Duluth couple's flower farm a blossoming family biz

Melinda Lavine
Forum News Service

DULUTH, Minn. — Derek Hoffbauer grew up growing vegetables on his family’s farm. As an adult, he traded the sweet corn, beans and potatoes for dahlias, sunflowers and peonies.

He and his wife, Brook, run Duluth Flower Farm. What started as a cut-flower business has evolved into a year-round florist and wreath operation.

The idea came when Derek’s parents had been growing gladiolus. Derek started dahlias in the greenhouse, and there, they found a niche in the locally grown flower market. “Duluth’s a big wedding town,” he said.

Today, he and Brook grow a few veggies on their 20 acres, and they have more than 100 types of flowers, including lisianthus, dianthus, cosmos and ageratum.

Dahlias are their No. 1 specialty, he said.

Turn into the flower farm on Rose Road to see the Hoffbauer home and fields with patches of red, burgundy, gold, yellow and lavender.

Marigolds run in a line, natural fencing because deer don’t like them, Brook said.

There’s a root cellar nestled into a mound of earth, and their “she shed,” which acts as an office, storage and bouquet area, sits next to their sauna.

On a recent Thursday, construction was underway on a seed-starting, polycarbonate greenhouse. It cost $4,000 to keep their current greenhouse warm this spring, and this’ll make heating their flowers more affordable.

Daily operations differ with the seasons. They finish ordering seeds in January, and they transplant them as soon as the weather allows. There’s a lot of seeding in March, and they try to have everything in the ground by Memorial Day. That increases the chance of being able to sell their products longer. They wrap up flowers around the first frost in late fall, early winter. Then, they turn their focus on balsam fir wreaths and trees.

They’re in their fifth year, and farming ain’t easy, Brook said. She likens it sometimes to caring for an infant. She has an alarm by her bed at night, and when temps drop during growing season, she heads out to cover the flowers.

And you can prepare for everything, but know that nature has its way.

“We’ve had a whole entire sunflower field fall over, and we’ve had the side of the greenhouse come up and all the tomatoes die. You just have to take those risks and be able to bounce back from them,” Brook said.

The flowers can also get fungus, they can get “stressed out” and wilted if it’s too hot in the greenhouse. “The best remedy is a farmer’s shadow,” Derek said. That means keeping an eye on plants daily to head off problems that can be avoided.

It helps to be resilient and strong and to partner with other farmers, so you’re not isolated, Brook said. And the couple has support with familial experience and good mentors.

Getting started was a slow process of preparing soil for perennials. “It takes time to create that healthy earth,” she said.

It also took time to build personal relationships.

For the first three years, Derek was their only delivery person, making first contact and growing connections. Now, he spends his days making deliveries, picking stems and making sales.

Brook manages their four children and the on-site operations, working with the floral designers and farm employees.

In the summer, mornings are often for picking, and afternoons are spent working on wedding or grocery store orders. During a recent visit, she went over some wedding designs with farmer and florist Rita Morris.

As their main designer, part of her role is to use what they grow locally or get from wholesalers to create what clients want. That sometimes means reinforcing “Mother Nature is in charge,” and finding seasonal substitutions. For example, they don’t grow roses, but they offer aesthetically similar lisianthus and ranunculus, she said.

Morris creates her designs in an intuitive way. She tries not to micromanage the flowers’ beauty, allowing the flowers and greens to speak for themselves.

“We spend a lot of time and put a lot of effort into these,” Brook said. They go to sellers in the Twin Cities, local florists and farmers’ markets. And bouquets are used for a spectrum of messages and events: get well, just because, weddings and celebrations of life.

“Flowers say what words can’t,” Brook said. “They bring beauty to situations that are fun or hard, and they have a presence in the room that creates joy and empathy.”

What’s next is learning more and connecting with other farmers; the acreage and space they have is manageable for now, they said.

In the she shed, there’s a hamper full of “second cuts,” flowers not presentable enough for sale, that are ready to be composted. Also buckets and buckets of fresh flowers ready to be made into a bouquet.

Outside, Brandy Schultz washed used buckets for the cut flowers — a part of their post-harvest technique to keep the new cuts fresh. Schultz helps man the flower table at the farmers’ markets, and she works on-site during various seasonal tasks.

In the future, Schultz wants to work with new farmers on environmentally friendly farming techniques, and the hands-on experience at flower farm is helping lay the groundwork for her education, she said.

Schultz’s favorite part of the job is the variety, and seeing the fruits of her labor.

“Watching something grow from a tiny little plantling, and then you’re using it in your bouquets and it’s going off to a wedding. It’s cool,” she said. “Everybody loves flowers.”

Derek Hoffbauer picks zinnias at Duluth Flower Farm on July 25.