Opinion: A flowering business… but no easy fortune

We gave up growing sugar beet about eight years ago. Since then I have been keeping a careful tally of the number of times that I have regretted the decision. So far, it’s none.

The harm that processed sugar does to the human body is nothing compared to the damage the crop did to our soil structure. If you are going to ruin soil structure, do it with a potato crop where there’s the remote possibility of making some proper money every couple of decades.

Despite my antipathy towards growing sugar beet, I sympathise with growers regarding next year’s disappointing price. This was the remaining profitable crop for many arable farms. It grows ever more challenging to construct a rotation that will satisfy the needs of good husbandry, the new Basic Payment Scheme and the bank manager.

I am not one for moaning about low prices, but even I am finding the present values of all commodity crops rather sobering. Inevitably, farms will respond by consolidating into larger units with bigger and uglier machinery.

I remain unconvinced that large farms can produce food more cheaply, but I can follow the logic that it is more pleasant to lose money sitting in a Quadtrac than driving a Case MX135 with bald tyres and faulty air-con.

I decided relatively early in my career that our farm was too small to produce commodity crops such as wheat, oilseed rape or sugar beet. I doubt that we would still be in full-time farming if we hadn’t committed ourselves to intensive cropping.

Even so, the market for cut flowers, a sector where we have a modicum of expertise and enjoy decent relationships with supermarket buyers, is still a tough business to be in at the moment.

Although most of our prices are agreed a year in advance, there are many other factors outside of our control that prevent us from making an easy fortune. Harvesting cut flowers in open fields from February through to October inevitably involves moments of high cost, drama and joylessness.

The weather is always a challenge, as any readers currently trying to dodge the weather to gather cereals or forage will attest. The paradox is that consumers buy more flowers when the weather is unpleasant.

When the sun is shining and I have lots of flowers to sell, shoppers are busy filling their trollies with charcoal and continental lager instead. I dread sunny days, sometimes I have to go and sit in front of the generation meter on our solar panels clutching ice cubes until my blood pressure has fallen.

The flower orders that we receive from supermarkets are mostly computer-generated and the actual orders don’t arrive until less than 24 hours before they need to be dispatched. It is a challenge to fully meet this demand and can be a licence to lose money.

As with most fresh-produce sectors, flower sales in the UK are no longer growing significantly and we are feeling the effects of retailer competition.

This article isn’t meant to sound complaining – I love my job. I am merely trying to offer comfort to farmers who are facing a disappointing year by sharing some of my own difficulties.

The more perceptive of you may wonder if I am also purposefully putting a negative spin on flower growing to prevent hordes of aggrieved sugar beet growers from planting their farms with daffodil bulbs. Maybe that’s true as well. Although, if they are considering this, I hope they will consider me as their bulb supplier.

Matthew Naylor farms 162ha of Lincolnshire silt in partnership with his father, Nev. Cropping includes potatoes, vegetables, cut flowers and flowering bulbs. Matthew is a trustee of LEAF and a Nuffield scholar.

Got a view on this? Have your say by emailing fwfarmlife@rbi.co.uk

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