Flower farmer Cel Robertson: 'The most stressful thing about my job? Climate change'
Cel Robertson of Forever Green Flower Company in Norfolk explains a little more about flower farming and Flowers from the Farm
Flower Farmers' Big Weekend takes place from 14 to 16 August this year and is a chance to connect with and learn a little more about British flower farmers. Organised by Flowers from the Farm, this year's weekend events are going digital and you can join in at #flowerfarmersbigweekend.
One of the flower farmers who is taking part in the activities is Cel Robertson of Forever Green Flower Company. Based in Norfolk, Cel switched from a landscape and garden designer to flower farmer in 2013 and has not looked back. Below she explains a little more about why she became a flower farmer, the importance of British flowers and Flowers from the Farm.
What made you want to turn to flower farming?
I started out in horticulture working on organic farms that were supplying the first local veg box schemes to their local villages. The provenance of food has always been really important to me. I later trained in garden design, and a love of flowers meant that when my family relocated from London to north Norfolk I was able to start my business with the idea of being able to provide local flowers for local people.
What does a day in the life of a flower farmer look like?
Season to season my tasks on the flower farm change, but now at the height of summer the main task is cutting flowers for sale every day. Each day of my week is slightly different, but generally the alarm goes off around 5am, and cutting starts early. I have orders to cut for florists, and all stems need careful conditioning and bunching before they are ready for sale. I cut flowers to make up bouquets for local orders that are placed via the website either for collection or delivery. I also supply four local shops with bunches every week through the growing season.
I am not supplying many weddings at the moment due to the pandemic, but the end of the week is usually very busy supplying buckets of flowers to couples getting married locally. The days where I am teaching a growing workshop to budding flower farmers provides a welcome change to the usual schedule of cutting and bouquet making. By mid-August I’ll be starting the next big batch of seed sowing and planting on the field for flowers for next year!
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What advice would you give to someone wanting to start out as a flower farmer?
Everyone I meet comments on what a lovely job I have, but most people imagine I spend my days leisurely picking flowers in a garden through the summer months. But there is nothing leisurely about this job. If you want to earn a living, this is hard physical work through twelve months of the year in all weathers. Growing high quality flowers for profit is nothing like gardening, and growing quality at scale takes a huge amount of skill and organisation. My spreadsheets are an essential tool of my business. Growing the plants to produce the flowers is the easy bit, but generating the sales that make this a business is more important than anything else. You have to be multi-skilled in this business - grower, florist, administrative assistant, photographer, marketer - like most self-employed people you have to work hard in every element of the business in order to drive it forwards. Hours are long and as a grower, margins are low; this is not a get-rich-quick scheme.
What were the main initial challenges?
The biggest challenge starting out was finding a suitable piece of land to rent as I do not own any land myself. There were lots of considerations; length of tenancy, vehicular access, unrestricted public access for sales and workshops, condition of the soil and the suitability of the site for use as a business premises, services - in particular access to water. I don’t have any electricity on site which I can work around, but running water is an absolute necessity for a flower farming business. I was really lucky to be able to find privately-owned land to rent on a long term tenancy which has allowed me the security to build the business over a number of years.
What’s the best thing about your job?
I have always loved growing plants, but being able to produce a beautiful bouquet from a handful of seeds gives me a feeing of great satisfaction. It’s always a joy to sell flowers; they bring pleasure to everyone, even on the saddest of occasions.
What’s the worst thing about your job?
The worst thing about my job is a particular worry that has been building over the past few years; our weather and climate change. Anyone involved in growing plants for a living cannot have failed to notice significant changes to our weather patterns in recent years. The most stressful thing about my job at the moment is the worry about drought. Flower farming demands a considerable amount of water input, and water conservation is very important to me. I grow in East Anglia which is one of the hottest, driest areas of the country, and the worry about water is a growing concern. This year I have lost a number of crops due to the long spells of dry and unseasonal high temperatures, following years of record temps and lengthy dry spells.
What one tool could you not be without?
My Niwaki snips are an essential tool that I could not be without; I use them every day! I cut thousands of stems of flowers every week, and these lightweight snips mean thatI have never experienced repetitive strain injury. I use the standard Garden Snips for everyday cutting, and the Toshibo Pro Snips for when I have slightly thicker woody stems to cut.
What is your favourite flower?
I couldn’t possibly choose just one favourite flower! My favourites change from week to week as I have new flowers come into bloom on the flower farm. Our ranunculus are always a favourite of the spring season; Larkspur would be my choice for mid-summer; and I love the textural grasses that are a feature of our autumn season.
What is your most popular flower?
Applemint is one of my most productive and most popular stems for sale. It adds the wonderful element of scent to floral work and it’s in production from May until August.
Many people have signed up to Flowers from the farm over the last few months, why do you think that is?
Flowers from the Farm provides a great support network, particularly for new growers. Our Facebook group page is a wealth of resource for those starting out, and the annual conference provides an opportunity to meet with growers from across the country. Flower farming can be a lonely job, but having a network of support in the background can be a lifeline at times; there is always someone on the end of the phone I can call for chat! I work closely with another grower I met through FFTF which means that between us we can supply a wider range of flowers to our local florists and this has been a boost to both of our businesses.
Why is it important to buy British flowers?
There are environmental concerns about the production and international transport of flowers which is one of the most polluting industries on the planet. I have huge concerns about global chemical use, water conservation, waste management, air transport, carbon footprint, social and employment rights, and damage to natural environments caused by large-scale commercial flower production. Buying from your local British flower grower means that you are making a sustainable choice about your flower purchase. There are no air miles and growing is bio-intensive so a locally-grown bouquet will have the lowest possible carbon-footprint compared to glasshouse-grown or imported flowers.
Most of us don’t use a cocktail of chemicals in our production. We care about our local environment and producing a product that doesn't cost the earth. We want to offer a thoughtful, sustainable, conscious alternative for customers who want to make a difference with their flower purchases. My constant mantra is ‘Think global, act local’.
Head to flowersfromthefarm.co.uk for more about the Flower Farmers' Big Weekend
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