Business is blooming as flower growers invest in success
A major machinery investment has helped East Anglian flower growers keep up with the frantic demand for bunched lilies and tulips in the run-up to Mother's Day.
Millions of colourful bouquets will be delivered to mothers tomorrow in a time-honoured expression of love and gratitude.
But the intensification of demand in time for Mothering Sunday is not the only reason this has been the busiest week of the year for one of the nation's largest seasonal flower producers.
Collison Cut Flowers, at Tuxhill Farm in Terrington St Clement, near King's Lynn, is a third-generation family business which grows more than 29 million stems every year, including tulips, stocks and lilies.
And while Mother's Day has always been a traditional focal point of the year, another festival is having an increasing influence on the firm's burgeoning order book – International Women's Day, which falls just two days later on March 8.
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Ian Collison, who runs the cut flower operation in West Norfolk, said the combination had prompted a doubling of tulip production during the last week.
To keep up with these volumes, and to improve the efficiency and quality of its operation, the company has invested more than 400,000 euros in an automatic bunching machine, which has seen the farm grow an additional 10 million stems of tulips this year.
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Collison Cut Flowers has become the first company in Europe to bunch lilies automatically with a Bercomex Furora unit, funded with help from the Eastern Agri-Tech Growth Initiative.
Collaboration with the manufacturer's engineers has resulted in the development of new software which can count the number of buds on the stems of lilies, as well as determine whether there were 'satellite buds' above the main bunch. This allows the machine to create consistent bunches of the flowers.
'The automated flower processing line has allowed us to redeploy staff who would normally be grading and bunching the stems into value-adding roles, such as on-farm packing,' said Mr Collison.
'It is a machine designed to run on tulips, but we saw one operating in Holland and I thought there was a good chance it would handle our stocks and lilies as well, so we could keep it busy for 12 months of the year
'The throughput previously achieved with fifteen to twenty staff can now be achieved with seven staff, plus the machine.
'This has allowed us to train some of our key staff, giving them new skills required to operate this advanced machinery.'
During its peak season, the company employs about 70 people, growing, picking and packing flowers for customers including Sainsbury's, Asda and Marks and Spencer.
But the combination of Mother's Day and International Women's Day has made this year's peak particularly pronounced.
Mr Collison said: 'Mother's Day has always been a big event for the flower industry, but what is becoming more and more important is International Women's Day. We see more of an effect from it every year, in terms of the uplift in the orders. It is a massive thing in Russia and Eastern Europe, and it has spread through Europe over the years.
'That always falls on March 8, but Mother's Day comes three weeks before Easter, so this year they fall within two days of each other.
'So we think this will be our busiest week of the year. On a standard week we will be doing one million tulips, but this week we will be doing 1.8 to 1.9 million.
'It is manic. At the moment we are working 5am-9pm, processing in excess of 250,000 stems a day in terms of bunching and packing, so we are in full production for 14-17 hours a day. But we are trying to do nearly double what we would do in a normal week.
'The machine helps with that. It gives us more control over the production and you know what is going to be produced per hour. If that machine is running then we know without fail it will be doing 12-14,000 stems per hour, and the quality coming out the other end will be consistent.'
The family-owned nursery includes six hectares of glass and polythene tunnels. A rotation of crops ensures the farm is cropping all year-round, and able to produce large amounts of tulips, lilies and stocks in response to customer demand, along with other crops including Japanese asters, outdoor chrysanthemums and ornamental brassicas.
Mr Collison said the company was always looking to improve its competitiveness against imported flowers – mostly from the tulip-growing heartland of Amsterdam.
'Holland is still the main centre for tulip production and Amsterdam is the centre of the world as far as tulips are concerned,' he said. 'Our main competition is from imported stems and the big thing we are trying to do is educate consumers to look out for the British flag and buy British because it is better for the product to not have their flowers flown around the world, and it is better for the industry if they are grown here and employing people in Britain.'
How the machine works
The automated flower processing line combines state of the art digital, infra-red and X-ray imaging with robotic handling and bunching.
It analyses the position of buds, and can cut the stems accordingly to provide more uniform bunches at a faster paces.
Mr Collison said: 'When we are cropping lilies we get a range of different flowers with different flower forms. An extreme example would have the lead buds, the biggest buds which are going to make the most impact for the customer, at one level, and then a satellite bud a long way above. The customers want to see these biggest buds all on one level, so we worked together with Bercomex to do that.
'We've written new software to look at each individual stem in horizontal line to look for the place where there are the most visible buds.
'Where we've got the mass of buds we put a line there on the computer image and we measure to that line. We will then use that line to measure the overall length of the stem and we will allow a certain amount of satellites. If we have stems with long satellites we can put them together into one bunching station on the Furora, and if we have stems with no satellites, we put them together into a different bunching station.'
The software can be switched between numbered programmes, set with the exact specifications of each customer for the number of flowers and length of stems per bunch.
'The customers' response to the fact we have got these separate these programmes and that we can demonstrate the investment in improving efficiency and quality has been very positive,' said Mr Collison. 'Customers like too see businesses that are investing in going forward, and they like to see that we are investing in quality as well as efficiency.'