Hardy annual a cut above the rest

TOP CROP:  Michelle Kennedy, foreground, Carol Crowne and Ingrid Mitchell picking red charm flowers at Premier Paeonies in Foxhill.
TOP CROP: Michelle Kennedy, foreground, Carol Crowne and Ingrid Mitchell picking red charm flowers at Premier Paeonies in Foxhill.

Tim McKergow isn't getting much sleep at present.

He's in the middle of the paeony harvest, a six-week sprint to pick and pack the prized flowers for export to the United States and Asia.

It means long days for his seven staff and even longer days for him deciding which flowers to send where for the best return and filling in an "awful lot of paperwork" to get them there.

The top out-of-season blooms sell for $US30 ($NZ36.37) a stem in upmarket Manhattan florists in New York, although by the time everyone else takes their cut he will only get about $2.

But while it rankles, it is still enough to make a profit, although it's taken him 12 years to get there and it's not for the faint-hearted.

Mr McKergow took a liking to paeonies when he was living in the US where many Americans grow them in their gardens and they are seen as a harbinger of spring.

"They are easy care and beautiful flowers that rocket out of the ground at spring time."

He began growing them when he returned to his lifestyle block in Mosgiel before deciding they were better suited in Nelson.

For the past five years he has been re-establishing his Premier Paeonies business on land owned by his nephew Nic Richards and wife Michelle Kennedy at Foxhill who will eventually take over the operation.

This season they will pick about 35,000 stems from their 2-hectare garden, which will rise to 100,000 over the next few years once the young tubers are fully productive.

About 80 per cent are exported, with about half going to the US and the rest to Asian markets except for a few to Australia.

They are picked when they are still a tight bud, graded according to size, quality and colour, before being chilled to keep them from opening, trucked north and flown to market.

The remainder, mostly those which have opened a little more, are sold either at auction in Auckland or at the Nelson Farmers Market, where Mr McKergow says they attract "phenomenal" interest.

"We generally sell 100 bunches there on a Wednesday."

They export 26 varieties to cater for all tastes and to spread the risk.

"You have got to know your market segments," Mr McKergow says. "The flower business is like the fashion business, things come and go."

Pure red and white varieties generally attract the best prices, while chorals provide "the bread and butter".

But a comment from a celebrity can change things dramatically. Mr McKergow remembers a purple red variety called karl rosenfeld which "you couldn't give away" suddenly becoming sought after in 2004 when Martha Stewart announced that the fashion colours for that year were plum red and lime green.

Returns depend on volume and the variety but range from $1 a stem to $3, well down on what growers used to get when the New Zealand dollar was a lot weaker and the American economy stronger. "When I started growing the New Zealand dollar was at 42 cents against the American dollar and we sold almost exclusively to the United States.

"Now the dollar is at 82 cents and exporters have developed quite a significant Asian market, which doesn't pay as well as the US but that is changing."

Back in 2000 when sheep and beef farming was in the doldrums, Mr McKergow said women in Southland with 500 paeony plants were earning more from them than their husbands were making from the rest of the farm. While prices have waned, he still estimates he earns more from 2ha than many farmers with larger properties, although the industry is increasingly becoming dominated by larger established growers as the cost of exporting and complying with strict photosanitary requirements rises.

Paeonies had gone through a similar boom and bust cycle to those who thought angora goats, ostriches, alpacas, ginkgo and nuts were the next big thing, he says.

Most of the smaller growers had dropped out, with NZ Paeony Society membership having fallen to about 60 from a high of 300.

"At the peak of the boom choral paeonies were selling for $25 a root division. We now sell them locally for $12 and even at that price it would not pay to go out and plant 25,000 as you would not get a return on your investment."

Mr McKergow says it has taken years of digging and dividing plants to build up his tubers to a profitable number. "These days an economic unit is somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 paeonies."

New Zealand is renowned for growing some of the biggest, most intensely coloured flowers in the world, which he attributes to growers taking a more scientific approach than others and the influence of latitude on the plant's growth rate. Nelson and Central Otago were the two best areas in the country to grow paeonies, which thrive in free draining soils and hot and dry climates with frosty winters.

They were hardy plants, which stored a lot of the nutrients and water they needed in their extensive underground tubers that could weigh up to 40 kilograms.

Despite another wet, warm winter, Mr McKergow says the quality of blooms is very good and the harvest has gone well largely because of settled weather.

"We've only had a couple of wet days since we started picking and it looks as though we will get through with very little disruption which is pretty exceptional."

Unlike last year, picking will be over by the end of the month.

But the 64-year-old, who lives on a boat in the Nelson marina, won't be able to put his feet up until just before Christmas as there will still be cleanup work to be done and sprays to be put on.

Then he will be able to go sailing and spend time looking after his grandchildren.