The pandemic’s blooming opportunity for flower farmers

One silver lining of COVID-19 for local growers is that at last they can compete with cheap imports.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but overall it’s been a stinker of a year for Australia’s flower farmers. All those weddings, launches, parties and corporate events cancelled, postponed or downsized, and with them all those orders for dazzling, sweet-smelling floral displays. On a scale of 1 to 10, artisan flower farmer Danielle White, who with her husband, Ashley, grows peonies and roses on their 12-hectare property, Crofters Fold Estate, near Kyneton in Victoria, gives 2020 a “three”.

Flower grower Danielle White gives this year a "three out of 10" or maybe a "four".
Flower grower Danielle White gives this year a “three out of 10” or maybe a “four”.CREDIT:LEON SCHOOTS PHOTOGRAPHY

But on the sparkling morning that we speak, the spring growing season now underway, the 54-year-old has a burst of optimism. She’s been negotiating with a sister farm to sell her unsold roses for fermentation into rose water. She also helped form an association, Flower Industry Australia, to link small flower farms like hers with larger greenhouse growers to promote Australian-grown flowers to florists and supermarkets.

“When you buy local you’re getting fresher flowers free of harmful chemicals, with a beautiful scent.”

“Actually, this has been more of a four out of 10 year,” White says, reconsidering. In case you’re tempted to dismiss floristry as just a bunch of petals and stems, the industry – at least until the onset of COVID-19 – generated $1.6 billion in revenue a year and employed 6300 Australians.

White believes she has the ballast of the “slow flower” movement behind her, which has been blooming in the United States over the past few years. Led by Seattle-based Debra Prinzing, author of The 50 Mile Bouquet book and website and the Slow Flowers podcast and website, the movement advocates that consumers, no matter where they are, buy locally grown flowers to reduce the carbon emissions of imported product, which depend on long-haul flights, freezing and the use of hardcore pesticides to get them through quarantine.

“When you buy local you’re getting fresher flowers free of harmful chemicals, with a beautiful scent,” says White, who adds that her paddocks, when they’re in full flower, provide a buffet for local bees and butterflies. “I just love being out amongst it, to crush the leaves in my hand and smell the aroma.”

Michael van der Zwet, chair of Flowers Victoria and a director of Flower Industry Australia, estimates that business nationally is down about 30 per cent this year, but says the blow has been cushioned by a surge in online sales (in the thick of the lockdown, more people have been inclined to send flowers to one another, which they’ve ordered on the internet) and a significant fall in imports, which have been hurting local growers for years.

“Imports are down at least 50 per cent, as all freight is at a premium price,” van der Zwet says. “Flowers used to fill the bellies of passenger jets, but as there are so few of these now, imports must compete with normal cargo.”

While van der Zwet acknowledges that many local growers use pesticides, he claims that imports of fresh-cut flowers are usually soaked in the stuff. “They’re dipped in Roundup to stop propagation and fumigated with methyl bromide to kill exotic pests,” he asserts. “It’s only a matter of time before these diseases will enter Australia, as these methods still don’t achieve a 100 per cent kill rate.”

Ashley Wren with some of the peonies and roses grown on Crofters Fold Estate, near Kyneton in Victoria.
Ashley Wren with some of the peonies and roses grown on Crofters Fold Estate, near Kyneton in Victoria.CREDIT:LEON SCHOOTS PHOTOGRAPHY

Indeed, a federal government review in 2017 found that less than half of imported flowers met environmental safeguards; in August there was a biosecurity scare when a bunch of unsolicited, unidentified seeds from China, Malaysia and Taiwan arrived in letterboxes across the country.

While some wholesalers argue that imported flowers offer a wide, year-round selection, van der Zwet insists these often don’t have a long vase life, having taken a week or more to reach Australian supermarkets after being picked. The locally grown offerings, meanwhile, are there the next day. Many flowers purchasers will be shocked to learn that even many Australian natives, such as kangaroo paw and waratahs, are being imported from Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa. Roses have been flooding in from Ecuador and Colombia and carnations from China and Vietnam.

Eight years ago, according to Flowers Victoria, there were 320 commercial rose growers in Australia. This has now dropped to fewer than 20 because of the rising tide of cheap imports. “Kenya pays $100 a month to its workers; in Australia that’s approximately four hours’ work,” notes van der Zwet, whose property, Maxiflora in Newhaven, Victoria, boasts five hectares of greenhouse flowers. “Unconfirmed reports estimate 80 per cent of the flowers the major supermarkets sell are imported.”

Local flower growers have designed their own Australian-grown label, but need the federal government to enforce labelling of all imported flowers. “We really need country of origin labelling,” insists van der Zwet, who has sent a submission about the issue to the federal Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews.

For Danielle White, the flower season is about to “wake up”. “The peak season for roses and peonies starts in November. We’ll see all the bees and butterflies return.”

The bees need it: in the catastrophic bushfires of 2019-20, beekeepers lost nearly a third of their colonies. “Things can only look up,” says White brightly.

By : Greg Callaghan – THE AGE

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