U-pick flower farms blooming across Michigan

When it comes to Michigan’s u-pick offerings, apples, berries, pumpkins and Christmas trees come to mind. But there’s a new u-pick experience that’s been growing steadily across the state: u-pick flowers.

According to Jeremy Jubenville, the Michigan State University Extension’s floriculture and greenhouse extension educator for southwest Michigan, there has been an 85 percent increase in cut flower operations -- including wholesalers -- across the state over the last five years. He said the number of operations with outdoor production acreage has doubled since the last census and Michigan ranks eighth in the nation in cut flower production with annual sales just over $10.6 million.

“Agritourism is a booming industry in Michigan and has become an important revenue stream for many farmers,” he said. “The sight of flower fields in full bloom is a great way to attract people to your venue. We see many established farms turning to cut flowers as a way to diversify their crop portfolio.”

Ankley Family FarmThe Ankley Family Farm grows everything from Amaranth to Zinnias and other varieties. This was the case for Ankley Family Farm in Imlay City, which started in 1902 as a dairy farm. While raising dairy and beef cattle is still the operation’s primary focus, the farm introduced u-cut flowers in 2021 with growing popularity each season. Visitors are given a sanitized pair of scissors to walk through the fields and can fill up a quarter jar for $15 or a two-gallon bucket for $60. Ankley’s also offers a separate (no-cut) sunflower trail, where guests can stroll through the sunflowers to take pictures, which has become popular for graduation, engagement and maternity photos.  

Fifth-generation farmer Joe Ankley, who manages the farm’s direct-to-consumer farm stand, said u-cut flower revenue doubled 2022 and increased an additional 30 percent in 2023. The interest, he said, was partially sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, when people were searching for safe, outdoor things to do. It also reflects a growing interest in local sourcing.

“At the end of the day, I just think people want to be connected to what they’re eating or what they’re putting on their tables, like flowers,” he said. “It’s just having that connection and being able to go do it yourself.”

Carolyn Faught, owner of Omena Cut Flowers in Suttons Bay, said her u-cut business has grown steadily since the farm was established in 1998. For many, she said, it’s an annual experience, including for one man who has taken a photo of his now college-aged daughter with a bucket of flowers at her farm every year since she was a child. 

Omena Cut FlowersOmena Cut Flowers is a self-service farm. Customers can pick from 26 beds of flowers.

Omena visitors can pick from more than 50 varieties of annuals and perennials, which cost between 10 cents and $3 a stem. She also offers garden tours and classes in flower arranging and winter sowing.  

Faught credits her success to her prime tourism location and growing awareness from the internet.

“There are families who come every summer when they are up at their cottage as well as many who are up in the area and see the farm as they drive by on M-22,” she said. “My location, 7 miles north of Suttons Bay on busy M-22, has been key to my growth, as has social media.”

From a wholesale perspective, Kristin Van Vliet with the Michigan Flower Growers Collective, said COVID and natural disasters in 2020 shut down so much of the international supply chain that many florists turned to local sources and never looked back.

“Those customers who turned to local flower sources have remained loyal to the local farms they could rely upon when the pandemic and natural disasters removed their usual sources of product…,” she said. “We've heard from our buyers that the local product is higher quality, more interesting and has a longer vase life due to overall freshness compared to blooms grown internationally. And now, local flowers have more eyes on them than ever before.”

Omena Cut FlowersOmena Cut Flowers grows 40 varieties of annuals and perennials.Ankley said people who shop flowers locally often have access to varieties that don’t ship well, like zinnias, dahlias and celosias. He agreed they also last longer and are more sustainable.

“A huge majority of [supermarket] flowers are imported,” he said. “They’re being cut in Costa Rica or Nicaragua or Ecuador, then they’re being put on a plane. They’re being dropped off in Miami and then they’re getting flown elsewhere and trucked elsewhere before they get to the supermarket.”

From a business standpoint, specialty cut flower production can be profitable on a small amount of land and requires less up-front capital investment compared to traditional agricultural enterprises, Jubenville said. They’ve seen growth all over the state, especially in densely populated areas like southeast Michigan, as well as the Thumb and along the western coast of the Lower Peninsula, which he said has great soil for growing specialty crops.

Michigan Agritourism Executive Director Janice Benson said u-cut flower farms also draw attention to the farm’s other offerings.

“Farming is not an easy occupation, and it has to be profitable,” she said. “Flower fields bring beauty to a farm and that alone elevates curb appeal and draws people in. And once people are there, they'll likely purchase other farm products, like fruit, vegetables, baked goods and more.”

That is the hope for Madalyn Evans, owner of Caro’s Aurora Rose Farm. Evans added u-pick to the farm’s offerings this year, partially as a marketing tool to boost sales of the rest of her cut flower business, which caters mostly to florists, weddings and other events. While she was initially apprehensive there wouldn’t be much interest, she said she was surprised by the turnout. She had about a dozen people on their first day - a rainy one - and double that number the following weekend, and she’s already had repeat customers. 

She said people are loving it.

“I think I take it for granted that we have this huge flower farm, and a lot of people don’t have the time or the money or space to grow their own flowers, even if would like to,” she said. “Everyone that’s come has been like, ‘It’s so beautiful, we’re so glad you’re doing this.’”

Evans said u-cut flowers are often a better value than store-bought flowers, because visitors can choose flowers directly that are within their budgets, and they last longer.

Ankley Family Farm The flower field at Ankley Family Farm features more than 20,000 plants. Ankley said there might not be much of a cost savings, but guests are also paying for an experience. He and Faught said they love their personal interactions with guests and watching them share a family moment or choose something for a special occasion. They’re both often told how relaxed they feel while visiting, and Benson agreed.

“When it comes to u-cut flowers and visiting a field of flowers in bloom - that is the ultimate sensory experience,” she said. “People love to immerse themselves among the sunflowers and lavender fields, or literally tiptoe through the tulips.”

Erica Hobbs is a writer based in Detroit with a passion for arts and culture and travel. She has reported for numerous news outlets including the Detroit News, Fodors, Business Insider, Reuters, WDET and AnnArbor.com (now the Ann Arbor News), among others.
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