Tobacco farmers may try growing flowers

November 04, 2003|HERB BROCK

Peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes.

This trinity of alternative crops has been a mantra from farm researchers in Kentucky for years as they attempt to help tobacco growers find replacements for their burley as the crop slowly but surely disappears from the state's agricultural landscape.

Now, growers can add another alternative crop to the litany: cut flowers.

Cut flowers? Growing vegetables is one thing. After all, that does fit in with traditional farming. But growing flowering plants is quite another thing. Nurseries do that, not farmers.

But Sharon Bale, University of Kentucky extension floriculturalist, believes tobacco farmers can make some much-needed extra income from several kinds of plants whose blooms or berries are used for decor, including several that are holiday favorites.


The candidates include bittersweet, a variety of hollies, hydrangeas, lilacs and forsythia.

"The holiday season is here, and we could use this time of the year as an example of what farmers can do," said Bale.

"Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and the gold and brown berries of the bittersweet create the warm autumn glow for a home decoration," she said.

"And at Christmastime, deciduous hollies produce beautiful gold and red berries, and sprigs cut from the shrubs look absolutely gorgeous on a mantle or as an arrangement on a table."

Hydrangeas helped trigger Bale's research

But it was a plant whose big white, lilac, pink and blue flowers are known for spring and summer decorations - hydrangeas - that helped trigger Bale's research into the possibilities of cut flowers and other plants as alternative sources of income for tobacco growers.

A couple of years ago, Bale and other horticultural and floricultural researchers were growing a trial bed of hydrangeas at UK's Robinson Station at Quicksand. What started as simply a step to correct a problem grew into an idea for a another potential source of extra income for burley farmers.

The bed became overgrown as the stems became long and leggy. Those tending the bed severely cut back the hydrangeas and applied a high level of nitrogen to the soil around them. By the next spring, the plants produced high-quality cut flowers, and that led the researchers to look at woody cut-flower production possibilities for tobacco farmers and small farm operations.

"What we managed to do was create a potentially high-quality cut flower, but the flower was too big and the stems were too long," Bale said in a UK press release in October 2002.

After more tinkering with nitrogen levels and pruning techniques, Bale and the other researchers since have developed what they believe is a high-quality, multi-stemmed, large bloom-producing hydrangea that farmers can plant and, if they follow instructions, harvest marketable cut flowers that can be sold to the public.

"We were able to come up with a plant whose stems are shorter than what we started out with but which produce more and better blooms," she said.

"Top quality hydrangeas can reasonably be expected to bring the grower $1 per stem, and the blooms can be sold fresh or dried in their original color or dried and then painted," Bale said. "Each plant produces several stems and, with one plant occupying only a 3-foot square plot to grow in, the income potential is high."

The variety of hydrangea with which UK is experimenting - called hydrangea peniculata - not only does not require a lot of space in which to grow, it also is a very hardy plant and does well in full sun during the summer and weathers well during the winter, she said.

Hydrangea project spawned other trials

The hydrangea project spawned trials for forsythia, bittersweet, lilcas and hollies as thousands of these plants are being grown at Robinson Station, including more than 5,000 bittersweet plants, said Bale.

"We're adjusting nitrogen levels in the soil, measuring stems, checking on hardiness, trying to come up with as many blooms or berries, depending on what the plant produces," she said. "Most important, we're trying to develop plants that not only are high in quality in terms of the kind of flowers and berries they throw out but also are as easy as possible for farmers to grow in terms of the land they need and the kind of care they require."

Bale and others at UK will help farmers acquire, plant and care for the plants. They also will provide marketing advice.

"It's OK for a grower to start planting a few, say, hydrangea or hollies, to see how it is to grow them," she said.

"But before they get into production big time, they need check with flower wholesalers or retailers to make sure there is a market for their products and find out where those markets are.

"Options include florists, groceries and other stores or farmers' markets," she said.

"There is a lot of potential with cut flowers as another alternative crop for farmers, and we are just beginning to experiment."

For more information about cut-flower production and marketing, call Sharon Bale at (859) 257-8605.

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