Innovator’s Spotlight: Finding a Niche Market with Woody Florals

Innovator's Spotlight 5-14-14By Kimberly Stuhr
When their twin sons, Kirk and Craig, left home to attend college, Gary and Nancy Eberle decided it was time get out of the hog business. For the next 15 years this land sat fallow. The Eberle’s run a no-till corn and soybean operation near Bradshaw, Neb. They have been long-time active Farm Bureau members from York county.
Gary and Nancy wanted to find a niche crop to grow, something that would supplement their income and add diversity to the operation. Nancy explained that the 10-acre parcel is protected by windbreaks on two sides and has several outbuildings. Consequently, the ground can’t be farmed conventionally. “Plus, after raising hogs for many years, this is some good fertile soil,” Nancy said. “Letting the land sit idle was not the best use of our land resources.”
At first, the Eberle’s considered growing grapes. They learned, however, that because of the windbreaks the land was not conducive for grape production.
Innovator Corner - nancy Eberly -curly willowThis knowledge led Gary and Nancy to look into the Nebraska Woody Floral Cooperative. With interest, they attended the Coop’s second annual conference in Mead, Neb. They left knowing that they found their niche.
According the Coop’s website, woody florals are “shrubs or trees with colorful or unusual shaped stems, buds, flowers, berries or bark that are harvested and sold. Stems are used to enhance dried or fresh floral and outdoor container arrangements by adding interesting color, texture and form.”
Nancy explains, “Woody plants and shrubs can be planted on ground that does not produce well for conventional farming. They also are a great addition to buffer strips along stream banks, in windbreaks and alongside living snowfences to buffer winds and collect water. This aids in the productivity and environmental sustainability of the land.”
Innovators Corner - Pansies and WoodiesThe Eberle’s paid their one-time membership fee to join the Coop, and purchased 60 plants in three varieties from their local NRD. The Coop is fully owned by independent, farm-based family businesses like the Eberle’s that grow a variety of woody floral products to sell to the cooperative for wholesale and retail sales.
“Being members of the Coop makes our job easy,” Nancy said. “They do all the marketing, and they provide ongoing education to us about plant care, harvest timing and quality control of the final product.”
The Coop usually calls members around mid-September each year to find out how much each grower can commit to sell. In late October, stems are cut and sorted according to length, and then bundled. Growers deliver their stems to Mead for distribution. “Stems are identified with grower numbers,” Nancy says. “It is really fun to walk into a store and see our stems.”
The Eberle’s have been growing and expanding their stems for six years. Today they grow corkscrew willow, curly willow, scarlet curls, red twig dogwood, yellow twig dogwood, cardinal dogwood and flame willow.
“For all of us that are involved in production agriculture, it doesn’t hurt us to look outside the box and see places that we can add value.” Nancy continues, “Our little acreage is adding value to our farm. Growing woody florals is interesting and we really enjoy working with the stems.”
For more information about the Nebraska Woody Floral Cooperative, visit nebraskawoodyflorals.com.

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