Researchers have found a new niche market for Georgia farmers: selling ornamentals to florists.
For the past year and a half, Amy Carter has been attending floral seminars and visiting Georgia wholesale florists and trendy Atlanta flower shops.
A research coordinator with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, she's been assessing the industry's opinion on Georgia-grown ornamentals.
While conducting tours on the Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton, Ga., Carter and her colleagues, including lead scientist John Ruter, stumbled on the idea of selling winged elm branches and other Georgia ornamentals
The Garden Club Ladies Love It
"Every time the garden club ladies visit, they just 'ooh' and 'ah' over the winged elm trees and say how wonderful they would look in floral arrangements," Carter said. "After hearing so many comments, well, we finally took the hint."
Carter was determined to find a way for Georgia farmers to enter this type of speciality market. She works alongside UGA researchers in Tifton who are constantly searching for new crops and new markets for Georgia farmers.
"We focus on finding crops farmers can grow in their off-seasons and crops they can grow on unproductive land where they can't grow the more traditional row crops, such as cotton or peanuts or corn," Carter said.
To determine whether there is a market for winged elm, Carter has been surveying Georgia florists shop by shop. The branches compare to those of the curly willow tree, a nonnative plant florists use.
"I just walk into a flower shop and ask, 'what do you think of this?'" she said. "And all the florists I've talk to have said they'd love to use it in arrangements and dish gardens. Then they immediately ask where they can buy some."
Sold By The Bundle
After searching over hundreds of floral Web pages, Carter determined the winged elm branches could easily sell for $8 to $10 a 10-stem bundle. Using these figures, an acre of 1,900 plants would gross $11,000 in a year after just one year in the field, she said.
"I was also amazed to see that florists pay $6 for a bunch of millet heads," she said. "And as far as I could tell, there are no Georgia suppliers for them or any other dried or preserved floral product. I did find a wholesaler in Albany that buys grapevine wreaths and cedar roping this time of year from a Georgia grower."
Carter said the selling price of the winged elm branches is based on the length of the stem.
The next step of the project is for UGA researchers to develop production methods and work with Georgia farmers to plant winged elm on farm plots.
"You have to consider what the farmer is dealing with in his other crops and how easily this would be adaptable," Carter said. "We want to introduce them to something new and make it as painless as possible. I would really love to see Georgia farmers as excited about this new crop as I am."
Native Grass Turns Heads, Too
Winged elm isn't Carter's only new crop project. She's also looking into marketing muhly grass, a native grass.
"It's just gorgeous," Carter said. "In October, it has a pinkish purple flowering head that just catches the sunlight. In south Georgia, you notice it growing in low areas along the roadsides."
Like winged elm, muhly grass already has a fan club in Tifton.
"We planted some here, and in the fall it's everyone's favorite," she said. And you guessed it. Carter bundled it up and hit the florist's trail.
"It's definitely another one people just go crazy over," she said. "They're already asking, 'What is that and where can I get some?'"
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)