2023 Speaker Profile: LENNIE LARKIN
We've invited experienced farmer-florist and first-time author Lennie Larkin of B-Side Farm to talk about her upcoming book, Flower Farming For Profit, and to share her methods on building profitable businesses through first understanding your true costs. She'll present a breakdown of "The Flower Dollar," a visual interpretation of costs from administration to farm supplies, land costs, payroll and profit. This disciplined goal-setting approach is designed to empower flower farmers and floral designers alike in understanding costs, pricing and profitability.
When I talk to Lennie Larkin in early April, it’s the first day of the season for her Warren, Oregon, flower farm. “I just harvested the first 20 bunches of tulips,” she tells me. But that was just a tiny part of the business day at B-Side Farm. Her partner Matt Elias is setting up their new walk-in cooler, she had a morning one-on-one consultation with a home gardener to help plan a cutting garden, and she’s just off a two-hour Zoom meeting with a colleague from Oregon Tilth—an organization striving to make food and agricultural systems biologically sound and socially equitable—as they wrap up the paperwork for a grant Lennie’s finalizing on the profitability of specific flower crops. “That’s a good cross section of my life in one day,” she says.
Those 20 bunches were the first of the 12,000 tulips Lennie hurriedly planted in the fall when she moved to B-Side’s new location. After farming for just over a decade in California, the couple started fresh in Oregon in 2022. It was tough to leave her flowers, including the field of about 3,000 peonies she’d nurtured in California, but with family in Oregon and land that they could afford to buy, it’s feeling like a good move.
The eclectic nature of Lennie’s day, speaks to her breadth of experience and knowledge in community building, growing, and business, and also to her love of teaching. Her path to flower farming, though, was a winding one. She started off in social work and adult education, but soon realized that being outside was a priority and enrolled in the six-month farm program at UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food systems. A job running the educational farm Petaluma Bounty that followed a year or so later melded Lennie’s passion for farming with teaching and community work, but the flowers didn’t come right away. “I’m not a chef or a cook,” she says, “and I kind of hate cooking. I didn’t have the connection to vegetables because I wasn’t as excited about the end result.” The excitement quotient changed when she found flowers. “It happened slowly because I didn’t see flowers as an everyday necessity, but they opened up so much inside of me,” she says. “They’ve helped me to become a more present, focused, and happy person.”
“It’s never profit by any means possible,” she says. “It’s always, how strong can you make your business in order for it to support you and to be sustainable into the future, while taking care of your employees, the soil, and your community.”
B-Side Farm was born in 2014 and Lennie has “literally done it all” to find her niche—CSAs, weddings, direct sales to florists, wholesaling, specialty grocery stores, farmers markets, and more recently a highly successful farm stand in California. “That was a hard thing to leave behind,” she says. But all of those experiences helped hone her business and her philosophy behind it. “It took me a long time to realize that I was really interested in business,” she says, and, to her, business comes with caveats. “It’s never profit by any means possible,” she says. “It’s always, how strong can you make your business in order for it to support you and to be sustainable into the future, while taking care of your employees, the soil, and your community.”
Lennie has translated her experience into a strong suite of workshops, study groups, and one-on-one consulting, specializing in business efficiency and profitability. “We need to quiet the noise in order to identify the business opportunities that come along and to know what’s going to be worthwhile for the farm and the farmer,” she says.
Ever the educator—and informed by close observation of people interacting with her flowers, including overheard mutterings comparing her cost to that of a supermarket bouquet—Lennie created her successful flower dollar poster. “I was trying to think of ways to let my customers know how labor intensive and expensive it is to grow flowers without shaming them,” she says of the beautiful pie chart-style poster in which each petal-filled piece of pie portrays true costs of growing flowers from insurance and permits to bulbs and seeds. The poster was a way to get the message out in judgement-free way, without having to explain the pricing time and again. “People don’t want to spend money with you if they feel shamed or guilted or if they feel any negative emotions,” she says.
Lennie will be sharing the flower dollar poster at the Slow Flowers Summit as she talks about managing a floral business for profitability with a firm grasp on the true cost of flowers. She will also be sharing insights from her forthcoming book, Flower Farming for Profit, which is set to launch later this year. “It’s a handbook on everything other than growing actual plants,” she explains. “It’s how to run your business, how to think about hiring your first employee, how to think about profitability and legal issues, and everything else involved in the small business side of flower farming.”
To Lennie, writing and publishing a book is a dream come true. But getting the book deal, and with coveted publisher Chelsea Green, is testament to her clear vision when it comes to business. “I went straight to them,” she says of Chelsea Green, “I wasn’t going to mess around with another publisher.” She made a clear case for the book’s market niche and why she was the one to write it. “I’m not the best farmer in the world and I certainly don’t have a lifetime of farming experience, but I love flower farmers,” she says, “and my biggest skill is translating information in an approachable way in bite-sized chunks.”
Summit participants will be in good hands with Lennie as she delivers a healthy serving of business insight. She’s a creative and caring teacher with a passion for sustainability—of flower farms and flower farmers.
Slow Flowers Summit welcomes Adrienne Mason as our profile contributor for the 2023 season. Adrienne Mason is a writer and editor based on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. She specializes in writing about science, nature, and the cultural history of the west coast. She is the author of over 30 books for both adults and children, the most recent of which is Whales to the Rescue. Adrienne also specializes in writing for museums, parks, and interpretive centers, and her work is in dozens of exhibits across Canada. When she’s not at her desk, Adrienne spends as much time as possible outdoors—hiking, camping, beachcombing, and in her garden, to which she recently added two large cut flower beds. Visit Adrienne at adriennemason.com.