One West Country arable farmer is helping gardeners across the Atlantic to add a splash of spring colour to their gardens, by supplying daffodil bulbs to US garden centres.
Daffodils are one of several premium crops grown by 2013 Farmers Weekly Arable Farmer of the Year Jeremy Oatey on his 1,080ha of cropping in Cornwall.
He was introduced to daffodil growing by a Dutch trader living in Holbeach, Lincolnshire, and he gained the knowledge and skills in growing the crop.
In 2004, he established Agricola Growers when he took on a 120ha contract farming opportunity on the Antony Estate near Torpoint, growing daffodils for export and potatoes.
During the next nine years he expanded the business nearly tenfold and developed a vegetable washing business, becoming the largest supplier of peeled onions, Swedes, potatoes and wheat to local Cornish pasty makers.
But daffodils have retained their place in the cropping list, with about 80ha grown. They are a dual-purpose crop, producing cut flowers in the spring plus the bulbs.
Bulbs are planted in September and remain in the ground for two years.
“The bulbs are planted by a two-row bulb planter, which is a bit like a potato planter, but has a vibrating continuous flat belt in the bottom that dribbles the bulbs out in a continuous stream down a spout into a ridge,” he says.
They are left undisturbed in the first year, he explains. However, they do receive several fungicides in their first spring against white mould and botrytis.
Fungicides used tend to be old technology, with the main ones being mancozeb (Dithane), chlorothalonil (Bravo), azoxystrobin (Amistar) and tebuconazole (Folicur).
A typical programme would be one or two applications pre-picking, one immediately post picking plus one or two more later in the season to maintain green leaf area to boost bulb growth.
“We would normally use a combination of two fungicides at each application. The main disease issues would be smoulder (Botrytis narcissicola), white mould (Ramularia vallisumbrosae) and to a lesser extent, leaf scorch (Stagonspora curtisii) and fire (Sclerotinia polyblastis).
In the second spring, flowers are hand-picked to supply the main cut flowers to the supermarkets, bringing extra revenue.
“We sell the flowers primarily to Winchester Growers at Penzance for supply to UK supermarkets and to Lingarden near Spalding for export into Europe. The season is from January to May, although we tend to concentrate on the main part from early/mid-February to early April.
“The number of pickers required depends on the weather, as in warm conditions the flowers grow faster and greater numbers are required to harvest them and vice versa.” Typically he would have between 60 and 120 pickers per day.
Then, in the second summer, bulbs are lifted and dropped on the soil surface and a propane burner is run over the rows on the back of a tractor to help desiccate the foliage by bursting cells in the leaves and stems. Bulbs are left on the ground for two to three weeks, as this is the best way to dry them out.
Bulbs are picked up by a converted potato harvester into a trailer and then run over a cleaner/grader and stored in a potato box.
The final stage of drying involves forcing heated air (3C above ambient) through the box – the drying takes one week. Once dry, they are graded and split into five sizes. The middle grades are sold while the biggest and smallest are used to plant again the following season.
“You can leave them an extra year to get a second flower crop, but there is a greater risk of flat bulbs,” he says.
Bulbs are exported to the USA, which has strict quality standards to prevent the importation of disease.
“Because of the potato cyst nematode risk, bulbs cannot be grown on potato land, must be PCN free and be soil free.” Therefore, he rents old pasture land not previously used for potato growing.
Cornish bulbs are prized for their hardness and earliness. “Bulbs are not as hard from Lincolnshire because of the colder climate.”
Bulbs being replanted the next year are hot water-treated to kill pests, such as bulb eelworm.
Gross margin wise, he says daffodils can earn about twice the margin of potatoes when selling flowers and bulbs. However, seed costs are high and picking is labour intensive.
“We grow 30 varieties of which half are yellow ones for flower production and the remainder are different colours and variations, primarily for bulb production.”
Typically, true yellow varieties are preferred for flowers, but most varieties can be picked for flowers depending on the market.
Examples of flower varieties include Golden Lady, Dutch Master, Rembrandt, Unsurpassable, St Patricks Day, Golden Ducat and Standard Value. Bulb varieties would be Ice Follies, White Lion, Barrett Browning, Pink Pride and Salome.