There's a bigger than ever buzz about British flowers, it's not just the noise of bees, but the noise of hundreds of busy small growers. But where's it all heading?
There are too few traditional commercial growers of favourite blooms left in this country, we all know how the industry has declined, how the government are happy to support for example Colombian flower growers to encourage them to plant something other than poppies, to support Kenyan growers to encourage economic self sufficiency etc etc but meanwhile no support is given to traditional excellent British growers who are allowed to slip out of business while cheap imports slip in.
At Covent Garden market last week Helen, who heads the team running the market for the owners, bemoaned the difficulty of getting good British supply. it is not just that market traders are set in their ways of doing business (they are, it works for them) but that they can't get a reliable British supply chain, or, when they can (there are still some wonderful commercial growers in this country) they can't get the flowers at a competitive price compared to imports. Helen recognises that there is a huge growth in interest in British flowers, and a huge growth in small scale producers but most are, as she put it, hobbyists, rather than potentially commercial suppliers.
Now many of today's small growers may feel that "hobbyist' is an unjust label. And it cannot be applied with a broad brush. And everyone has to start somewhere. But it does seem to be the fact that most of the new breed of small scale growers are working for themselves and direct selling rather than supplying florists or anything resembling the wholesale market. I too am guilty as charged. From our larger gardens in Herefordshire we were producing some spot crops for florists as well as direct customers, and sold many later summer and early autumn crops wholesale as well as direct, but we started the business specifically to sell direct, setting up deliberately to deliver flowers by mail order as a) no one else was providing entirely home grown mixed bouquets at that time and b) geography. And that has always been what our business has been based on.
But it doesn't help the wider British flower "industry". Where are the suppliers coming from to make sure there can be an effective supply chain to provide British flowers for eg contract florists and general florists. And if there isn't an effective supply chain how can it become realistic for British flowers to be preferred to imports?
It is no longer difficult for a flower buying customer to find British bouquets, there are hundreds of companies now offering mail order British flowers and some supermarkets have deals with larger growers to take all their stock to provide British blooms on their shelves. (which means they don't h8t the wholesale market as they go direct to the supermarkets) So the awareness and expansion of choice for the customer is good. But how are British flowers going to get into florists buckets at a reasonable (by which I mean realistic) affordable price?
In setting up The British Flower School I have had many conversations with different scale growers as well as flower enthusiasts. Of the dozens of small growers I have contacted disappointingly few feel able to supply us with any good flowers for courses (I don't want only to use flowers we have grown ourselves as that is not sustainable in that they cannot be available to everyone, I want to provide choices and recommendations for participants from different parts of the country so I can tell them where they can get good British blooms from), and disappointingly few have even expressed an interest in being recommended as possible suppliers to the florists and individuals who have so far been on our courses.
I realise that it's early days for many newish growers, but I want to be able to point to a good network of reliable British flower providers so that people who come on our courses can go away knowing they can get hold of the type of flowers they want. It is adamantly not about keeping business for The Real Cut Flower Garden, it is about finding a good supply chain. Luckily I do of course have several amazing colleagues round the country who I happily recommend to anyone, and I have found some brilliant commercial growers of particular blooms, but a handful is really not enough.
And there's the question of price. Growers who are wholesaling sell at a very reasonable price but others don't. Over and over again I hear "Well I would buy British but they are just so expensive." We've all got to get over this somehow. There may be comparisons with early days of the organic movement when only elite customers could pay the premium, and comparisons also with quality - just because something is organic does not always make it better than something non organic, it depends on when it was picked, where, how long it's been hanging around, how it was grown etc. In the same way British grown does not, sadly, automatically mean it is therefore better than something grown elsewhere. Those of us who grow do need to step up to the mark so that British can mean better in all ways, or we have to market ourselves so that customers realise they are buying something different rather than comparable to trad imported florists blooms.
Everyone has to try to make a living. Most of us have mortgages and or rents to pay, ourselves and others to provide for, bills to service, staff to pay so that our businesses can thrive. We have to put a realistic price on what we produce to pay our way. But that is just it, realistic. Not extortionate. There's some funny pricing going on, from tiny bunches to big bouquets.
So where is it all going? Gill Hodgson has a full house for the Stoneleigh British Flowers seminar in June, and hopefully some of these questions will be raised and solutions proposed.
Meanwhile, if anyone wants to be on the list of recommended suppliers for The British Flower School, do get in touch