Ag entrepreneur blooming through flower project
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (Oct. 17, 2017) — Lilli Kahl knew she’d get a two-year degree when she enrolled in the University of Maryland’s Institute of Applied Agriculture. But she didn’t know she’d get to test drive her farm business idea — and to see it flourish in the campus environment.
What started as an experiment on a small plot at the university’s two-acre farm soon blossomed into a full-fledged flower subscription service that, though technically a student project, gave Kahl firsthand experience of what it might be like to run a similar business off campus.
By this spring, Kahl had 20 customers who had paid almost $100 apiece to receive 16 weekly shares of the vibrant bouquets she was growing at Terp Farm.
“We had deadlines to meet and customers to satisfy—it was terrifying!” Kahl, who worked for Bartlett Tree Experts before starting the program at age 26, wrote in a reflection on the project. “It was as if the flowers and I were growing side by side, balancing the ups and downs together.”
The campus flower project also sold bouquets a la carte at the farmers market and wholesale to the university’s Department of Dining Services. The project was so popular that Kahl continued to intern at Terp Farm to see it through the summer months — and the flower business will continue to be run by other students as Kahl moves on.
“It’s been wildly successful,” said Meredith Epstein, a lecturer and advisor in the IAA’s sustainable agriculture program who helped Kahl with the project.
She said the project wouldn’t have gotten so much traction without the support of the campus’ Dining Services, which also purchases produce from Terp Farm.
“The leadership of Dining Services saying, ‘Yes, we want to see these flowers on our tables’ — even though they deal primarily in food — that gave us this awesome platform for turning a student project into something real,” Epstein said.
She’s since seen other students, inspired by Kahl’s entrepreneurial endeavor, crafting their coursework to independently pursue their farm business ideas on campus. That’s one of the goals of the university’s unique, two-year program focused that launched in 2010 to provide an educational on-ramp to students wanting to pursue agricultural careers.
For Kahl, the program, along with Terp Farm and Dining Services, functioned as both a safety net and business incubator.
The idea for the project was first planted during a course on analyzing alternative enterprises that was included in her sustainable agriculture concentration.
Epstein also brought in experts who are working in related agricultural fields to speak to the students, which helped Kahl develop a vision for the venture. She got to hear from Laura Beth Resnick of Butterbee Farms in Pikesville, Md., who started her cut-flowers business a few years ago after interning at another Maryland farm.
There was also a presentation from the family behind the Jarrettsville, Md.-based Flowers by Bauers, which includes two brothers and a son who all graduated from the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Kahl’s flower venture went so well that she is now looking to parlay the experience into a job or internship at a flower farm, with hopes of one day launching her own.
Epstein said she is working with a new crop of students interested in cut-flower farming to continue the CSA program into the next season.
“From a business standpoint, people realize how profitable (cut flowers) can be — it’s more profitable per square foot than any vegetable,” Epstein said. “And there also seems to be more of a passion for it in some of these students.”