Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Perfect place for freesias

Blokker Freesia Tasmania owner Maarten Blokker.

BUYING fresh cut flowers from a roadside stall at the farm of Australia's only all-year-round freesia grower is more of a treat than it might seem to a local person.

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Overseas tourists think it's a charming tradition to be retained, but that's not the reason.

If you were to buy freesias at a florist outlet only a few kilometres away at Latrobe or in Devonport the flowers may have already been over Bass Strait twice to the Melbourne wholesaler and back again.

But inside the little tin flower shed off Wesley Vale Road it is only a few metres from the massive glasshouses where the North-West blooms are growing.

Blokker Freesia Tasmania is in the final stages of completing a major $2.5 million glasshouse extension.

Community spirit is on display courtesy of the honesty box sitting next to the plastic bucket of flowers.

Today you can purchase a bunch of elegant purple irises for just $5 and leave the money in the tin.

A country custom suggestive of a place where people still know each other and like to trust the honesty of strangers.

The flowers that 'Scape has come to find out more about offer a sweet peppery scent, which is vastly pleasant on your senses as you step inside the beanshoot green painted office of Blokker Freesia Tasmania.

The vase of brightly coloured blooms on the counter adds a dash of spice to the air.

The warm smile of the flower grower who appears behind the counter belongs to Maarten Blokker.

He has been hard at work since before 7am.

The 47-year-old father of four is tall, blonde and handsome.

He explains later that flower growing is hard work and if that's the case it seems to suit him.

In rows of massive glasshouses his workers are also busy at their tasks.

These days Maarten and wife Marianne Blokker employ about 25 people.

The couple has four children Aledia, 21, Tom, 19, Maarten 18 and Jake, 16.

Mr Blokker says the kids were still in their nappies when he and Marianne came to build this place from scratch.

Sixteen years later he still finds it rewarding to grow something beautiful that sells well in the market.

``I like to grow a crop of flowers. It is really satisfying to be able to grow something which is nice and healthy and productive and paying its way, '' he says.

Perhaps French impressionist Claude Monet said it best when he said: ``More than anything else I must have flowers, always and always.''

The Blokkers grow colourful freesias with white becoming more important in recent years.

They aim to grow about 55 per cent white because of the demand driven by fashionable trends and, of course, weddings.

The Blokkers grow 20 per cent yellow freesias, 10 per cent blue-

purple and the rest pink and red.

They also grow calla and Dutch iris largely outside on three hectares of land.

TEMPERATE Tasmania is increasingly seen as the best place in Australia to grow cut flowers and with the impact of climate change that will only become more true.

North-West Tasmania is the perfect place to grow freesias, says Mr Blokker.

He borrowed 100 per cent of the money to buy the six-hectare site and had very little working capital on top.

``From planting it takes a year to get any money back so we lived on nothing for a year it was tough on Marianne with four young children to look after, '' Maarten says flicking through old photos that show the first glasshouses going up and a cheeky young Jake toddling about.

When Maarten Blokker senior came with his family of five children to Tasmania from Holland in 1985, he was looking for a land of opportunity for his kids and their children.

Looking back he made the wise choice, says his son.

``I was 17 and I could not wait to get here, '' Mr Blokker says.

``It was a good culture shock.

``It was great for me as soon as I got here the different people, the different scenery and the different food.''

The Blokker family had been flour millers for generations back home and that's the business Maarten snr went into again at Scottsdale.

Flower growing began as a hobby business.

Maarten jnr did his trade as a boiler maker-welder and fitter and turner and worked at several different jobs before he followed what his father had started and began growing freesias himself.

``We sold the flour milling business and decided to continue with the flowers, '' he said.

``We had struggled with it for seven years at Scottsdale because we were growing flowers in an area not as suitable as it is here.''

He came to Wesley Vale to work for another flower grower first and found the perfect location for what he wanted to do.

After his previous attempt at flower growing he knew what not to do.

``This is a Coastal climate with a cool sea breeze in summer and basically no frost in winter, which is very important, '' Mr Blokker said.

Blokker Freesia was established in 1997 on a block that has a sand-loam soil with excellent drainage.

With the basics in place he was able to get started with very low-

cost infrastructure.

``We put everything into it and had to make this work so I was fairly nervous and we were working 24-7, '' he said.

``Hopefully I am a bit more wise about things now, but I would do it again.

``It was challenging and it was fun.

``We had a good plan.

``We had good experience from the seven years of failures, '' he laughs.

``And we had come to a place where we had the fundamentals right.

``To successfully grow freesias on a year-round basis, you need to make sure you have all the fundamentals right.

``We had excellent soil good water and good climate and we were willing to do the hard work which hasn't stopped since.''

Everything to do with the growing of the flowers the picking, the harvesting and the lifting of the bulbs has all got to be done by hand and can't be automated with robotics, he says.

``It's very labour and capital intensive work.''

``At any one time we can be digging old crops, steaming soil, planting new crops, processing bulbs and picking flowers.

``We do our bulb processing, preparation and storage. The corms go through four temperature regimes before being planted again.

``About a third of our turnover goes to labour and wages.''

He compares growing flowers to being a bit like milking cows. ``You've got to do it every day, '' Mr Blokker said.

``You've got to go through every one and pick it in the right spot at the right time.''

The fast-growing irises are the easiest to pick and in summer will have to be picked three times a day, seven days a week. It is mainly done backpackers who live on the property in what used to be the family house before a new one was built three years ago.

IN AN article for the Australian Flower Industry Mr Blokker said that ``as the business developed and year-

round production and crop success became more important, we installed equipment and a glasshouse.''

He said Blokker Freesia now had more than a hectare under cover and all greenhouses were climate controlled.

Soil temperature was a vital part to growing freesias.

``In the glasshouses you've got to monitor and control the soil temperature which is critical the first eight weeks after planting to get it just right, '' Mr Blokker said.

``In the winter we keep the soil warm and in the summer we keep it cool.''

Blokker Freesia was recently named among 25 businesses, nine in the North-West, that were second-round grant recipients under the Tasmanian Government Innovation and Investment Fund to share in $3.5million to create jobs.

Blokker Freesia received $145,000 to put in a climate-

controlled soil cooling and heating system, which is an investment that will increase glasshouse capacity by 80 per cent.

``If we didn't have climate control we can really only budget on one crop a year, because you have to rely on the seasons to do the work and now we can budget on two crops a year.

``At the moment our goal is to bed down this expansion and get the processes streamlined and in full production.''

Mr Blokker talks of the other investments he calls the life story of his successful business.

Such as investing in a steam boiler modified to run on sawdust as a renewable energy source.

Sustainable and environmentally responsible production is also behind the erection of a wind turbine that went up a week ago to supply most electricity needs.

``We are in a windy location and we've got high energy use and we are always looking at alternatives.

``Holland is covered in wind turbines and the climate conditions here were ideal.''

Mr Blokker said the wind turbine, bought from poultry farmer Rob Nichols, was a $400,000 investment he hoped would save up to $80,000 a year in power costs.

Mr Blokker said freight is a major cost issue and remains the biggest hurdle for many Tasmanian producers.

He said there needs to be infrastructure and a direct line from Tasmania.

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Only 1 per cent of Blokker flowers are sold in Tassie.

The flowers are packed in the cool room to remain fresh and shipped to the mainland before being taken via refrigerated road freight all over the country.

``When you consider to get a container from Melbourne to Burnie costs just as much as from Rotterdam to Melbourne.'' 

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