A cut flower above the rest
“The environment definitely provides a natural advantage,” says Rob Sadler, the farm manager and a director of the family company started by his parents John and Jan. “We have an ideal microclimate, with mild winters and summers cooled by the ocean so that it never gets too hot. This allows for slower flower growth, resulting in stronger stems, greener foliage and longer vase life. We also have high light intensity, which results in a more robust product and higher colour intensity, and our fertile, volcanic soils provide strong and rigid flower stems.”
If the quality of the flowers reflects the superior environment in which they are grown, and the brand becomes synonymous with that quality, then the branding also becomes an advantage: a marketing strategy Rob has been working on since he returned to the family farm six years ago after studying business in Brisbane.
“In an increasingly competitive market, you need to use every advantage you can,” says Rob.
This includes an extensive and hard-earned growing, harvesting and post-harvest knowledge of lilies, which are an extremely difficult and intensive crop to grow.
“Even after 15 years of growing lilies we are still learning,” says Rob. “Lilies are susceptible to disease and need a lot attention. They require specific soil conditions, which is an area we have really focused on.”
While Rob credits the “giant air conditioner” of Bass Strait as the farm’s greatest natural blessing – a 40 degree day elsewhere in the State will only be 25 degrees at Flowerdale – the scientific enhancement of the soil’s natural quality also has much to do with the excellence of the flowers.
“About four years ago we went down the path of a biological growing regime, which means getting the soil 100 percent right so that the plant’s health just piggybacks off that and looks after itself. We put a lot of organic matter into the soil, such as green manure, compost, seaweed, and fish emulsion to feed the microbes. We also use mustard mulch as a biofumigant.
“This has all led to a heavy reduction in disease and significantly less fertiliser and pesticide use. Besides benefiting the plants it makes a much healthier and more pleasant working environment for us.”
This is good news for the half dozen permanent employees and 20 or more seasonal workers required at peak times for the extremely labour intensive business. In the five month growing season commencing in October, about two million stems will be carefully picked, bunched and packed by hand at the farm. Most will have come from within the protection of 1.6ha of plastic hothouses before ending up in 5-stem bunches in the farm’s cool rooms. Within 24 hours from there they are shipped along a “cold chain” with an ideal set temperature to all corners of Australia, either via wholesale flower markets or big supermarkets.
Meeting the demand of peak times such as Valentines Day and Mothers Day requires careful planning, with a big planting of the desired colours scheduled about three months before so as to bloom at the right time. But weather plays a part and can bring on flowering early, so some luck is also necessary. Weather also means the market is volatile, with a heat wave on the mainland capable of bringing on the flowering to such an extent that the market is flooded and prices halve or more overnight.
Nonetheless it is a high value crop and a significant investment in new state of the art glasshouses to be constructed by the middle of next year at the Flowerdale farm will add to the natural advantage, enabling year round production and increasing the annual harvest to more than 3 million stems. Imported from the floraculture Mecca of Holland in 20 shipping containers, the new glasshouses will cover 2ha and feature a sophisticated computerized weather forecasting system.
“It predicts the localized weather based on accumulated data so that it pre-empts events,” says Rob. “This will allow us to stay one step ahead and try to create the most perfect growing environment inside according to outside conditions.
“Being able to grow all year around means that we can supply our clients with flowers whenever they want them. It also means we can take on more permanent staff and not lose good people because of the seasonal nature of our present growing regime.”
It’s a long way from the carnations Rob’s mother Jan began tinkering with in a shed on the family dairy farm back in 1982. A friend of hers had told her of the demand for flowers at the Sydney markets and suggested Flowerdale would be a good place to grow them. It was a prophetic remark indeed.
The next generation have taken it well beyond anything that could have been imagined three decades ago. Rob’s sister Pip runs another section of the family business (with outside partners) which mass-produces many millions of lily bulbs, most of which are grown into cut flowers at the farm.
The poet John Keats once famously wrote that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever,” and with the Flowerdale Flowers mission statement to “continually strive to create bigger smiles with quality flowers”, Rob considers himself in the happiness business.
“That and getting blokes out of trouble,” he grins, and the lilies he grows are so bright and beautiful that it is hard to imagine a blunder for which a bunch of the blooms would not help earn forgiveness.
Tasmania Online | Service Tasmania
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