Inspiration comes from all sorts of places.
For Worcestershire farmer Charles Hudson it was a bunch of flowers on his dining room table.
The self-confessed “romantic” often picked them for his wife and, on this one particular Monday morning, had come back to the house after visiting the village churchyard.
It had hosted a wedding at the weekend and because, as at many venues, the vicar didn’t allow confetti in the churchyard, there was a mass of the stuff littered round the lychgate and in the road. It was wet and soggy and, frankly, an eyesore.
Charles was struck by the colours of the contents of the vase on his table – it was bright and beautiful and the same as what the confetti would have originally been.
And then the idea: if he made the stuff out of petals, rather than paper or foil, it would be biodegradable so vicars wouldn’t ban it.
Nearly 20 years on, he still views that as “a life-changing moment.”
Business is blooming
Nowadays The Real Flower Petal Confetti Company has a turnover of more than £250,000 and, this year, grew 10ha for this market, its biggest area ever.
Its products have featured in high-profile weddings around the world – including those of film stars Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones and Olympian Jessica Ennis and Andy Hill.
Perhaps the biggest one was when Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles tied the knot.
“We didn’t know about it until afterwards,” recalls Charles. “Someone rang up and said they wanted to make a big purchase and the next day a big car drew up and men in dark glasses got out, it was all very clandestine.
“The day after the wedding, we saw our confetti in The Daily Telegraph.”
They tried different plants but honed in on the annual delphinium as the best option as the petals keep their three-dimensional shape and colour (although rose petals, wildflowers, hydrangeas, and lavender are included in the mixes).
“When it’s in full bloom it’s absolutely blinding.”
The flowers are picked by hand in the last week of June and the first two or three weeks of July before being dried using just sunshine and fresh air.
The crop at Wick is an explosion of colours in the run-up to harvest – purples, carmines, pinks, blues and whites.
“It looks staggering,” says Charles. “When it’s in full bloom it’s absolutely blinding.”
Hardly surprising that, when the field is opened to the public, thousands of people flock to see it.
This year, some Chinese visitors even got the train from London to Pershore, the nearest station, then walked about four miles purely to catch a glimpse.
The team have even got in the Guinness World Records – their Union flag of delphiniums officially recognised as the largest floral carpet ever grown. The certificate dated 13 July 2004 displayed proudly on the office wall shows the area: 7,540.4 sq m (81,164 sq ft). That’s almost 1ha.
Charles runs the business in tandem with his farming operations which, through a combination of his own land and contracting work, covers about 607 arable hectares.
They have been careful not to rush expansion, with Charles initially trialling ideas in the garden before upscaling moving to an allotment before rolling out more widely. Initially, they grew just under 1ha, then for many years 10-12 acres, then this year’s peak area.
It was very much run as a sideline out of the house, with stock – sometimes hundreds of thousands of pounds – stored in boxes upstairs in the house.
“I was farming by day then at night I was packing up petals and sending them to places as far away as America and New Zealand.”
He met some scepticism – it was a time when diversification typically meant opening a café or a farmshop – but he was keen to break the mould. He ignored the nay-sayers and those he thought he was eccentric.
“Some people thought I’d lost my mind, but I could see it had potential.
“There was a spell a while back when we were turning over as much money on those 12 acres of flowers as we were on the rest of our agricultural activities”
“I realised I had a commodity in farming that didn’t weigh thousands of tonnes, didn’t take loads of barn space and wouldn’t suffer from pests and bugs while it was in storage.”
Because there was the potential to sell direct to the customer, there wouldn’t be other businesses in the chain needing to take their margin resulting in a mark-up which can make the retail price uncompetitive.
This meant they’d get to do something which is rare in agriculture – set their price.
“A lot of livestock farmers spend two years growing an animal, then put it in an auction ring and wait to see what someone will pay them for it. With this, we realised we could be in control of what we were selling the product for.
“There was a spell a while back when we were turning over as much money on those 12 acres of flowers as we were on the rest of our agricultural activities – although that was more of an indictment of the state of agriculture than necessarily how fabulous the profits from flowers were.”
A pint of petals is now priced at £11, with a range of accessories such as cones, sachets, envelopes and baskets (Charles has even patented a piece of easy-to-slip-in-your-pocket packaging for the product).
Petals can be blended to suit any colour scheme and brides have been known to send samples of the dress so the colours can be co-ordinated.
Challenges along the way
Charles is the first to admit he’s been on a steep learning curve – not least because there isn’t the expertise about growing and storing delphiniums on this scale that there is for agricultural crops. Flowers are also high risk.
“We had some big disasters initially.
“One year we spent £7,000 on picking, then a few days later the temperature and humidity changed and botrytis mould went through everything, so we lost most of that.
“We learned a painful lesson – so we now have enough reserve stock to supply two years’ worth of demand, in case of a disastrous harvest.”
The whole enterprise is also more labour-intensive than the crops he’d previously had experience of (although precision farming methods offer some exciting possibilities, for example, replacing hand-weeding with mechanical hoeing).
At harvest, a team of pickers needs to be standby, ready to go the moment conditions are perfect.
Indeed, being able to create jobs has been one of the most satisfying aspects of the whole endeavour.
His family have farmed at Wick for 260 years but he had grown up on a 100ha dairy farm near Bath and witnessed the workforce shrink over the years from once having eight full-time employees.
“It was amazing – and sad – how farming had shed jobs,” he says.
He has also witnessed how the internet and the business has evolved at a fascinating time, he says, and the growth of e-trading was a “complete gamechanger”, he says.
In a three-month spell, more than half of his business moved from phone to internet orders and now the internet accounts for 90% of custom.
Another motivator has been his passion for nature and wildlife.
“When I came to the Vale of Evesham in the 1970s, it was suffering a hangover from the War, when every square inch had been wanted for growing food. It was virtually treeless and hedgeless.
“I’d always loved growing plants and trees. I’ve planted over 100,000 trees and miles of hedges.
“It’s wonderful to see it – and to see all the wildlife that has come back as a result.”
However big the venture might grow, he reckons he’s “psychologically wedded” to agriculture, so won’t ever quit that.
“Like a lot of farmers, I can’t stop myself. There are huge problems at the moment – I can recall wheat being worth £120/t in the early 1970s, last year it was nearer £100/t – but I’m excited about the prospects.
“In farming it’s not necessarily about simply taking on extra acres. It you do that then in a bad year you’re simply losing money on a bigger scale. Don’t get big simply for the sake of getting big”
“In farming it’s not necessarily about simply taking on extra acres. It you do that then in a bad year you’re simply losing money on a bigger scale. Don’t get big simply for the sake of getting big.
“We’re strategically well placed. We’ve got good land, good communications and we’re near big urban populations so we do have opportunities.
“You’ve got to keep being imaginative, looking for added value, looking for new ideas. I always want to find new things – I’m excited by enterprise, innovation and ideas.”
He’s sitting at the dining room table where the original idea came to him and explains just one such idea. In the middle ages, apparently, plant oil was used as a treatment for head lice and nits. “I want to explore that,” he says.
This is one man you wouldn’t bet against making a successful business out of it…