Spring is here and we can all move out of the winter hibernation. Winter is tough in our industry, especially in the southern states. On one hand it is easier than winter in the Europe and northern USA as we don’t freeze over but they close down completely whilst we need to stay open. Although we think of just being a southern version of the northern countries we really are at much lower latitudes. Even Hobart is closer to the equator than most of Western Europe and northern USA and Canada.
What this means is that there are no metropolitan regions in Australia that get buried under snow or have long periods below zero. It means we can plant all year and our plant palette is extensive with many ‘European Annuals’ growing here as short lived perennials.
On the other extreme there are large parts of Australia (anywhere north of Rockhampton) that are in the full tropics. There aren’t any other ‘western first world countries’ in the tropics. As with the very high latitudes, the very low latitudes have particular growing conditions that limit non-local plants from successful production. They also stop the local plants from growing in most of the higher latitudes.
For local garden centres this is not an issue but for propagators and large scale growers it is. We have a population of around 25 million but our customer ranges is only about 60% of this. There are very few plants that can grow in Hobart and Cairns. It is only when you visit Europe and look at their automated plant factories that these numbers hit home.
I recently visited a Chrysanthemum grower in Holland who produces 1.4 million plugs a day. They have two sites doing these numbers and have a very specific market. The cost of each site is around 30 million Euro and they sell each plug for 5cents. These plants go to cut flower growers who sell their flowers worldwide. I also visited production nurseries that were producing 1,000,000 plus plants a week across five to ten cultivars. This equates to nearly a million of each per month. In many cases this is more than we can sell across the whole country in a year. To push this home it means that if every person in Australia who lives in the climatic range of some of these plants, bought one they would still not use all that can be produced.
Although automation is a great option for large markets there are not many plants grown in Australia that could justify the European levels. Most small employers would love to have machines rather than staff. Staff cost a lot when on costs (like holiday and sick pay, loadings, super etc) and the lack of quality employees in so many regions are factored in. And machine costs go down over time, not up and although they need servicing they never call in ‘sick’.
Travelling overseas is a great way to learn and change our systems but we cannot just replicate what they do. We must watch how they process the plants and try to see ways of implementing their processes in the Australian production systems. The automated European plant factories are able to produce masses of plants at a low unit cost. We can watch, observe and understand their processes. We can then modify these to fit in with our more manual systems.
From what I have seen, Australian nurseries are some of the most efficient production growers in the world. We just need to find ways of being less reliant on a shrinking workforce of people who just don’t want to work hard. Our growers are also the most knowledgeable of all nurseries – due mainly to the fact that we all grow tens or hundreds of varieties. Most large scale European nurseries have several cultivars of one or two species.
Along with UK gardeners, the Aussie gardeners are keen and passionate with a desire to try all sorts of plants. The key for our industry is to not try and be super efficient and produce millions of clones at a low cost. We need to have a wide range of plants grown in an efficient manner. Our market place is too small for millions of low cost units and too ‘plant wise’ to accept a narrow, cheap plant palette. To get the most out of our industry we need to have a wide range of cultivars that are well grown to a set quality and not a price point.