Thursday, December 7, 2023

How a Southland tulip farm grows a blooming business

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The Southland flowers are stripped of their blooms. Triflor in New Zealand exports the bulbs to be grown in glasshouses, and does not export fresh flowers.
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It’s one of the busiest times of the year for the team at Southland tulip grower Triflor.

Over the past few weeks hordes of tulip admirers flocked to Edendale to take selfies with tulip paddocks in full bloom as the background. 

Drones zoomed everywhere for aerial photos, photographers lined up to take their turn at climbing a ladder for better angles, oohs and aahs in languages from all over the world were heard, and yes, every now and then the Triflor staff had to nudge the public on Facebook, and from within the paddocks, to stay out of the actual flower beds.

“We are not a tourist destination,” says Triflor operations manager Rudi Verplancke, “but it has become part of Southland.”

But the selfie-taking tourists are not what keeps the Triflor team busy.

Critical production phases are in full swing, Verplancke says.

Triflor grows 110ha of tulips, with bulb exports to fill demand gaps in the northern hemisphere markets as their main production goal.

At this time of year every flower planted for bulb export has to undergo virusing. During this process every plant is manually checked to see if it carries disease.

If a plant flower is diseased, the flower is broken off and a drop of Roundup applied to kill the bulb and get rid of the plant, Verplancke says.

After this process all plants are debudded, with the flower taken off mechanically by a fit-for-purpose machine.

After debudding, plants don’t automatically die and irrigation is still essential.

Plants begin to change colour and die off around mid December, he says.

Bulbs are then removed from the ground and sent to Triflor’s processing facility nearby.

“Some varieties are going to be washed, other ones are going to be graded. It all depends how prone they are to fungal diseases. The ones prone to fungal disease should not get wet,” Verplancke says.

Commercial bulbs destined for the export market are stored, and the planting stock is graded. 

Operations manager at Triflor Rudi Verplancke says ‘You can trick a tulip to flower out of season, but you have to give it the temperature treatment.’

Planting stocks are stored until mid-March when planting begins, Verplancke says.

Two-thirds of all the bulb stocks are for exports, he says.

After harvesting in summer, bulbs are held in a temperature-controlled environment.

Control starts at 25degC, with the temperature then dropped to 23degC, then 20degC.

“The process speeds things up and cuts out the natural dormancy period.”

Bulbs are shipped at 2degC in reefer containers that simulate winter during transport.

Once they arrive at their destination they are moved to glasshouses where they begin flowering as they “think it is spring”, Verplancke says.

The Netherlands still has massive influence on the tulip industry here and worldwide. 

“There’s 10,000 hectares of tulips grown in the Netherlands and probably 300ha altogether in New Zealand,” he says.

Trading and exports are done through the Netherlands office and this is also where new breeding lines come from. 

Triflor New Zealand exports about 55 million bulbs every year. 

Together with Triflor Netherlands, bulbs are sent to the United States, throughout Europe and Thailand.

The NZ branch was established to prolong the northern hemisphere season.

“You can trick a tulip to flower out of season. But you have to give it the temperature treatment,” Verplancke says.

“We’re filling in the gap for the northern hemisphere flower production from August until Christmas and making the season longer.”

Traditionally the tulip season for cut flowers in the northern hemisphere was from Christmas until Easter. 

The northern hemisphere now extends its season until about May, with southern hemisphere growers like Triflor in NZ filling in gaps.

Tulips are now supplied worldwide by Triflor for eight months, he says.

NZ bulbs help meet tulip demand especially during holiday seasons in the United States and Canada.

“If people drive past our fields they see a lot of orange. That’s for Halloween. That’s massive. Yellow because that goes nice with orange [and] gives you that autumny colour theme. Purple, is also another autumny colour, and red for Thanksgiving and red for Christmas. That is the market we’re producing for,” Verplancke says.

There are several reasons Triflor New Zealand does not export flowers.

Firstly, flower exports are done from the Netherlands.

Secondly, plants grown for bulb export have to flower for bulb growth to be optimal.

If flowers are harvested when they are already flowering, they will not reach their export destination in good nick, he says.

The amount of flowers grown would also flood the entire market and there would be a price crash, Verplancke says.

Demand for fresh flowers is also an issue, he says.

“If people ask me why we don’t sell flowers I answer them with a question: ‘How many bunches of flowers have you received from your husband over the last year?’ and that’s my answer.”

Verplancke says growing tulips starts with “finding good land”, which means “free draining soil”.

“We plant around Anzac Day in April. They’re sitting dormant in the soil for a long period. Free-draining soil means they don’t get waterlogged and are not damaged.”

Weed control in winter is also essential because if not done correctly production is “one step behind” when plants emerge, he says.

Every year experts from the Netherlands fly in to help with planting and harvesting.

The Southland climate is perfect for tulips, he says.

“It never gets too warm. It never gets too cold. There’s never real hard frost. A tulip loves water. Anywhere north of Dunedin is going to be too warm,” Verplancke says.

Production issues such as weather are all manageable, but staffing and immigration issues are a real challenge.

“We have a core group of people here in New Zealand. They are well trained and come back [every season]. On top of that we need seasonal expertise from the Netherlands to help us with harvesting,” he says.

But some processes need experts, and in times of staff shortages a job that an expert needs to do can’t simply be handed to someone else, he says.

Verplancke moved to NZ 26 years ago and even though his role has changed to an often office-based planning role, he says the beauty of the bulbs is still magic.

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