems, she said. 

Those growing locally are selling to small businesses like Rutigliano's, other florists, wholesalers, or directly to consumers. 

Some follow customers back and forth between the East End and New York City. Keith Pierpont, who owns Pierpont Blossom Farms in Baiting Hollow, sells in the summer at the Westhampton Farmers Market, to flower shops, to farm stands and to private clients. But in September and October, “I sell a lot [to wholesalers in] the city — because all the people that are out here go back to the city.”  

In addition to small farms devoted exclusively to cut flowers, others are getting into the business of selling blooms. 

“A lot of your farm stands are going to grow cut flowers to supplement their farm stand offerings,” said Nora Catlin, a floriculture specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension who has spent 18 years working with local growers. “Even the agritourism ... things like sunflower mazes or pick-your-own sunflowers ... we’re seeing a growth in.”

Tom and May Zegarelli in their flower arrangement shed at...

Tom and May Zegarelli in their flower arrangement shed at Ocean Fog Farm in Eastport, where they sell fresh-cut flowers from a roadside stand. Credit: Morgan Campbell

According to the most recent Census of Agriculture data, collected in 2017, there are 49 farms growing cut flowers and cut florist greens in Suffolk County.   There are just two such farms in Nassau County.

Greenhouses can hurt profits

While cut flowers can grow in greenhouses, Catlin said she sees outdoor production more frequently. This includes growing in fields or in raised beds. 

Reckner Greenhouses and Farms uses greenhouses to grow bedding plants, but does not use them for flowers, Read said. The cost of heating — by oil or gas — and lighting a greenhouse is too high to produce a profit on flowers, she explained.

"With less daylight, now you have to provide artificial light to get the number of hours required of the plants to bloom," Read said. "Also, you just have to have constant circulation on them because you have all the greenhouses closed to keep the heat in, so now you have no wind going through, and you're more prone to diseases, so you have to have some kind of fans going all the time, so your electric bill is going up."

Surviving as a cut-flower farmer requires growers to pursue multiple avenues for sales — and, for some, to hold a day job, too.

Raaya Churgin works in the flower fields at Henpecked Husband Farms on Aug. 11. Credit: John Roca

Raaya Churgin, who nurtures 90 varieties of flower on the land she and her husband farm in Riverhead, says her garden roses represent the rose in its truest form. Unlike a standard  supermarket rose, which she says is "very stiff, very hard, and it's just not a rose to me," the petals on her roses are softer, the edges wavier, the shapes less uniform.  

“The American-grown, slow-flower movement  is definitely gaining speed,” Churgin said, of a focus on local flowers grown using sustainable practices. “The flowers seem more alive because they’re just fresher. Just naturally fresher.”

Churgin and her husband, Sterling, farm seven of their 29 acres as the owners of Henpecked Husband Farms — a flower-growing operation that sells cut flowers wholesale and to clients who compose floral arrangements for events. 

Raaya Churgin in the flower fields at Henpecked Husband Farms. Credit: John Roca

To make a living,  Sterling also runs a landscaping business, with the occasional assist from Raaya. Sales of the cut flowers Raaya cultivates bring in less than $50,000 of income annually, she said.

For many local growers, cut flower proceeds are supplemental income and often come in the form of cash or Venmo transfers. Growing is labor intensive, and so are the growers’ other jobs. 

Selling direct to consumers

Many local growers use the farmer-florist model: grow flowers, compose bouquets, sell arrangements, with no middleman. Those direct-to-consumer sales, and especially selling arrangements for weddings and other events, are the most profitable, Raaya Churgin said, potentially generating four to eight times the wholesale price.

“We’re going to be entering farmers markets soon hopefully, and doing more subscription bouquets,” Churgin said. “We’d like to kind of up the dollar amount we earn.”

Jillian Kubala of Nestledown Dahlias Farm in Westhampton at her farmstand on July 20.

Jillian Kubala of Nestledown Dahlias Farm in Westhampton at her farmstand on July 20. Credit: Randee Daddona

In Westhampton, Jillian Kubala grows and sells dahlias at her home for $25 a bunch and also sells to floral designers.  In the early morning hours, she harvests blooms from raised beds in her backyard, makes bouquets, and sells the arrangements off a roadside stand painted pink. She works as a registered dietitian and freelance writer, and her husband also works full time.

Each year, Kubala digs up her dahlias before the first frost. Once replanted, the crop starts producing flowers in July. Instead of using pesticides to protect them, she places an organza bag over each bloom. 

“I really wanted to focus on just dahlias,” Kubala said. “They’re just a special variety of flower.” 

Jillian Kubala of Nestledown Dahlias Farm in Westhampton harvests her organically grown...

Jillian Kubala of Nestledown Dahlias Farm in Westhampton harvests her organically grown flowers and makes bouquets for sale. Credit: Randee Daddona

The arrangement of petals bears resemblance to origami. Paper-like petals converge to form a spherical blossom. 

“Dahlias are a big crop out here for the summer,” Churgin  said. “They don’t really ship well, you can’t really get them from Europe and South America,” so there is a market for them locally, she said. Most sell for $2.50-$5 per stem, depending on size and type.

“It is a very big, number one money selling crop because most florists, if you are in New York, you will most likely be using local dahlias,” Churgin said. 

The growing season for cut flowers cultivated outdoors on Long Island starts in April and runs through  mid-November. Perennial plants, which come back season after season, are still growing over the winter. 

Among the winter survivors are Iceland poppies with pleated petals, bell-shaped digitalis and rounded ranunculus. Snapdragons stand as a cluster of popcorn-like blooms.

“We kind of farm all year long,” Churgin said, “although sometimes it’s more work than others.” 

This year, she and Sterling added about three acres of new planting. Most of the additions are perennials, which act as seasonal fillers between annuals. Peonies bridge the gap between the annuals of spring and summertime cosmos, celosia and dahlias, she said. Hydrangeas act as a bridge into fall flowers.

Eight miles away, in Eastport,  May and Thomas Zegarelli sell bouquets and chicken eggs via a roadside stand made of dark wood. In addition to selling bouquets, May offers classes in floral design in an air-conditioned shed. 

Owners May Zegarelli, left, and Tom Zegarelli at their flower stand at Ocean Fog Farm in Eastport. Credit: Morgan Campbell

One morning in early June, May harvested flowers to make mini bouquets. 

“Sometimes, early June for flower farmers, it’s kind of a lot of anxiety because you’re looking at everything, there’s nothing really that much to see,” she said. “But when you have certain cool flowers and you’re making these bouquets, it’s all texture and fillers and I really like it.”

CSA model offers stability

Little is guaranteed in the life of a flower farmer. Heat and humidity can wilt the sturdiest of petals; the frolicking deer of fairy tales can consume a yard-full of product overnight.

If the field is full, whether the flowers will sell becomes the primary concern. After harvesting, the shelf life of cut flowers varies depending on the variety and external conditions.  

“The idea of being a flower farmer, or even just working with flowers, is very romanticized,” said Rutigliano, of Hometown Flower Collective. “There’s definitely a lot more people playing with it. Now, who can do it 100% really speaks to how much time and energy they can put into it.”

The antidote to that inconsistency, for many, is the Community Supported Agriculture model, or CSA, by which customers prepay to receive regular allotments of a crop via subscription. 

In the summer months, Kevin Perry and his partners at North Fork Flower Farm sell an estimated 60 CSA flower subscriptions or more. The Southold farm also sells single bouquets and custom arrangements for floral designers or event organizers. 

“In a way, it’s the core of our business,” Perry said of the CSA flower subscriptions. “It is an important part of our business financially, and it is an important part of our identity.”

In its seventh growing season, the flower farm runs its CSA from approximately April through October. There are seasonal, monthly and weekly options, as well as the opportunity to arrange a custom CSA. One-quart mason jar bouquets sell for $25 per bouquet — or $100 a month on a weekly subscription — plus a delivery charge. 

“We’re still financially trying to find our market,” Perry said. “Everybody looks to find their own niche."

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