Flower farmers fight for the future of a great family tradition
Valentine's Day has come and gone for another year and for most men the annual flower-purchasing ritual is behind them. It can be a tricky decision: single stem roses or extravagant mixed bouquet, tried and trusted favourites or exotic newcomer?
Some will have splashed out on a floral gift from one of the more exclusive stores, others will have opted for a high street florist, while still more simply popped in to the supermarket. The remainder (you know who you are) grabbed a bunch at the petrol station on the way home. Regardless of the cost, thought involved, or choice of blooms, the chances are that what unified all of these purchases was the origin of the flowers. And it may come as a surprise to learn that only a very few will have been grown within a thousand miles of the intended recipient.
Does it matter, you may ask. After all, we buy vegetables, meat, fish and other "fresh" products from other parts of the country – and the world – so why not flowers?
The truth is that unless your sweetheart's posy was sourced from a farm gate, it's likely it came from Holland. In recent years Dutch growers have come to dominate the UK cut flower market, shipping in vast numbers to stock British supermarkets. Grown on land leased by Dutch firms in Israel and Russia, they are trucked to a town near you every day of the week.
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The demand for cut flowers has never been greater – yet for the established growers of West Cornwall this is the hardest time in their history. Many families who began cultivating violets and narcissi after the railway reached Penzance in the late-1800s have already thrown in the towel, unable to compete or to face another season of backbreaking work for little reward.
However, one man who is determined to take on the Dutch giants by combining the sales opportunities of the Internet with the "largest variety of flowers in the country" is Stuart Smith. A fifth generation flower farmer, Stuart's Scillonian great-great-grandfather, John Smith, began the business on land close to Old Town on St Mary's in the 1880s. Recognising the transportation benefits of being on the mainland, John's son Harry moved his family to Trevean Farm at Rosudgeon in 1922.
Old man Smith eventually passed on the baton to his son Eddie, who did the same for his son, Robert. Stuart's brother Ian eventually took over Trevean. And for the past 25 years Stuart himself has been working 11 acres nearby, growing and selling flowers to wholesalers throughout the year.
What distinguishes Stuart from other commercial growers is his methods. Apart from a 1940s rotavator powered by a Briggs & Stratton engine, every aspect of the operation continues to be carried out by hand. From trenching and weeding to picking and bunching, Stuart and his wife Debbie are refreshingly low-tech.
"We still use the same working methods handed down from my great-great-grandfather," he said. "To this day all our cultivation, bulb lifting, planting, cutting and bunching is carried out by hand."
Cultivating and cutting around 30 different varieties throughout the year, the couple hope such diversity will place the business in a strong position with online customers throughout the UK.
"At the moment we are posting out daffodils, snowflakes and anemones, along with some lovely eucalyptus foliage," said Debbie. "Next month the powder blue grape hyacinths will be coming through and then it's on to scilla, lily of the valley and arum lilies."
They also grow widow iris, Christmas roses, Scillonian "jack" gladioli, nerines, belladonna, agapanthus, brodiaea, liatris, montbretia and many more. Grown outside in fields protected from the worst of the westerly winds by high hedges and also under glass cloches and in french houses, each individual plant is tended and nurtured by Stuart.
"Working on the farm is very much a family affair," he said. "My mum and dad quite often pitch in to help at busy times and our two children also give a hand. The beauty of what we are doing here is that the plants all receive our individual personal care. No one in the country grows this variety of flowers and our customers are buying the very freshest product.
"I want this traditional way of flower growing to carry on because otherwise the skill and knowledge built up over generations will be lost and the beauty and individuality of another traditional Cornish trade will go. I've always done this. I like the outdoor life and nurturing this land and I don't want to do anything else."
Although the core business of Cornish Flowers Direct remains the traditional London markets, increasing freight costs and the economic down turn, coupled with Dutch dominance, are having an effect.
The challenge facing Stuart and Debbie is either to allow the business to gradually decline or embrace what technology has to offer in terms of direct sales. Fortunately for those who value buying local, they have opted for the latter.
"It makes more sense to sell direct to customers up and down the country," said Stuart. To give an idea of how precarious wholesaling has become, he added: "We sell a box of flowers to the London market for £20. It takes an hour to pick the box and the picker is paid £8. The box costs £1.50 and it costs £5 to send it. The buyers take 15% commission. It doesn't leave very much – and there's tax to pay on that."
Through hard work and an expanded website, Stuart and Debbie are determined to build a sustainable future for themselves and their family, while at the same time preserving an important element of Cornwall's farming tradition.
Cornish Flowers Direct are at Rosebud Cottage, Red Lane, Rosudgeon, Penzance, Cornwall TR20 9PU. Call 01736-763830 or visit www.cornishflowersdirect.co.uk