Australia's cut flower industry is heading in a direction I am not sure we want to go. Market pressures mean lower quality flowers and higher prices. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Sydney flower markets.
Firstly, serious flower growers will find it hard to get to market because time spent at market is time not spent on the farm. Sellers at the market need to be there at 1-2am and don't get away until 9-10am. Who's going to want to tend to the fields after a 1am start? The gruelling lifestyle of some of the flower growers I know mean they do work from 1am to 10am, go home for a short nap and then straight back to work. And it's not just simply a matter of employing someone to do the jobs that you can't do. The profit margins are too slim to pay more than award wages and you really need to pay someone a lot to start at 1am and haul buckets for 8 hours. Also, there's a lot of cash payments involved and so you have to be sure whoever you employ is 100% honest. Finding someone to work the farm is not easy either, as there is no huge pool of experienced, hardworking horticulturalists that will do the work needed for the wages you can afford to pay.
Also, many growers are losing the battle against the many resellers that are taking over the market. The resellers may just grow a little or grow nothing but they buy and sell a lot. They scour the market before it opens to the florists and buy anything good that's around - anything of outstanding quality, interesting or well priced. If they can't find a good range of flowers from local growers, they buy imports. With the amount of travelling imports need to do, and with the strict quarantine regime affecting flower quality, imports will usually be older and age quicker than locally grown flowers. But resellers find atht the more flowers lines they have on their stall the more they sell. Unlike with fruit and vegetables, there is no requirement to label country of origin on the products they sell and so it is difficult for buyers to tell where a product is grown. The quality is not always apparent on close inspection, as even the most careful buyer will find that something they though looked good at market is showing signs of ageing the next day or even later the same day.
Growers are also facing price pressures and cost pressures, eating at their viability. Heating and cooling bills have nearly doubled over the past few years and wages have crept up but prices are unchanged. Crops are proving harder to grow, with producers finding they need to change their growing techniques to accommodate greater weather extremes. Growers need to heat and cool more. Wages are also continuing to grow, and it becomes more and more difficult to find good staff.
So, I have observed that the growers that are surviving are strong family businesses, where there are a number of family members with sometimes generations of experience able to share the workload. But the next generation is not so interested in working so hard. Some of the farms we buy from are scaling back and only growing for a selected number of customers. Some of the farms are closing down and selling to land developers that are feeding the urban sprawl and moving into some of the traditionally fertile growing areas of Sydney. There are not many new farms taking the place of growers moving out of the industry, and so it is not always easy to find someone growing what you need locally.
The outcome for us, as flower buyers, is that good quality and fresh flowers are harder to find and usually come at a price premium compared to imports. The outcome for customers is more imported flowers that do not last. If the vase life is halved, then value for money when buying flowers is seriously diminished. Also, expectations are lower as people see many flowers dying quickly and expect all flowers to do the same and are therefore not willing to invest in flowers. We continue to try to surprise customers by selling flowers that last and look good for longer than your average bunch by buying local. But overall, the cut flower industry in Australia is not in good shape. Growers are dropping out of the industry and not being replaced. Consumers are being given lower quality imports and little option to buy locally produced flowers. Is this really the direction we want to head?