End of an era as Donaldsons ends cut-flower production after 124 years

Matthew Appleby tracks the factors behind the decline of large-scale cut-flower production in the UK.

The loss of a very significant chunk of large-scale production of cut flowers in the UK has drawn closer following the decision of Donaldsons, Britain's biggest year-round cut chrysanthemum producer, to sell up. The last crop will be harvested on 12 December before the site passes to a strawberry grower.

Next year will be the first time a Frampton has not been growing a cut-flower crop for 124 years. "It is the end of an era," according joint owner Alan Frampton.

Donaldsons, which supplies Sainsbury's, produced 16 million chrysanthemum stems each year. Sainsbury's would not say where it plans to source flowers from in 2011, although industry figures suggest that there is currently no UK grower large enough to fill the contract.

Brothers Alan and Colin Frampton founded the company in 1987, together with father Donald and Nick Vrijland, after breaking away from the family businesses formed by Joseph Frampton in 1887. Donaldsons was named after Colin and Alan's father. The first year-round programme of chrysanthemums in Europe was grown at Framptons Nurseries in Chichester in 1955.

Alan Frampton says: "Colin and I ran the business on different lines to everyone else. When we started it, they said it wouldn't work. There were 54 growers then and we went from being the newest, smallest and most in debt to number one. It was about an attitude really. But this is the end of mass market UK-grown cut flowers for several reasons - one being there is no support in this country for horticulture from the Government."

Over the past four years, more than 8ha of chrysanthemums have been closed down in West Sussex, despite massive demand for UK-grown produce, Colin Frampton told last month's West Sussex Growers Association dinner.

"It's the usual story of supermarket price pressure, high energy costs and cheap imports wiping out margins and making further investment not worth the risk."

Simon Davenport was technical sales adviser (AYR Chrysanthemums) for Framptons Nurseries from 1978 to 1988 and was chairman of the UK Chrysanthemum Growers Association in 2004. He now runs Hollyacre Plants and is British Protected Ornamentals Association treasurer.

He points out that although there are still some very large pot chrysanthemum growers, there are only three small producers of year-round cut chrysanthemums left - Van den Broek in Fowey in Cornwall, DLG in Nazeing in Essex and RF Lawrence in Knutsford in Cheshire.

Just a generation ago in the 1970s, there were 120 UK growers, which produced 60 million stems a year. Donaldsons itself opened a new state-of-the-art glass covering 3.8ha in 2006. This facility expanded the company's total production area to 6.5ha.

Davenport says: "South Africa and the Dutch have taken a lot of the market. Many UK businesses simply got old and closed down because of economic pressures and fuel costs." Donaldsons' biggest customer was Sainsbury's, who he thinks "will probably be importing from Holland or looking further afield. No UK grower can supply in any quantity any more. Most are looking at supplying local markets instead".

Meanwhile, "seismic shifts" in the horticultural industry are ushering in opportunities through the "great expansion of the grape, soft fruit and garden plant businesses," added Colin Frampton at last month's event, although this new period is witnessing some local industries "passing away".

Davenport agrees. He says the feeling in the market is that chrysanthemum as a product is not valued very highly, with margins much less than those for soft fruit. "That's why a lot of nurseries' year-round production are strawberries and raspberries," he says.

Donaldsons is now being sold to berry grower Hall Hunter Partnership, through agent Quinton Edwards. Offers in excess of £9m were sought for the Chichester-based cut-flower nursery, a farm and five-bed property. The site extends to 16.59ha, with 65,246sq m of modern glass. Planning permission is in place for a further 39,502sq m of glass to be developed.

Davenport says: "It is the end for large-scale cut-flower production. We're talking about very high costs to get started with the energy and quality glasshouses that are required. If Donaldsons wanted to compete with the Dutch suppliers, they needed the new 8-10,000 lux lighting. That is a big cost when you're not sure of margins and the future of the British supermarket trade - it's a very risky business endeavour."

He continues: "Cut chrysanthemums were a large input into UK economy but that has gone into other products, such as strawberries. As far as the flower trade goes, this was one of the last lines of cut flowers still being produced in the UK in large quantities. Older growers remember growing freesias, lilies, roses and carnations - they have all disappeared. Chrysanthemums are the last in what was a very strong trade."

Cheshire grower RF Lawrence & Sons nursery manager Trevor Lawrence says: "Basically it's ended because we couldn't compete with the Dutch and their subsidies. Supermarkets' attitude towards British-grown has changed but it's a little bit too late. Five or 10 years ago, supermarkets wanted to have the cheapest products and kept overlooking all English-grown and buying Dutch instead because it was cheaper.

"The strange thing is now supermarkets are getting interested in UK-grown. It's too late for Donaldsons. I think it will all change again in the next few years but I don't think people will still be producing on the scale of the Dutch.

"If Sainsbury's doesn't find a UK grower then it too will go to Holland," he adds. "The biggest problem for the domestic grower is competing with the price the supermarkets want to pay. We won't entertain supermarkets so grow for small retail outlets instead. There is now a tenth of the industry that there was in the UK 10 years ago."

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