The first sign of spring can be seen when daffodils pop up across the countryside, but for one Scottish co-operative, the scale of growth is big business. Olivia Cooper talks to the managing director of Grampian Growers about what needs to be considered to grow your own commercially.
Daffodils are one of Britain’s best-loved flowers. They are a Welsh icon, the subject of William Wordsworth’s most famous poem and the crux of a £30 million UK industry.
But it is not all about the flowers, as the UK produces half of the world’s daffodil bulbs and exports about 10,000 tonnes a year.
Grampian Growers, based in Montrose, Angus, is the largest daffodil bulb exporter in the UK and there is not much managing director Mark Clark does not know about the industry.
He says: “We have 14 farmers growing about 1,100 acres of daffodils. About 30 per cent are picked to sell as flowers each year.”
Of the co-op’s £7m annual turnover, about 15 per cent is generated by flower sales, 35 per cent by bulbs and 50 per cent by seed potatoes.
Mark says: “All bar one of our farmers grow potatoes, as there are great synergies between the crops.
“Individual growers are responsible for crops in the field, including picking and grading them, and we take the produce and add value to it, dealing with all the marketing, packaging, logistics, invoicing and so on.”
The co-operative was founded in 1970 and each of its 14 growers has a £1 share with one vote.
It operates a pooling system, with three quality grades – premium, which accounts for about 95 per cent of the crop, grade one and non-pool.
Growers are paid for the number of flowers or bulbs sold at each grade, minus a levy for storage, packaging, transport and so on. Then at the end of the financial year, any surplus is rebated back to members.
So how would a farmer get into daffodil growing? According to Mark, daffodils will grow virtually anywhere, so soil type and location are not limiting factors.
He says: “Grade one soils are too rich, but two and three are fine. If it is wet, lifting them on clay soils is difficult and more expensive, so lighter free-draining soils are best.”
Being based in north Scotland, it is rare for soil to get too dry, but as most growers also have potatoes, there are usually irrigation systems in place.
Planting and lifting equipment tends to work for both crops, but the biggest issue is the cost of getting set up.
“Bulbs cost between £2,000 and £8,000/acre to buy, depending on variety, and you will not get any income from them until the second year. That is a lot of money to have buried in the ground.”
Bulbs are planted in August and September. They get two applications of herbicide and between three and five doses of fungicide, depending on seasonal risk.
Mark says: “Fusarium is by far the biggest problem, which rots bulbs. We are very lucky up here, as we have colder soils which lower diseas risk.”
An ideal growing season would be a hard December and January, warming gradually to 10-12degC in March/April.
“Once it gets above 15degC, flowers start opening, which decreases their shelf life.”
“They are all picked by hand,
so it is very labour-intensive.”
Grampian Growers never picks flowers in the first year, instead roguing out any which are the wrong variety or have signs of yellow leaf stripe virus.
“We export up to 65 per cent of flowers and 95 per cent of bulbs, so have very high health status, for which our growers receive a premium price.”
About half of bulbs go to the US, with 45 per cent going to mainland Europe. In the case of flowers, it depends on the season. In a season where Easter is early, 90 per cent will be sold domestically, while in a late Easter year, 65 per cent will go overseas, primarily to the US, Holland and Scandinavia.
The group grows about 40 different daffodil varieties, with primary flower varieties being Golden Harvest and Golden Ducat.
Carlton, Dutch Master, Standard Value and Sempre Avanti double as either flower or bulb varieties, but a large percentage of total sales are in the form of mixed bulbs.
About three-quarters of bulbs are grown on a two-year system, being lifted in June of their second year.
A fifth are down for three years, with flowers picked in the second and third years before bulbs are lifted, while the rest remain down for up to eight years, being grown solely for the flowers.
Mark says: “If you pick the flowers, it will decrease bulb yield by 10-15 per cent.
“Bulbs are worth more than flowers, but you do need both income streams to make it viable.”
A good flower crop will produce 25,000-30,000 bunches of 10 stems/acre, with an average crop yielding 15,000-16,000 bunches.
He says: “They are all picked by hand, so it is very labour-intensive.”
Single stem varieties are picked when buds are fully sealed to prolong shelf life, while double-headed varieties are picked once buds have split.
“Every bunch needs to be even, with stems about 300mm long, depending on variety.”
Main target markets are Easter and Mother’s Day, and Grampian Growers works with another business in the Channel Islands to offer customers an extended season from November to April. However it is hard to predict when flowers will be ready.
Mark says: “In the past two years, Cornwall has had a cold snap, which has delayed their picking season and eaten into ours.”
In 2012, English flowers were two weeks late, while Scotland’s crop was a week early, leaving Grampian Growers without any migrant labour. As a result, they lost 1.5m bunches of daffodils, at a cost of about £300,000.
In the flower season, which usually starts in March, Grampian Growers has 50-70 packing staff, with the farmers employing 300-400 pickers between them.
In the bulb season, there are 45-50 packing staff, plus 12 other full-time employees and 10 potato packers.
Mark says: “We are grading and packing 11-11.5 months of the year here, which makes great use of facilities.”
With such a high labour demand, the industry brings considerable investment to the local economy.
“Most pickers are agency workers from Eastern Europe who start in Cornwall and work their way up through Lincolnshire to us as the season progresses.
“They tend to be pretty well-trained by the time they arrive.”
However, one of the biggest challenges at the moment is lack of profitability.
“The retail price of daffodils has not gone up for about eight years, but our costs have, so margins are very tight.”
Currency fluctuation is another concern, given so much of Grampian’s produce is exported.
“You really need a favourable exchange rate to make a profit, so you may go for a few years without making any money.”
On these tight margins, businesses need to sell huge amounts of flowers to turn a profit, which is why Grampian really focuses on bulbs.
Mark says: “We are not big enough to play the numbers game. The bulb trade is more predictable too. We can budget for the next two years by variety and size, although the market for bulbs is declining and we cannot do much about that.”
In a two-year crop, bulb yields should reach about 30 tonnes/ha (12t/acre), with a three-year crop yielding 34-37t/ha (13.75-15t/acre). “Of this, the grower will keep 5t/acre to replant and sell the rest.”
Most crops are lifted by machine, but one grower still lifts by hand due to his stony ground. Bulbs are then windrowed to help them dry out, being left in the field for a week if the weather is good.
After lifting, growers will clean and dry bulbs twice and grade them before sending saleable bulbs to the store.
Planting stocks are prewarmed, presoaked and hot water-treated to kill stem and bulb eel worm, and dried before replanting.
Mark says: “We have a longer drying process than competitors, using lower temperatures, as we feel it is better for bulbs. They are ventilated for 24 hours a day, which adds to our costs.”
An automated grader then packs them by weight or count.
“We are constantly looking for where we can take out costs, so we recently put in a 150kW solar panel and £500,000 potato grader. We are also looking at an anaerobic digester or biomass plant.”
It is a long way from Wordsworth’s lonely wanderings in the Lake District, but seeing hosts of golden daffodils gathering pace in the field is still sure to fill your heart with pleasure.