Business is blooming

California Organic Flowers is firmly planted in Chico

Marc Kessler wheels out a bunch of freshly picked flowers on a recent morning at California Organic Flowers.

Marc Kessler wheels out a bunch of freshly picked flowers on a recent morning at California Organic Flowers.

Photo by Stacey Kennelly

It’s simple: Flowers make people happy. But the business of growing them isn’t quite so clear-cut.

“It’s great in a way, but there is, oddly—and I think everyone in the flower business knows this—there’s a lot of pressure,” said Marc Kessler, owner of California Organic Flowers (formerly Terra Bella Designs), as he stood in a packaging room and office attached to his home. “There’s not a single one of these orders that doesn’t have a strong emotion tied to it. They’re counting on us to deliver their message.”

Just off Nord Avenue and down Oak Way, Kessler’s three-acre farm is across the quiet street where he lives with his family. It’s hard to believe the quaint space produces millions of certified-organic flowers and ships thousands of orders nationwide each year, but Kessler and his family manage it by organizing plant rotations, planning a year in advance and planting more than three times the amount they think they’ll use. He pays attention to diversity and plants early and late cycles to ensure the farm always has a supply to fall back on if the weather gets funky.

“We always have too much or too little,” he said. “We never have just the right amount.”

Employee Julie Anderson picks fresh ranunculus.

Photo Courtesy of California Organic Flowers

On top of that, only about half of the flowers grown make the cut for sale. To be sold, they must have long stems and closed buds to survive the time it takes to reach their destinations.

The holidays are the trickiest, Kessler says, when no one will buy a single orange flower the day after Thanksgiving and the winter months bring cold weather. And that’s not even to mention the fickle weather in springtime, when the farm does three months’ worth of business during the week of Mother’s Day.

Kessler didn’t grow up in the flower business, but the calm, earthy man has a background in biology and a passion for natural systems. He also enjoys the added challenge of growing a variety of flowers and producing colorful combinations in different weather conditions.

“It sort of appeals to the mad scientist in me,” he said. “I can experiment out here and try things.”

The farm was crisply green and lacked its usual vibrant colors on a recent Friday morning, since three employees had already snipped and begun preparing that day’s crop long before 10 a.m. Two side-by-side greenhouses take the edge off the cold weather for some flowers in the coldest winter months. February’s crop consists of buttercup-like anemones and narcissus—and fragrant, yellow flowers. The next big crop is ranunculus—a vibrant, rose-like flower that customers love because of its long life—and Dutch irises and tulips.

Co-owner Julia Keener sorts tulips.

Photo Courtesy of California Organic Flowers

“We’re raising flowers, that’s the neat part of it,” he said. “But for me, it’s the natural systems and watching the shows—that’s what keeps me doing it.”

It’s clear what the space means to Kessler as he looks at it on a gray, brisk morning (perfect winter flower weather, he’ll tell you). He notices the first bluebird of the season land on one of the many bluebird boxes, and talks about how wasps came in one season and took care of his caterpillar problem.

“By putting the farm here, we’ve created a habitat that attracts animals,” he said. “It’s a vibrant system of organisms that just find us, we don’t find them.”

Kessler moved to Chico from Idaho in the mid-’90s with his wife, Julia Keener, in search of a longer growing season and better schools for their son. The family moved to their Oak Way location in 2003.

When they lived in Idaho, the family focused mostly on providing flowers for weddings. They often found themselves swamped with requests for wildflowers during Idaho’s three-month growing season.

Surplus appears at the Saturday Farmers Market.

Photo Courtesy of California Organic Flowers

“But we found that folks [in Chico] don’t want the wildflower weddings, they want the formal ones,” he said.

Soon, Kessler found himself shipping South American flowers into Chico, some of which were grown with pesticides. So the family dropped the wedding part and started doing business online. They still sell wedding flowers in bulk, and even feature wedding packages online, but the rest is do-it-yourself.

It’s been five years since Kessler made the switch from Terra Bella Designs and became California Organic Flowers—a name that’s more descriptive and better for business—and took sales online. Now, about 99 percent of his business is done online, and he ships thousands of orders each year to 48 states (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). Surplus, short-stemmed and full-bloom flowers are sold at the Saturday Farmers Market, where the community can enjoy the instant gratification of locally grown flowers.

Kessler said that when his online sales fell with the economy, he saw sales at the farmers’ market noticeably improve.

“I think when people see all those AIGs and Bank of Americas, it’s all too far away. People want to hand a $5 bill to someone local,” he said.

Kessler also noted that the nature of his business is good for the local economy.

“We’re growing something with very little input,” he said. “We’re spending very little outside of Chico, and yet we’re bringing all the money back into Chico.”