South Africa earns millions of Rand every year with its indigenous flower exports,
but very few people know that a large part of these come from the charming village of Napier in the Overberg. Together with Bredasdorp and Elim,
Napier has developed into a hub for this niche industry.
One of Napier’s largest flower farmers is Dennis Visser of Floraland Fresh. Dennis has farmed with flowers for more than 20 years on Tolbos Farm on the Elim Road outside Napier. His two daughters, Megan and Neena and their husbands JiHyeok Kim and Gerhard Mulder are also involved in the farm, handling aspects like production, plant propagation and product development. The Vissers currently have 35 hectares under indigenous fynbos such as proteas, pincushions and conebush. Overberg BLM met with general manager Chris Watson for a behind-the-scenes look at this thriving farm. Sitting in his office with a broad window overlooking the packhouse, the packhouse floor is a hive of activity as staff members assemble bouquets of spectacular protea and fynbos or feed flowers on a conveyor belt through a machine that strips the hard stems of their leaves.
Unlike many other flower farmers, Floraland Fresh sells directly to agents, who then sell the flowers on to the domestic and international markets, Chris says. About half of the flowers they grow are destined for the overseas market. The rest goes to the domestic market, with supermarket chains like Woolworths and Checkers amongst the biggest buyers. Running a successful flower farm requires long hours and a team of dedicated staff. The farm currently supports between 50 and 100 households in nearby Napier and Bredasdorp through the work it provides. Tolbos Farm has a permanent staff of 85 people involved in different aspects of the business, such as running the nursery, management of the fields and flower orchards, as well as flower picking, preparation, packing and transport of different products. It also supports individual field pickers that conform to the province’s Sustainable Harvesting Initiative. These pickers harvest additional foliage from the wild which the farm cannot produce itself. The flower industry is quite trend-based, particularly in this era of social media and global connection. To keep up to date with trends, product research and development is very important to Floraland Fresh. They are constantly developing new plant material unique to their brand. Amongst the latest additions is Protea ‘White Pride’ as well as several pincushion and conebush hybrids they have developed. During our visit, the yard was festooned with dyed, drying reed plumes – a current trend in the wedding market.
Entering the organised nursery area one cannot help but be impressed by row on row of pert little slips, ready to be planted out in the fields. It takes about 2 years from transplanting a small plant to the first significant harvest. Only the best plants are selected. “It is like any business – rubbish in, rubbish out,” Chris says. All the plants are irrigated to ensure that they grow well and deliver a high yield. “They like water,” Chris smiles wryly,” so we have about 70 hectares under irrigation.” Fortunately, Tolbos Farm is blessed with good water resources – a resource they take good care of in this era of global warming. Chris Watson says one of the biggest challenges of a commercial flower farmer is the ever-increasing input costs. Like many farmers, they have been hit by the increase in electricity and fuel as well as labour costs. This means that they have to constantly innovate and look at technology to manage their business more efficiently. Alternative energy sources and even introducing AI into the mechanisation process could be avenues to explore in the future, as well as branching out into alternative crops. Floraland Fresh already has 30 hectares of honeybush under cultivation – a crop that shows great promise in the Overberg. The demands of buyers can add to the challenges of a flower farmer. Overseas buyers and chain stores have extremely high standards that have to be met. The slightest blemish, insect nibble or brown leaf could lead to an entire consignment being sent back.
Floraland Fresh therefore takes great care when picking its flowers. To ensure that the flowers do not develop black leaves, they are usually picked in the afternoon, then taken to the large packing store where they are dried off and prepared for packing. The bulk of the flowers are made into tied bunches and the rest packed into so-called straight packs. Additional care is taken to protect flowers that bruise easily by packing individual flower heads in packaging of their own. Then it is off to the cold store, where the blooms are kept at a chilly 2°C overnight before being loaded onto refrigerated trucks that will deliver them to their buyer. “It is very important not to break the cold chain, especially if you take into account that it can take up to 34 days before these flowers may reach an overseas buyer.”Despite the challenges of the flower industry, Chris Watson would not want to be involved in any other kind of farming. “Flower farming becomes a lifestyle, not just a job,” he says.
Kosie Lourens of Lourens Boerderye agrees with this sentiment. He has been involved in the flower trade since 1995. “In those days, I harvested fynbos in the wild with a bakkie and a team of seven people,” he says. ”Those seven people are still with me, running their own flower harvesting business.” Kosie’s business has also changed over the years, with his focus nowadays more on buying, trading and transporting flowers for other commercial farmers. “I’ve become a blomsmous (flower trader) rather than a farmer,” he laughs.
Although the Overberg’s flower farmers still produce for both the dried and fresh flower market, Kosie has seen great growth in the fresh flower market in the past decades. More farmers are diversifying into flower growing as a minor crop and there are currently about 600 to 700 hectares under fynbos cultivation in the Western Rûens area. “Just around Napier there are at least five commercial flower farmers, with another 8 to 10 small farmers around Sandfontein and Sondagskloof involved in harvesting wild flowers,” Kosie says. “Elim has always been the centre of the flower industry in our region. In fact, the whole industry started there, with the harvesting of everlastings for the dried flower market.” New fresh flower markets opening up in the Middle East, China and Far East are definitely having an influence on the growth of South African floriculture. The European markets, particularly sales to the Netherlands, have remained fairly steady in their demand for the Overberg’s flowers. Like any other business, there is healthy competition between Napier’s flower farmers. Kosie reckons it keeps them all on their toes and enables them to remain competitive in this niche market. “Australia and Portugal are amongst the Cape flower growers’ biggest competitors, while in South Africa KZN is also starting to produce proteas,” he says. Surprisingly, it is not growing overseas or local competition that is the greatest threat to our local flower farmers. “Our biggest threat is alien invasive species, particularly the Australian acacia species like Port Jackson and rooikrans,” Kosie says. “To spend thousands of Rand this year to clear flower orchards or wild flower stands, only to have to do it all over again next year, just does not make sense.” However, he believes that a concerted effort by government and local role players can stem the tide so that Napier can continue to enjoy its very own flower industry.