Most people will agree that flowers are pretty amazing. They brighten your day when you see them in the wild, receive a bouquet of flowers on your birthday or use rose-scented oils to calm down on a stressful day.
The diverse climates across Mzansi provide excellent flower-growing regions for almost any type of flower. And then we have some of the most beautiful endemic flowers in the country – our proteas.
Freddie Kirsten is a fourth-generation farmer and his flower farm Eureka, near Paarl in the Western Cape, started as a family business 23 years ago. His family first planted proteas right as Kirsten finished university. They never looked back.
Today Kirsten farms with 34 different species in the Proteaceae family: proteas, leucadendrons (commonly known as conebushes) and leucospermum (or pincushions), and also with Geraldton wax.
Flower farming might not be the most obvious type of farming to consider, but it is very diverse. Apart from the different types of flowers from which to choose, there’s also a wide array of products and purposes for which they can be grown.
What exactly can you do if you farm with flowers?
There is more to flowers than meets the eye. They can be beautiful, yes, but they can also produce fragrance, essential oils or seeds – and with it a variety of different income streams.
Flowers and flower products
The first and most obvious product is fresh cut flowers (the kind you buy your loved one on Valentine’s Day) for floral arrangements, crafts or dried flowers. You can sell these on the market or auction them at an auction house like Multiflora. Find more ideas on how to sell cut flowers on Shifting Roots and Team Flower.
You can also harvest seeds from your flowers and sell those. Seeds can be used by other farmers or gardeners to plant, while the edible seeds of sunflowers, for instance, can be marketed as food.
Flowers also provide essential and aromatic oils. Think about roses, lavender and other fragrant flowers: their oils are used widely in candles and beauty products or as stand-alone essential oils.
Breeding and competitions
Farmers who want to branch out further, can explore the breeding of their own varieties. With this they can improve their own flowers and at the same time sell to other farmers interested in what they have created.
“We have our own breeding programme,” says Kirsten. “We look into new proteas and better plants.” At Eureka they selectively breed to have varieties suited to different times of the year, for better growth and for higher quality.
How about turning your flower farm into a venue for weddings or a garden for tourists to visit? Most people love flowers and would jump at the promise of an exciting Instagram photo in a field of flowers. Take a look at Adene’s Flowers as an example.
Farming with proteas
Kirsten’s speciality is proteas, but he says they are quite a difficult farming crop. “Proteas are very microclimate- and soil-specific,” he explains.
Whether or not you can start farming with proteas depends very much on the soil you have on your farm and the microclimate where your farm is situated. That’s why you don’t see the same widespread production of proteas as with citrus for example, Kirsten says.
The protea family furthermore has many different species which will each have their own soil and climate requirements.
“The other thing that is also important is your water; the type of water you have,” says Kirsten. “What type of irrigation and what quality of water is very important.” Kirsten advises that tests should be done to establish the quality of the water available to you.
Where can you farm with proteas?
Certain types of protea are farmed in KwaZulu-Natal and in Clanwilliam in the Western Cape, according to Kirsten. In the same province, pockets of protea farms can be found on top of the Piketberg and Porterville mountains, as well as along the West Coast and in Paarl, where Kirsten’s farm is situated.
Other places he lists are Bredasdorp and George in the Western Cape, Kareedouw and East London in the Eastern Cape, and Hilton in KwaZulu-Natal.
“It all depends on what you plant,” says Kirsten.
Conquer the value chain
Some of the pitfalls where farmers can lose money, are buying starting materials instead of making or growing their own, and selling raw product without processing it and adding value. Every step of the value chain has a mark-up, after all.
This is where Kirsten made a few smart decisions.
“We are vertically integrated,” he says. “We’ve got our own nursery, we do the farming and we are involved in the marketing.”
He produces his own cuttings on his farm, and after harvest he markets and exports his own product. He has the whole value chain right there – the nursery, the flower crops and the agency, called FreshCap.
Markets and exports
According to Kirsten, Proteaceae are produced for exports as well as for the local market.
Indigenous flowers like those in the Proteaceae family are increasingly popular on the export market, but the market fluctuates. The popularity of flowers is difficult to predict and differs vastly across different countries.
“We market our products to about 33 countries around the world,” says Kirsten.
35% of their exports go to the Middle and Far East, 40% to Europe and the rest to the United States.
Tips from a protea farmer on starting your own flower farm
First off, Kirsten emphasises that you need to do an in-depth study on the soil on your farm. “Soil content is very important,” he says.
Then he recommends that you get a thorough understanding of the microclimate in which your farm is situated.
“You must get a very good consultant to help you choose which flowers are available and [which will] work on your farm specifically,” Kirsten says. “You need to plant the correct plant in the correct soil and in the correct microclimate.”
Kirsten also recommends that you get really good plant material. Your flowers will be good if they come from good cuttings. Likewise, they will be bad if they come from bad cuttings.
Lastly, you must do an in-depth study about the market. “You must make sure that –at the specific time of the year when you have a specific type of flower – there will be a market for it,” says Kirsten.
Your research should also tell you whether that market will still be there in 10 to 15 years. Plant Book provides a list of flowers to farm with and when they will flower.
“Flowers are long-term products. We call it long money,” says Kirsten. “If you put it in the ground, it is expensive and you must make a profit on it over quite a few years.”
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