Proteas on the peninsula

PASSION FOR PROTEAS: Jessica Cooke runs Peninsula Flowers at Barrys Bay.
PASSION FOR PROTEAS: Jessica Cooke runs Peninsula Flowers at Barrys Bay.

It's a beautiful blue sky day and the glistening sea in the distance looks inviting, but there's no time for relaxing with flowers ready to be picked for auction.

Jessica Cooke has just finished her second year in charge of Peninsula Flowers at Barrys Bay, which was started by her parents, Susan and Phillip Cooke, in the 1980s.  The farm specialises in proteas, waratahs, leucadendrons, banksia and leucospermums - all flowering plants in the Proteaceae family endemic to South Africa and Australia. However, she also grows Christmas lilies, spring blooms and a range of other cut flowers.

The Cooke family's decision to start growing proteas on 20 hectares of Banks Peninsula land initially met with scepticism from other locals in traditional dairy and sheep farming. At first they grew vegetables, but after a trial block of leucadendrons sold well at a Mother's Day auction, they changed to flowers.

On this picturesque, hilly farm, Jessica feels near her father, who died in 1991.

"This is where I feel closest to him. Christchurch started to feel too claustrophobic to me. I wanted more space and the more I came back out here, the more I fell in love with it," she says.

Jessica's mum continued to run the farm after Phillip died, selling off some land at different times to fund Jessica and her older brother Ben's schooling in Christchurch. Eventually in 2003, health issues forced Susan to lease the farm and move to Christchurch herself.

Then, a couple of years ago, she told Jessica she was thinking about selling the farm.

"I said 'no, I want it . . .  It's part of our family's history'."

So Jessica began to lease the seven remaining hectares of the family farm, located in blocks of two and five hectares respectively. She now also leases four other protea blocks based on the Peninsula, which her mother and father helped set up years ago.

Taking on the business was a bold move for Jessica. Granted, she did understand the work involved - having seen her mother work tirelessly over the years - but it wasn't exactly what she thought she would be doing in her late twenties.

Proteas were definitely not her first passion. 

"I did a certificate in personal training with the New Zealand Institute of Sport and had been working part-time in that field, as well as having a part-time hospitality job in Sol Square. After the earthquakes, both those jobs were gone. Mum decided to go back out to the farm and, because of her carpal tunnel, she asked if I wanted to help her."

"Mum really taught me all the basics and was instrumental in the early days of me running the business. She's pretty proud of what I have achieved so far."

Jessica found the physical, outside work suited her and, when faced with the thought of the flower business being sold, she didn't hesitate to take it on.

"It can be hard sometimes when I see my friends on Facebook or hear what they've been up to. They're travelling or enjoying parties at the weekend and I'm working seven days a week at least six months of the year to keep the farm going.

"Sometimes I ask myself, 'Am I doing the right thing?' But I know I am, even though some days all I feel like I do is work from early in the morning until late at night. There's a lot of travelling time, too, between Barrys Bay, Rangiora and Christchurch.

"This was never the dream, but it's become my dream."

During the busy months, each week starts with the Turners and Growers auction in Christchurch at 6am on Monday. After the auction, Jessica drives to Barrys Bay to pick flowers in the afternoon and on Tuesday, sleeping overnight in a caravan on the farm near the packing and storage shed with her dog, Izzy, a border collie/huntaway, for company.

On Tuesday night, she drives to Rangiora, where she lives part of the week with her partner, Glen Jelinek, and sorts and bunches the flowers she has just picked, ready for the Wednesday morning Turners and Growers auction in Christchurch.

After the auction, it's back to Barrys Bay to pick more flowers on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday, before heading back to Rangiora again that night to sort flowers for auction and markets on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Jessica still supplies flowers to her mother, who attends markets at Riccarton House, Lyttelton and the Riccarton Rotary Market. That leaves the Ohoka, West Melton, Mt Pleasant, Oxford, Opawa and Sumner markets for Jessica to look after.

When she has finished the weekend markets, it's back to the farm on Sunday to pick flowers for the Monday morning Turners and Growers auction - when the week starts all over again.

In the busiest months, she employs a picker and a seller to help her keep up with demand.

"I'm not afraid of hard work. Friends think I'm mental working the hours I do, but they are the sacrifices you have to make."

And often, those very friends have helped out on the farm when Jessica needed it most. She says Glen's support has also been amazing.

"He's a mechanic and does engineering work for his own business, too, and works really hard, but will still come home and cook for us and then often comes out to the shed to help me sort flowers. And he comes with me to the farm at least once every couple of weeks to keep me company, as well as supporting me at special events I go to, like the Culverden Fete."

It was Glen who got her Izzy, a faithful companion, especially during the winter months when Jessica is working in the dark packing shed with strange night noises all around.

"Izzy is just great. I've had her for just over a year and it's so good to have her company."

Proteas are winter-flowering, with the season really kicking in about April and running through until December. However, Jessica is still kept busy in January, February and March maintaining the fields, which need weeding, mowing and spraying, and also working a second job in Akaroa in those months to help out financially.  

Ultimately, she would like to grow the business, so that during the quieter summer months she can leave the farm in the hands of a capable employee and go travelling. The number one country on her destination list is South Africa, to see proteas growing in the wild.

"Things have to improve a bit financially before that can happen though, but it is my goal. I love travelling and have only been to England for a gap year when I finished high school, where I did a couple of Contiki Tours in Europe."

She has several ideas for the flower business's future, all of which will take even more hard work and determination.

"I'd like to get into different types of flowers, like the wax flower from Australia. If we can grow proteas in the Banks Peninsula climate, why not wax flowers? I'd also love to re-establish a nursery, like the one Mum had years ago. I often have people asking where they can buy the plants or where they can come and see them and, at the moment, I just deal directly with the requests, so a nursery would be awesome.

"Mum used to export as well and I would love to start that again, too."

But Jessica is realistic about future plans, knowing her ideas can sometimes get away on her.

"I need to concentrate on the basics first. When I am doing the basics and doing them well, then I can concentrate on building things up."

Protea plants last for about 25 to 30 years, although produce best up until about 15 years. This means putting in new plants at least every five years to ensure a constant supply of flowers - not an easy task digging holes in the tough Banks Peninsula soil by hand, which is what Jessica did, with the help of Glen and Ben, to put the first additional rows in. 

Thankfully, she now has a post-hole borer to help with the digging.

Keeping her business plans on the straight and narrow is friend-turned-business mentor Clive Wentworth, who Jessica says provided her with the motivation to keep going with the farm when she was about to give up.

"I wouldn't be here without his help and support."

As well as that, Jessica is really grateful to members of the Banks Peninsula community, many of whom knew her father and have helped her out over the years - from kindly words to fixing fencing when sheep got into some new plants or lending a hand with plumbing issues.

"They have always been there, as and when I have needed them. And for that I'm truly thankful."

In the immediate future, she has a meeting scheduled with the bank to see whether she can borrow money to buy the five hectares of land from her mum. If that goes well, in time she hopes to buy the two-hectare block.

Another priority is looking into the best organic ways to combat diseases in the plants, as at the moment she doesn't use anything - leaving her vulnerable to outbreaks.

For now, though, the main concern is getting the freshly picked flowers lying in boxes in the packing shed into water and then to auction. And everything else is bound to fall into place, because Jessica is working her hardest to make sure it does.