H1: Untapped horticultural markets – what do you sell apart from veg?
Chair: Roger Hitchings (ORC)
Selling vegetables can be a tough job and this session will explore viable alternatives/additions to edible crops as ways to increase sales and attract more customers (organised with OGA).
Arjen Huese noted that the average person in the UK spends £28 a year on cut flowers. Currently, around 90% of these are imported, but as rising environmental awareness and fuel costs put pressure on the market for imported flowers, space is opening up for local growers. Retail channels include supermarkets, wholesalers and farmers’ markets, but none of these offers small-scale growers a sufficient margin; instead, Arjen has developed relationships with local florists, who like the ‘locally-grown’ concept. He emphasised the importance of year-round price consistency. Cultivar is very important as cut flowers must have good stem length and vase life, and since the UK market is not very developed, Arjen imports most of his seed from the Netherlands. Perennials are grown through Mypex. Everything is transplanted, and labour is the largest cost category. Arjen grows flowers from March to September and teaches during the winter.
Jason Horner faced difficulties establishing his flock in 1998 as it was the only organic operation in County Clare, but he has found that the organic egg business has weathered the recession better than vegetables. He makes his sales through a farmer’s market; previously, he also sold through a local shop but has given this up since EU regulations made it necessary to register as a ‘packer’ and invest in extra equipment in order to sell through shops. The high levels of rainfall in County Clare are problematic, slowing down grass growth. Another problem is the need to import feed. In general, though, the hens have worked very well for the farm, providing manure for composting, helping to incorporate green manures, controlling grass growth and eating slugs. Jason calculates he makes 100 Euros per bird per year after the cost of feed and chicks.
John Roberts and his partner started growing Christmas trees as a long-term and low labour-intensity income stream. The trees are bought as 3-4 year-old seedlings, and it was 6 years before the first harvest; because the process is slow, John believes that the alley between tree rows could be used to grow herbs and other things. Labour during the growth phase includes pruning, which is quite a skilled job. The seedlings cost 30-40p each, and the sale price is £4-5 per foot, with most trees being under 6 feet. John plants batches of 500 trees every other year, sold 100 trees last year and foresees sales of some 200 this year. There are no major pests. John also mentioned other enterprises such as growing willow and foliage.
Conclusions included the benefits (social, economic, environmental) of layering multiple enterprises on a farm and the importance of location and access to ensure sufficient customers. There was a discussion around the use of Mypex with deep woodchip suggested as a substitute but two of the growers felt this would not work for them. They are getting up to 15 years use from the woven plastic mulch with careful use.
Individual speaker presentations and abstracts
Arjen Huese (Wealden Flowers): Cut flowers - a beautiful niche market (PDF 635KB)
When we think about growing produce we usually think about vegetables and fruit. However, traditionally most market gardens would also grow a range of cut flowers to sell on their market stall, or to specialist outlets. The cut flower sector in the UK has declined sharply in the last 20 years, and the UK is only 10% self-sufficient, down from 45% in 1990. However in the last few years there has been a surge in interest in British-grown flowers from all levels within the sector: customers, flower shops and supermarkets. There is a huge opportunity for British growers to make a decent income from cut flowers even when organic growers don’t usually get a premium over conventionally grown produce. Growing annual cut flowers like sunflowers, snapdragons, zinnias and some of the foliage is very similar to growing vegetables: growing transplants, planting out, looking after them until they’re ready to cut and then harvesting. Perennials need a different approach, usually involving Mypex. Post-harvest and packaging are obviously very different from vegetables and need to be considered carefully. Selling to florists or wholesalers is much more lucrative than selling directly to customers at farmers’ markets.
Jason Horner (Leen Organics): Organic eggs in a horticultural enterprise (PDF 342KB)
Leen Organics bought their first flock of laying hens in 1998 when commercially produced compound organic feeds became available in Ireland. There was a desire to diversify from growing just vegetables to producing eggs as well as fruit, herbs and flowers. Beginning with a small flock of 25 hens bought at point of lay in ’98, we have in recent years reared 150 day old chicks ourselves. It has been an interesting learning curve, trying different breeds, feeds, grazing schedules and management techniques. We found hens work well alongside horticulture in building fertility, reducing pests and also making use of out grade vegetables and weeds. It is a viable diversification that works well for vegetable producers particularly those involved in direct sales. Having a bigger range of produce available can often be critical for the long term financial viability of a holding. From a direct sales point of view eggs are one of the best-selling lines on our market stall and are often the first thing to sell out. They attract people to the stall who will then buy some other produce along with their eggs. I would encourage growers to look at hens as an option for diversification to provide extra income and other benefits.
John Roberts (Pencoed Growers): Christmas trees, willow and flowers (PDF 2.6MB)
Six years ago, as a way to develop long term income from the farm, we planted a total of 500 trees of a mixture of Norway Spruce and Nordman Fir to grow for sale as Xmas trees, and have planted more batches every other year since. We are trying to develop a sustainable approach to Xmas tree production which maintains fertility and biodiversity. The discussion is about what we have learned over the last six years.