The HVADC Cultivator
FFBA Participant Suzanne Balet-Haight of Balet Flowers & Design
Suzanne Balet-Haight of Balet Flowers and Design in Saratoga County is a participant in the Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Development Corporation (HVADC) Farm & Food Business Accelerator (FFBA) program. Suzanne started her business in 1995 on five acres of land on her parent’s farm. As a young girl, Balet would accompany her parents to the farmers’ markets, where they sold vegetables and flowers. The flowers became so popular that the family began to grow more varieties to meet the demand. Balet initially became interested in horticulture through 4-H, it has been a long time love of hers. While in 4-H, Balet grew plants and flowers for entry in the County Fair, where she won and eventually went on to show at the state and national levels. Her interest in and passion for horticulture led her to study it at both SUNY Cobleskill and Cornell University. She knew without a doubt that she wanted to open her own business featuring the many plants and flowers she loved to grow.
During internships and jobs with producers at different estates in Florida, Balet learned more about commercial growing, landscaping and the planting of perennials and trees on large properties. In 1995 Balet decided to take the plunge and open her own business on 5 acres of her parent’s farm and one small greenhouse. In addition to selling at farmers’ markets, Balet began selling perennials, annuals and hanging baskets at the farm. Over the years Balet Flowers and Design has grown and diversified, they now design and plant gardenscapes, maintain gardens, and style flowers for weddings and other events. Balet and her crew of 12 share all of the jobs, that way each person can help with growing, marketing, gardenscapes, weddings, and retail sales. Balet’s staff is made up of very experienced and knowledgeable gardeners, and she loves that Balet Flowers and Design is not just a business that sells plants, but also a place that customers can come to learn and get information about what they want to grow. Thanks to the expertise and skill of their staff, Balet Flowers and Design are able to offer information, advice and assistance, and this sets Balet apart from other garden centers. Balet takes pride in going above and beyond to satisfy and inform her customers. Many of the plants she sells have full grown examples right on the farm, so customers are able to see what the plants will look like prior to purchasing them. She also sells vegetable plants and likes to encourage people to grow their own food. Customers are invited to stroll amongst the 5 acres of flowers, pick their own bouquets and get the full experience of a flower farm.
Balet likes growing new and different types of flowers, the size of the flower farm enables her to grow the ‘reliables’ while also allowing her to experiment with new types of plants and flowers. She then learns by trial and error what will and will not work. Balet grows almost everything they sell, from seed and also from plugs. They do not spray in the greenhouse and use “good” insects to control the insects that are harmful to the plants.
Balet’s grandfather was an artist, and she channels her inherited artistic energy in to pottery, which is also for sale at the farm and some of which she uses to showcase the flowers. Balet uses the winter season as the time to create her pottery and views it as a fun way to use her artistic side and as a nice therapeutic way to get through winter. Throwing the clay for her pottery provides Balet with an opportunity to think out different plans for her business.
The flower business has always been who Balet is, it is her love and her passion. Balet appreciates the changing seasons and their offerings, loves the varying flowers at different times of the year – the bright yellows and whites of daffodils in spring, peonies in summer and dahlias in the fall. She also loves flower varieties that can be dried, as they get a second life when dried and can be worked in to a wreath or ornamental hanging.
Located just 3 miles from the city of Saratoga, Balet sees most of her business in the form of retail sales at the farm. Gardenscapes are also very popular. When asked which aspect of the business she enjoys the most, Balet states that she likes it all. She loves the fact that something that grows one way in one yard may grow completely differently in someone else’s yard due to differences in light, soil etc… She loves wedding floral design, all of the different types of bouquets, the styles and textures. Balet places great importance upon being able to offer local flowers for events, and tries to encourage her special event customers to use local flowers as much as possible. Providing fresh, local and seasonal flowers allows Balet to offer a wider array of options, and flowers from her garden look more beautiful than those that have been shipped from elsewhere.
Balet also teaches classes through Saratoga Continuing Education on growing vegetables and herbs and gives informational talks at the Saratoga Library.
Goals for this year include focusing on building a stronger social media presence that creates a place where people can go for information about gardening and anything related to gardening. Further down the road, Balet envisions building a big and beautiful post and beam barn to increase the retail space as well as provide a location for community and non-profit events, weddings and showers. One reason that she became involved in the FFBA program was to grow sales so that the dream of the expanded retail and event space can become a reality.
Balet’s advice to anyone thinking of starting a small business like hers is: “Be ready to work!”. At the start of her business, Balet put in a tremendous amount of hours, working until 10 or 11 at night, but Balet now emphasizes a more healthy work –life balance. While Balet loves the diversity of her work, the many segments (gardenscaping, weddings, cut flowers, greenhouse, etc…) make life very busy, so she suggests perhaps scaling back to a more sustainable level. Having a business plan right from the beginning and doing your homework before starting the business are two things that Balet feels would help to make running a business in the early years more manageable. She wants to keep her staff to it’s current number as she likes the size and feels it allows the staff to all be on the same page. She never wants the business to get so big that she doesn’t know some of the people working for her.
Balet first heard of HVADC and the FFBA through American Farmland Trust. The FFBA has helped her work smarter not harder, to learn the business side of horticulture, which she did not learn in college. Balet has especially appreciated the mentors and peer leaders that she has met through the FFBA, and the opportunities presented by working closely with the other FFBA participants and mentors.
The FFBA experience has shown Balet that she is not alone – that at times it can be truly difficult to be a small business owner. She has found it helpful to discuss different strategies with her FFBA colleagues, whether it be the best marketing strategy or how to hire great employees. Having a sounding board for her experiences, as well as new connections to reach out to has been a big advantage of the FFBA. There is a great feeling of rapport within the group, people are open to sharing their experiences and what they have done to make their businesses better. Balet would highly recommend the FFBA program to anyone who is interested or thinks they may benefit from it.
If you, or someone that you know, would like to be a participant in the next FFBA program, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.