Tasmania-based Flowerdale Flowers has been growing cut flowers for 36 years, driven by sustainability and with the expertise, experience and instinct required to be the very best and offer a guarantee of quality.
Rob Sadler is Director of this family-run business which started in a tractor shed on a Tasmanian dairy farm in 1982. One of the best producers of premium lilies in Australia, Flowerdale currently produces approximately 4 million lily bulbs each year, with all its flowers transported via a secure cold chain to customers in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and other regional hubs. Mr Sadler spoke to us recently to discuss the origins of the business, the commitment to sustainability that drives the company, and the shift in customer buying habits which is changing the face of the industry.
Consistency of quality and supply
“We’re a family-run business in Tasmania,” Mr Sadler says, “and we’re just coming up for our forty years next year. We produce cut flowers and sell them all over Australia, and we’re based in Tassie with around about thirty employees.”
In the early years of the business, Mr Sadler’s father was a dairy farmer, but eventually wanted to diversify into something he would have more control over. Twenty years ago the decision was made to move into flower bulb production and cut flower sales.
“We started with two small igloos,” Mr Sadler explains of the company’s development, “and we’ve now built up to about 3 hectares under cover, under glass, and supplying all over Australia.”
The company’s products are lilies and tulips, with 65% of its output going to the wholesale market based in the capital cities, which is then retailed to florists and dedicated retailers across the rest of the country, with the remaining 35% fulfilling contracts with the major supermarkets.
“Horticulture – or floriculture, which is the growing of flowers – is around about an $800m industry in Australia. It’s really centred on some major events, so we’ve got Mother’s Day, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, where we might be triple or four-times our production, so we’ve only got a very small window to get the timing right.”
The most important thing for anyone working in the flower industry is to have consistency of quality and supply, which is why Flowerdale has everything growing under extremely high-tech conditions.
Flowerdale is one of the top three flower producers in Australia, having risen above a significant number of competitors over the years. The industry was very fragmented when the company started, with lots of small nurseries forming the main players.
“In the last twenty years there has been a lot of consolidation, and a lot of growth, the bigger have of course got bigger. It’s a general trend in agriculture of course, but especially in high-intensity horticulture it’s happened a lot.”
In order to take advantage of this industry growth, Flowerdale continued to invest in infrastructure and in building good facilities that have allowed it to position itself at the top of the market for lily and tulip growth.
“Everything is about continuity and consistency of supply. There are still a lot of growers that have good quality over very short periods of time, but we concentrate on having that quality all year round and making sure that consistency is there.”
By growing under a glasshouse, the product is extremely high quality, and with a rigid schedule the company is able to grow and package efficiently and with the level of consistency needed to maintain the business.
“We harvest, cool the product, bunch the product, and pack it out all within 48 hours, and then it is palletised and distributed all over Australia within 4 or 5 days. Melbourne’s one day, Sydney is 2 or 3 days, Brisbane’s 3 or 4 days, so it’s really important that we have a very consistent level of temperature.”
The company doesn’t use any air conditioning, which tends to create inconsistent temperatures, and does all its cooling on the road. Despite the size of the country, the company has a good logistical chain to keep the product cool and get it to market.
“If we wanted to talk about the last 18 months, and what’s happened with COVID-19, it’s been probably a 30% increase in global supply for flowers. Now that’s across all markets, and our industry has never seen anything like that. Of course we aren’t able to keep up with that demand, but it’s been a bit of a phenomenon really, to see so much growth in flowers.”
This unexpected rise has is a result of the global lockdowns, and the desire for people to brighten up their homes with floral decorations while stuck inside. The flower industry is often a barometer for the strength of the economy.
“In our market, if there’s an interest rate rise, we see that the next day in our flower sales and the demand, and the pull through of those products. We can see exactly what is happening in the broader economy by how well our sales are going.”
With all the liquidity in the market and people stuck at home then, unable to travel as they once could, the things that they spend their money on become more domestic, and that is exactly what has been happening since the start of the pandemic.
“An affordable luxury like flowers then becomes a reality for them on a weekly basis, so they buy. I think that’s a reflection probably of the economy as well. Of course when the money runs out, we see the opposite, so it does get ugly as well.”
Whether or not these changes in buying habits remain for the long term is not yet known, but Mr Sadler feels that the move to more people working from home and getting into the habit of buying flowers is likely to extend the trend going forward.
“I think there is generally a global change in the industry as well. This is happening across all markets. It’s getting more difficult to get hold of the seed and the bulbs, so that’s causing a problem, it’s inflating the prices of the bulbs.”
In addition to this issue, sea freight is becoming more expensive, which is also making it harder to get hold of seeds and bulbs, as well as to transport flowers across the country. Many flowers are also flown in from overseas, which is also now becoming more difficult
“We have air freight, but without passenger planes and the subsidised freight that goes in the bellies of those planes, the flowers are becoming more expensive from places like Kenya and Malaysia, China, Vietnam – so that has impacted the prices in Australia. In a sense it has helped the Australian growers, and it all depends on how we take that on board.”
In the end market economics always wins, so Mr Sadler expects those flowers to return to the Australian market once everything settles down. In the meantime, their absence has given an incentive to companies like Flowerdale to re-invest and expand.
“It’s a very difficult space, because you don’t know whether in the future people’s buying habits will stay the same with the purchasing of flowers, or whether they will go back to normal. Most likely there will be a middle ground I’d imagine, but definitely the importation of flowers from overseas will go down a little bit.”
Horticulture in Australia is likely to continue to become localised, with people demanding more local products and flowers especially, and being a lot more concerned about the origins of locally bought produce.
“There are some questions about where their fresh produce is coming from. Is it right to fly flowers from Kenya or somewhere else, when we could definitely grow them in Australia? It may be 5 or 10% more expensive, but that’s a change that’s definitely happening out there in the market.”
With a commitment to sustainable growing and helping the Australian horticultural; industry, Flowerdale is all set to take full advantage of recent changes in customer buying habits. Find out more about Flowerdale Flowers by visiting www.flowerdale.com.au.