Winds of change influence Coastal sunflower grower
PICAYUNE, Miss. -- What was once a Grade A dairy farm for more than 20 years now serves as the flower farm owned by Terri Doyle and her husband, Dave.
Located on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Coastal Ridge Farm offers fresh bouquets that can be found at Rouse's Markets in the New Orleans area and on the coast from May to November.
"The dairy industry had been getting tougher every year for small dairies," Terri Doyle explained. "When Hurricane Katrina hit and destroyed a lot of our property, Dave and I decided it was time to close the dairy."
The Doyles sold their cows and dairy equipment and spent a few years selling hay and doing other odd jobs before Terri Doyle entertained the idea of growing flowers.
“Before the hurricane, I had begun growing a few cut flowers and selling them to florists and at farmers markets. We expanded our farmers market sales for a few years, but it wasn’t until two years ago that we investigated the possibility of selling wholesale sunflower bunches to grocery store floral departments,” she said.
The couple found that there is a market for sunflowers and that they grow well in the coastal climate. Now, sunflower production occupies their time for about six months of the year, and the plants are their main crop during the summer.
“We really enjoy focusing on sunflowers. They are just a big, bright flower with a cheerful nature that’s hard to ignore,” Terri Doyle said. “The sunflowers we grow are hybrids, bred specifically for cut flower use in a vase. They don’t shed pollen or make seeds, so they are not good for snacking or sunflower oil. However, they do make a beautiful vase arrangement, which can last over a week with proper care.”
In some ways, growing sunflowers is similar to raising dairy cattle, she said.
“I’ve found it is best to get up pretty early for harvesting because it gets hot later! Plus, harvesting takes place every day, sometimes twice a day, just like milking cows,” she said.
The middle of the day is prime time for Dave Doyle to catch up on field work such as planting and tilling. His wife spends that time on paperwork and brainstorming new marketing techniques.
“In the evening, I bundle the sunflowers into bouquet bunches, selecting each flower individually, which is referred to as drop cutting. Then bouquets are placed in protective plastic sleeves, carefully labeled, and positioned in the cooler to be sold the next day,” Terri Doyle explained.
Coastal Ridge Farm places a high priority on soil improvement.
“The excess plant material from the sunflowers is turned back into the soil, and we add lime and other nutrients,” Terri said. “This fall, we hope to try some cover cropping, with the green matter being turned back into the soil before the first sunflower planting next spring.”
To keep their business thriving, the Doyles continuously explore new sales possibilities, new methods to improve soil health and new ideas to expand the farm.
“As big farms consolidate and grow even bigger, small farms sometimes struggle to exist and remain profitable. Looking deeper into new and slightly unusual agricultural products, such as cut flowers, has proven to be a good way for this small farm to continue to operate,” she added.
Sunflower farming was never an aspiration for Terri Doyle. In fact, she had never even heard of such a thing. Even so, raising sunflowers has turned out to be the best business for them, post-Katrina and post-dairy business, she said.
From raising dairy cattle to harvesting sunflowers, Terri Doyle said she cannot get enough of the farmer’s life.
“Dave grew up on a farm and has farmed all of his adult life. Even though I married into farming, I can’t think of anything else I would rather do,” Terri said. “We like the casual lifestyle, don’t mind the hard work or long hours, and really enjoy our customers.”
James DelPrince, horticulture specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, got to know Terri Doyle through the Ocean Springs Fresh Market, where she has sold flowers for 12 years. DelPrince said she is one of the few pioneering flower farmers in the state and predicts she will continue to lead as other farmers join in floriculture production.
“Terri is an ideal contact for us in Extension -- always participating in our floral design demonstrations, attending the annual Producer Advisory Council and supporting floral design programs. In September, her floral products will be featured in a national-level exposition at the Society of American Florists annual convention as part of the MSU Extension Beautiful Things from Mississippi marketing initiative,” DelPrince said.
At the MSU Extension Coastal “Sunflower Seminar,” an informative workshop on Aug. 15 in Bay St. Louis, Coastal Ridge Farm will be in attendance with some flowers and educational information.
Another upcoming event for Coastal Ridge Farm this year is a Sunflower U-Pick in October. Attendees will have the opportunity to cut their own flowers in the fields. An array of flowers will be available. For more information, visit http://www.sunflowerUpick.com or http://www.coastalridgefarm.com.
Contact: Terri Doyle, 601-918-3770; Dr. James DelPrince, 228-546-1011