Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Brad Markham: The growing problem with New Zealand's floriculture industry

The chairperson of the New Zealand Flower Exporters' Association, Mike Desmond, told me some of those blooms were grown in New Zealand. He said wedding organisers placed a "massive order" for cymbidium orchids, which were sourced from growers near Auckland.

I always get such a buzz when I hear stories like this. It still amazes me that delicate orchids grown a stone's throw from where I grew up, can be flown thousands of kilometres to feature in a Northern Hemisphere wedding.

In the first week of this month, New Zealand exported 140,000 stems of cymbidium orchids. Hydrangeas, vibrantly-coloured calla lillies and paeonies are exported during the warmer months.

New Zealand exported cut flowers to 38 countries last year. Japan is traditionally our largest market.

Cut flower and foliage exports were worth $27m in 2016, up from $23m the previous year, according to Statistics New Zealand. Orchids make up the bulk of the sales at $14.6m.

But the value of the industry has halved in the past two decades. In 1995 exports hit $50m. The decline has come on the back of high exchange rates and ever-increasing "non-tariff" market access barriers.

I was surprised to learn New Zealand imports flowers.

About 40 per cent of the blooms sold through Taranaki Flower Wholesalers are grown overseas. Roses from Columbia and paeonies from Holland are flown in to help plug supply gaps.

The remaining 60 per cent of cut flowers and foliage found in florists and supermarkets across Taranaki are sourced from New Zealand growers.

Prices are fuelled by changes in trends and fashions. Proteas are back in vogue, making them difficult to source. Carnations are also popular again. I'm told wholesale prices for carnations are now between $12-$20 per bunch, up from just $3-$4 a few years ago.

John Vink of Vinks Flowers is one of a declining number of carnation growers. The business has been churning out carnations in Taranaki for 45 years. During the summer peak, it produces 8000 carnation stems a week. Currently, it's between 3000 to 4000 stems per week.

Thirteen greenhouses provide undercover growing space of 9000 square meters, enabling blooms to be produced year-round. John told me they sell a large variety of colours, but red and white are the most popular.

The bulk of the carnations are sold in Wellington. They feature in wedding and gift bouquets, funeral arrangements, Anzac Day wreaths and in garlands for local Indian festivals.

John bought the business from his parents 16 years ago. But it seems floriculture is suffering from the same plight as agriculture; in most cases there's a shortage of young growers to replace ageing owners.

Mike Desmond from the Flower Exporters' Association said the average age of growers is 58. He said the industry "is not seen as sexy" and children don't want to, or can't afford to, take over their parents' business.

How is that giving and receiving flowers is often considered extremely sexy and romantic, yet growing them isn't?

Harry Van Lier is one of the industry's fresh faces. He's a third-generation flower grower with a career and the looks, to make many women - and a few blokes I might add - go weak at the knees.

Van Lier Nurseries is the largest rose grower in the North Island. It has 1.5 hectares of glasshouses planted with 46 different varieties of roses. Harry told TVNZ's Seven Sharp it produces about 1.4m stems a year.

He said his busiest time is the period between Christmas and New Year's. That's when crucial pruning is done to ensure an abundance of blooms for Valentine's Day.

Harry's father Theo Van Lier told me he "doesn't see many people knocking on the door trying to get into floriculture". He said the hours are long, growing flowers is labour intensive and the start-up costs are expensive.

But with owners not getting any younger, the long-term survival of the industry will hinge on ways to find a solution to the problem.

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