Every day's a Saturday for contented grower

GREENHOUSE GLORY: Kevin Allum from Washington Orchids.  Retractable lines attached to the shed roof are hooked to the topmost bud of each stem to help them to grow straight.
GREENHOUSE GLORY: Kevin Allum from Washington Orchids. Retractable lines attached to the shed roof are hooked to the topmost bud of each stem to help them to grow straight.

Kevin Allum is finding great pleasure in a new bloom of life. Kashka Tunstall talks to him about his orchid export business. 

Kevin Allum got out of the office and into the garden 12 years ago.

The 68-year-old wore a manager's suit for 40 years, looking after 50 staff and whizzing in and out of meetings.

These days his office is a warehouse-sized shed bursting with colourful orchid plants.

Most are budding but some are in full bloom, reaching for the translucent fibreglass rooftop.

Allum wanders between the rows, looking for new buds as he chats away.

For him this is paradise, an "escape from the corporate jungle".

Allum, born in Dunedin but a long-time Waikato dweller, opted for semi-retirement in 2000 and moved to a lifestyle block in Te Kowhai, with his wife, Jean. She has since died.

The property came with Washington orchids, a miniature cymbidium orchid growing and exporting business.

"I didn't know anything about orchids at all.

"The previous owner helped me understand the ramifications of the business which was nice and I've developed it," he says.

When he bought the business in 2000, there were only 2000 plants in the 1200 sqm shed.

Today there are 4000 and he says revenue has swelled as well, though he's only willing to say he has a "modest" income that he's happy with.

It's a one-man operation.

Allum looks after the plants, feeds and grows, cuts and packs the flowers before shipping them.

He stocks the traditional green, white, pink and yellow varieties as well as new popular cross breeds like gold, pink and bloodstone.

"These days buyers are wishing to purchase interesting colours, different colours," he says. "I'm sort of trying to turn my business into something a bit boutiquey, sort of specialised. I'm a tiny player in the world of orchid growing but I've enough here to do for myself.

"Every year I'm doing something different from the previous year. I'm trying to streamline it and and I think I'm getting better and better with the experience over the last few years."

Exporters in Auckland find buyers and ship stock for Allum to markets including Australia, Canada, Japan, the Pacific Islands and the United States. He says 99.9 per cent of his cut flowers are exported although he never knows where they will end up.

"I don't really care where they go, as long as somebody pays me. I grow and produce and a middleman has the contacts," he says.

One stem sells for between $4 and $8 and Allum sells in boxes of 10 or 12.

He exports 700 to 1000 boxes each year. Stems not up to export standards he sells locally to drop-in customers looking for flowers for birthdays or wedding centre-pieces.

February and August are Allum's busy months.

He says the Waikato can be a hard place to grow orchids with cold snaps on winter mornings but he has a water system in place that warms the air when it's too cold and cools it down on hot summer days .

In the summer he only has to go into the shed twice a week to water while the rest of the week he carries out maintenance and repairs in preparation for the winter.

"But it's not regimented in that I can do it whenever I like . . . It's good for the soul, growing orchids," he says.

"I don't have any staff. I don't have any meetings. I don't have budgets or key performance indicators and all that crap that the commercial world has. I did 40 years of that and I've had a gutsful.

"Now I would say every day is like Saturday - it's a great day isn't it? You can do what you like, when you like, if you like."

Waikato Times