Producers told Horticulture Week that this relatively calm state of the market is being experienced for several reasons. One is the fact that production costs have eased up thanks to a fall in gas prices. Another is producers' increased investment in alternative heating sources such as biomass boilers. This has reduced the astronomical heating bills that growers were struggling to deal with just a couple of years ago.
George Lisher, director at Cobbins Nursery in Ferring, West Sussex, confirmed: "We have no concerns about heating costs as we have now installed a biomass boiler." Cobbins and other nurseries that have invested in this technology are able to benefit from the Government's Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), which provides payments for heat generation from renewable sources.
Grower Russ Woodcock of Bordon Hill Nurseries in Stratford-upon-Avon explained that the company currently utilises several different traditional heating methods but is also set to soon benefit from the RHI scheme. "We have several different nurseries - one of them runs on gas, one of them runs on oil and we are building a biomass boiler at the moment," he said.
Arden Lea Nurseries in Preston, Lancashire, grows some 23,000 poinsettias for the supermarket Booths. Arden Lea director Stuart Taylor said: "We have a biomass boiler on our site that grows poinsettias. It will take time for that to be paid off, but it's an investment. If you had asked me five years ago I would have been quite wary (about the economies of growing poinsettias). But now, with this kind of technology, the future is brighter."
Alex Newey, managing director of the Newey Group, which raises young poinsettia plants and grows finished poinsettias for Sainsbury's at its Roundstone Nurseries site in Lagness, West Sussex (see p17), said the company does not have a biomass boiler but added: "Gas and biomass are on a par at the moment," meaning nurseries that rely on gas are not currently at a disadvantage compared to those that use biomass boilers.
Newey estimated that some three million poinsettias are being grown in the UK this season - a similar figure to last year. "The market is static but I am OK with that," he said. "It's a high-risk product because it has a low margin and it's on the ground for a long time. We have already got stock in place for 2016 and so for Christmas next year we have stock plants going in and some plants get potted on to our Roundstone nursery as early as the end of July. It's a long crop with a low margin so having a static market is OK."
Chichester-based Hill Brothers grows nearly half-a-million poinsettias for Sainsbury's. Managing director Greg Hill agreed with Newey that this year's market is static. "Overall, UK production is pretty similar to last year," Hill confirmed. He added that, as the market stabilises, he is "not really worried" about customers favouring cheaper imports from Europe - an issue that in the past has, like heating costs, affected the UK's poinsettia production industry.
Newey pointed out that the UK's horticulture industry has "tried really hard to get the message across that UK-grown poinsettias are better". He added: "There's always going to be a balance between English-grown and European-grown product. A European import is a low-value product that does not last as well but it meets a retailer price point. UK-grown should be more popular and I feel that there's more consumer awareness now for English-grown poinsettias being better value for money because they last longer."
Lisher, from Cobbins, added that the nursery is producing more poinsettias this year because along with its various garden centre customers it is now growing poinsettias for B&Q, which has just moved all of its poinsettia production to the UK. Taylor pointed out that his primary poinsettia customer Booths is also happy to support British-grown plants. "Obviously they need to offer their customers a fair price for their products but they do not seem to want to engage in any price wars as some other multiples may do," he said.
"We take great pride in growing quality poinsettias. I have lost count of the number of times people stop me and say: 'We still have our poinsettia from last year.' We supply a good-quality product that is a bit more expensive but still, every year, the customers have a good experience. We grow ours slowly and naturally, do not force them and really try and make them as robust as possible so that customers will have as positive an experience as possible. Booths values that and celebrates that."
Producers have also confirmed that this year's crops is growing well, "looking nice" and that they are generally sticking to the same sizes and pots as last year. They are also continuing to favour the market-leading variety, Infinity.