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Growing cut flowers for profit
By Johannes Maree, MSc; Pr.Sci.Nat; MBA
Introduction & overview of flower industry

There are two main areas of flower production in South Africa. The western Cape and the Highveld (Greater Johannesburg and Pretoria region). The average South African flower grower cultivates 4.5ha and employs 16 full time and 3 part time workers per hectare. Nearly a third of the growers produce roses compared to 25% growing chrysanthemums and 13% carnations. Approximately 420ha of protected area and 20 000 ha of natural environment was harvested in 1998. Rose production dominated the market, followed by chrysanthemums and carnations. Forty five percent of production areas are unprotected, ie. In open fields, 27% are under shade netting; 16% greenhouses with natural ventilation and 12% greenhouses with fan ventilation. Roses are grown on 59% of the production area, chrysanthemums on 25% and carnations on 13%.

Low technology facilities still dominate the industry, with South African flower growers still focusing on production rather than on marketing. Only 42% of the growers are engaged in some form of market research, while less than 60% identified the need for formal market research.

More than 50% of the flower production in South Africa is distributed through the Johannesburg and Pretoria auction houses (Multiflora). Sixteen percent of the produce is exported through an agent; 6% is exported directly; 12% is sold to local wholesalers and 11% sold directly to the public.

Planning
  • Business plan

Need to draw up a business plan.
Need to have a good idea of what capital you have at your disposal and what the overall costs are.

  • What & where to grow

What type of cut flowers are to be grown? Different flowers have different requirements and slightly different cost structures.

The type of flower very often determines the type of structure you will need to use (ie. Tunnel, shade or open field)

Where to grow is also important. The lay of the land, the water source, etc.

Remember to orientate your structures or flower beds north-south, as best as possible.

  • Marketing

Marketing of your flowers is important. Too often people don't promote their flowers enough. Part of the marketing is which markets are you going to target?

Structures

There are 3 main "structures" used in growing flowers

  • Tunnels or greenhouses (indoor)
  • Shade structures (outdoor)
  • Open cultivation (outdoor)

The type of structure or method used depends largely on the type of cut flowers you are wanting to grow. Generally speaking, tunnels are the best as the environment can be controlled the easiest this way (eg water - rain), however, tunnels or greenhouses are also normally the most expensive outlay of the above 3 methods.

It will work out much cheaper if you erect the structures yourself.

Except for large greenhouses it is relatively easy to build and erect your own tunnels and shade structures.

Also, there are often second-hand structures available.

Soil preparation

The first thing you do with your soil and water is to have it tested.

This test indicates to a person exactly what minerals, etc are in the soil and what is lacking. This gives one a starting point to calculate what needs to be added to get the soil to acceptable norms.

Furthermore, when it comes to fertilizing the flowers one needs to know what minerals are already present in the water.

Also very important is the pH of the soil and water. pH indicates the acidity / alkalinity of the water or soil. This is important because different flowers require a different pH to grow properly.

The minerals needed by the plants are divided into macro- and micro- elements. As the name implies macro are elements needed in larger amounts and micro are elements needed in smaller amounts.

The macro elements are the following:

  • Nitrogen (N); Phosphorus (P); Potassium (K); Calcium (Ca); Magnesium (Mg)

The micro elements are the following:

  • Iron (Fe); Manganese (Mn); Zinc (Zn); Copper (Cu); Boron (B)

The pH and EC (Electric conductivity) of the soil and water is very important to know. The pH gives one and indication of the acidity or alkalinity of the soil or water. The EC gives one an indication of the total minerals dissolved in the soil or water.

It is also important to know the P-Bray figure of the soil. Phosphorus is the one element that moves slowly out of the soils. The P-Bray thus gives an indication of the reservoir of phosphorus present in the soil

Irrigation

Water is the most important aspect of cut flower growing.

The irrigation water needs to be of good quality and readily available.

If the pH or hardness of the water is too high then steps need to be taken to adjust it. To simply leave the water as such will result in one not producing top quality flowers.

REMEMBER: Quality is the number one factor that needs to be achieved in cut flower production to stay competitive and in business.

There are two main methods of irrigating flowers, namely, overhead and drip irrigation.

The system one chooses to use is determined by a few factors. These factors are things such as what type of flowers are being grown (different flowers sometimes prefer different systems) and how much water is available. Factors such as production method also determine the system used.

Fertigation

It is necessary to fertilize cut flowers if one wants to achieve a top quality product.

Fertigation can be done organically or with the use of artificial fertilizers. As well as a combination of the two. Fertigation can be divided into preplant and ongoing fertigation. Preplant is fertilizer that is applied before one plants and during land preparation. While ongoing fertigation is the fertilizer that is applied during the growing process of the flowers.

There are different systems that can be used to administer the fertilizer. Most large concerns use what is commonly known has an A- and B- Tank system. This is where raw, bulk fertilizers are used and administered through two tanks.

Smaller setups tend to use a basic one tank system where a ready mix fertilizer is applied through the one tank.

Another method of fertigation is side- or hand- dressing. This is simply a method by which granular fertilizer is applied to the soil by hand and watered in later. In the first two methods water-soluble fertilizers need to be used, which is not the case with side- or hand- dressing.

Pests & diseases

It is of utmost importance to inspect one's flowers on a daily basis for pests and diseases. Pests and diseases can be divided into the following main groups:

Insects; fungi; bacteria; viruses.

In most cases there is very little one can do about viruses and usually they are not of major concern in annual crops. Bacteria are also not usually a major cause of problems. The two main groups for concern are insects and fungi.

Fungi infections can be soil-, water- or air-borne.

Insects can be a pest above or below ground, and can target all parts of the plant. That is, the roots, leaves, stems or flowers.

Most pesticides are divided into insecticides and fungicides.

It is important to obtain and follow a spray programme. Incorrect application of pesticides results in resistance being built up against such chemicals.

Handling

Post harvest handling of cut flowers is an area that is often neglected by growers. Always remember that each aspect of cut flower growing is important to the ultimate quality and success of the flowers produced. That is from the preparation of the soil to the transporting of the flowers to the market destination.

Different cut flowers need to be harvested at different opening or ripening stages and different markets often have different requirements regarding opening stage. Always try to get the flowers into water as quick after harvesting as possible. In most cases use a preservative to treat the flowers to help retard premature ageing.

Different flowers and markets also require different packaging. In most cases flowers are packaged into cellophane sleeves. Some sleeves have holes, while other sleeves are of materials that are porous. Cost and marketing plays big roles regarding the final packaging that one uses.

In most cases it is important to get the heat off the harvested flowers as soon as possible. For real quality and success a coldroom in necessary. This is also necessary when one needs to store flowers for a few days.

Transport needs to be properly thought through. Never transport flowers in an open vehicle, unless in cartons. Obviously, the best method is to use closed vehicles with temperature and humidity controls.

Conclusion

Growing cut flowers can be very profitable and rewarding. However, it is important not to try and take short-cuts. Quality must never be undermined and one must stick to the fundamentals. Remember, growing cut flowers for profit is a business and it must be run like any other successful business to be successful.

For more advice contact:
Johannes Maree
Tel: 082 564-1211
Email: johannesmaree@freemail.absa.co.za

 

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