Diane Collison reckons that the business she helps to run is one of the few horticultural companies not affected by the weather. "When it's raining, people still want a few flowers to cheer themselves up," says the partner in JA Collison & Sons, which sells large numbers of cut flowers to Marks & Spencer (M&S), Asda, Waitrose and Sainsbury's.
It is a firm that is continually expanding and finding new ways of doing things better. It has taken great efforts to be an integral part of the local community and this year won HW's Protected Ornamentals Grower of the Year award. Originally established in 1965, it has since 1994 run as a family partnership. Collison's husband Philip, his brother Ian and their mother June are also partners.
The company, based just outside King's Lynn in Norfolk, produces four-million stems of scented stock, around half-a-million bunches of Japanese asters and 1.6 million stems of Longi lilies. It also produces four-million stems of tulips, although next year this will rise to seven-million - primarily because of higher orders from M&S. "Our products are relatively standard, but supermarkets like the fact that our products are local, seasonal and that the stocks and lilies have a good scent," says Diane.
Over the past year, the firm has invested heavily. It has built a 1ha glasshouse, bringing the total area under glass to 5.5ha. A biomass boiler was installed at a cost of £450,000. "We needed a way of reducing fuel costs," Philip explains. The Forestry Commission contributed to the cost of a storage area used for drying wood and the business gets a grant from the Government's Renewable Heat Incentive.
It has also invested around £40,000 on ensuring its water supply. A rainwater-collection system has been installed on the glasshouse roofs and there is a new 10-million-litre reservoir, lined with plastic. "Because of all the rain this year, we've hardly had to use our reservoir, but it will be useful in future years," says Philip. The company runs a full service for retailers. In has a packhouse where the blooms are trimmed and wrapped. In summer, up to 60 people are employed at the facility, although even in winter there are at least 20.
Diane is confident that sales will continue to be buoyant. Although M&S is currently suffering in non-food areas, flowers are sold in the food department so are less affected. She also stresses that the firm sells to four major retailers, making fluctuations more manageable. "Shoppers always like to give themselves a treat," she says.
JA Collison has always made a point of being involved in the local community. It hosts farm walks and gets involved in farm open days. Local Boy Scouts have come to plant hedges. "Having good relations with local people is always beneficial," says Philip. Last year, Ian even went on local radio to talk about the benefits of flowers for Valentine's Day.
The business is keen that its quality produce should get the recognition it deserves and has obtained accreditation from the British Ornamental Plant Producers, the LEAF Marque scheme and M&S Field-to-Fork. According to Philip, this is not just an exercise in vanity. "It makes you look at your own systems and it makes you review things. It's not just a box-ticking exercise - it has spin-off benefits."
He also regards the Grower of the Year award as important feather in the company's cap. "It's a recognition for hard work and it's very good for our staff. They like to think that they are working for a forward-looking operation."
As for the future, expansion is still very much on the cards. JA Collison is trialling outdoor chrysanthemums, which have gone out of favour but Philip believes could be due for a revival. "They are almost retro," he says. He is also trialling new lilies for sales to the retail market.
The firm also hopes to continue its investment drive. "At the moment, we are on several sites, but we would like to concentrate our production on the home site because it's more efficient. We have the land but we would have to put up more glass," Philip adds.
There are also plans to push onwards with the use of biomass boilers. At present, one of the biggest fuel costs is steam-sterilising the soil, which is done by mobile boilers run on oil. "Ideally we would like to use a mobile biomass boiler. It is possible to achieve this but it's not easy," says Philip.
"We'd also have to negotiate with the Renewable Heat Incentive department because it might not be willing to give us a grant," he adds. As far as JA Collison is concerned, there is no shortage of ideas. "The only problem is that we can't do everything at once," says Philip.