Red Twig Farms: Cultivating Peonies, People and Profit in Johnstown
Just East of New Albany, in Johnstown, sits a sight for the ages, come late spring. There, on Josh and Lindsey McCullough’s property, Red Twig Farms, peonies are preparing to bloom in late May, a frilly riot of pale pink, crimson, magenta, and all hues in between. Theirs is a working flower and twig farm, and a study in business, passion, family, gumption, and success.
Seize the Gap
Red Twig Farm’s story resembles its blooms: complex, multi-layered, lovely. Red Twig’s roots took hold in 1997, when Karl and Terri, along with sons Josh and Nick, founded McCullough’s Landscape & Nursery. Dedicated to highend residential gardening, the New Albany-based company grew and prospered alongside its flourishing hometown, expanding to become an award-winning firm. By the late aughts, however, the McCulloughs observed that the branches were prized by their landscape clients for winter arrangements—the vibrant red and yellow dogwood, shapely curly willow, and timeless pussy willow stems—and saw the opportunity to grow their own twigs.
“Never one to back down from a challenge,” Terri says, the McCulloughs saw opportunity in this market gap. So in 2009, Karl, Terri, and Josh, entered into a partnership, purchased land, and set out to build Red Twig Farms, to meet their own landscaping firm’s branch needs, and those of the greater marketplace.
From Branches to Blooms
Their enterprising efforts bore fruit. In five short years, Red Twig Farms has not only filled its sister company’s needs, but become an esteemed national supplier of high-quality willow and dogwood branches, establishing wholesale accounts in 15 states, and counting. Lightweight, non-perishable, and easy to ship, Red Twig Farm’s vibrant branches attracted a following, and allowed the McCulloughs to extend their reach (and revenues) well beyond Central Ohio. Moreover, the fall and winter stem harvest dovetailed beautifully with waning landscaping demands, providing work for the nursery’s crew.
Still, “there were a few acres of land, and the spring season of harvesting that we still needed to fill with crop.” Ever-resourceful, perennially astute, the McCulloughs began casting about to re-frame this problem as potential.
Guided by Nick, head of the family’s design firm, and a rising star in the landscaping industry, the McCulloughs explored the idea of filling those empty acres with that late spring stunner—the peony. Not only are peonies deer-resistant, and well-suited to Red Twig Farm’s particular plot, but the gorgeous blooms are a welcome harbinger of spring to brides and Ohioans everywhere, all so over winter. And then, there’s the happy factor: “Peonies make people smile,” Terri notes, speaking to the flower’s nostalgic tug. “So many people are reminded of their grandmas’ gardens when they see the blooms, me included.”
And so, the peony planting began.
Local Advantage, Long Reach
Instant gratifiers, peonies are not. It would be three years of hard work and investment in drainage, irrigation, weed management, soil prep, securing stock, planting, and cultivating, before the McCulloughs could harvest their first crop. Their patience paid off.
In a few short years, Red Twig has become one of Central Ohio’s leading peony growers. Their wholesale business runs the gamut from dozens of family florists to several area Whole Foods. In building their brand, they’ve leveraged new-fangled and old-fashioned channels, alike, to get their flowers in front of potential customers.
A professional website, elegant and clean, has proven a valuable sales tool, for blooms and twigs both. Borrowing from his McCullough’s Landscape experience, which includes a lively blog and Pinterest presence boasting an extraordinary 3.5 million followers, Nick and his wife, Allison, were instrumental in spearheading Red Twig’s online presence. Allison is the marketing director for McCullough’s Landscaping, and designed Red Twig Farms’ website. Lindsey, Josh’s wife, maintains Red Twig Farms’ Facebook page, alerting “friends” to upcoming market appearances. Merging the modern art of social media with the ancient art of agriculture, Red Twig Farms has positioned itself as a contemporary grower.
Equally important has been the tried-and-true practice of personal outreach. Placing peonies in hand, giving wholesale prospects free flowers, has proven a winning strategy. “Nothing speaks louder than product,” Josh observes. And Red Twig peonies are particularly eloquent.
They’re still in discovery mode, Karl points out, establishing relationships, respecting pre-existing contracts, learning the wholesale buyer’s timeline. And even as the floral market globalizes, with blooms shipped to Ohio from far-off Holland, Karl underscores that “the local player has the advantage, since they don’t have the distribution costs.” That is, as long as the product is quality, and the price right. Check, check. With their premium peonies, horticultural expertise, and sophisticated processing, the McCulloughs are well-positioned to watch their market share grow.
Red Twig also sells peonies retail, through the New Albany and Worthington farmers markets. Karl and Josh, farm operations manager and partner, man the stands from late May through mid-June, selling their exceptional blooms directly to customers, with an enthusiasm that is “infectious.” And Columbus-area customers are quickly catching on. Market regulars know “that if they’re looking for peonies, we’re the ones,” at least during the peony’s glorious three-week heyday.
Fleeting Beauty, Enduring Commitment
The brief peony season is an intense one at Red Twig Farms; as many as 10 employees are dedicated to harvesting and processing the delicate buds. But although the harvest has a short window, “the cultivation and care to produce quality blooms lasts the rest of the season.”
Which brings us back to Red Twig’s model, and the family so carefully crafting it. Peonies are one more piece in the local agriculture puzzle the McCullough family has been assembling for nearly two decades. In conversations with Karl and Terri, the phrase “passionate about horticulture and design” is rivaled only by “phenomenal family” in frequency and sincerity. At the end of the day, the peonies are one more way to honor these twin passions.
By filling in fallow fields, providing a fresh product, and supplying another revenue stream, the peonies add one more leg to the entrepreneurial stool. “Everything we try to do, we try to diversify,” says Karl, who brings his years of managerial experience at a Fortune 500 agricultural company to bear on the McCullough’s ventures.
In turn, these ventures, ever more wide-reaching, allow three generations of McCulloughs—not only Karl and Terri and their two sons, but also their two adored daughters-in-law, and two grandkids—to braid business and lives together. “We build on each other’s strengths,” Karl says, and in so doing, the McCulloughs re-write, daily, small farming success in the 21st century.
So what does the future hold for Red Twig? Great things, if past success and pending projects are any indication. They’re working to identify expert partners to ship their perishable peonies further afield, to Cleveland, Chicago, possibly points beyond. Their twig business is strong and growing, and knows no geographical bounds.
McCullough’s Landscape & Nursery is thriving. Additionally, the family recently acquired 10 new acres, which they’re deep in the long, labor-intensive process of preparing for planting. Planting what? “We’re going to expand to more crops, but we’re letting the family decide where they want to go.”
As in all things at Red Twig, the future will be, first and foremost, a family affair.
Red Twig Farms; 14401 Jug Street Road, Johnston, Ohio 43031; 614-989-0976; redtwigfarms.com.