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From Rakaia to the World

Words by Annie Studholme

8 August 2017

Celebrated for its agricultural diversity, there is much more to Mid Canterbury than the traditional dairying, cropping or sheep and beef. It’s also home to one of the country’s largest lily bulb producers, exporting millions of bulbs from its Rakaia processing plant to growers around the world.

 A little over two decades ago, Dutch company Bakker Bulbs came to New Zealand in search of the perfect region from which to expand its operation, looking to produce quality Southern Hemisphere grown bulbs. Within five years, it had purchased 14 hectares at Rakaia, set about creating a world-class processing plant and planted its first plant stock from Holland.

Today, Bakker Bulbs is a multi-million dollar business, producing more than 20 million lily bulbs each year for large growers supplying the massive cut flower market right down to your average home gardener. It collectively farms almost 400 hectares with lilies rotated between wheat, barley and clover seed, and sells 150,000 cut flowers into the local market. In addition, it employs eight full-time staff with its workforce swelling to 65 people during peak harvest season, along with using contractors when required.

Back when Bakker Bulbs first came calling in 1995, Adin Geeson (manager and part-owner) admits he knew little about growing lilies. Back then, he was working as a tractor driver for a tulip grower in Tapanui who Bakker Bulbs approached about getting bulbs grown on contract. With a love of agriculture galvanised by years spent working as a child on his grandparent’s sheep and beef farm in the school holidays, Adin eagerly took on the responsibility of caring for the lilies, spending eight weeks in Holland being brought up to speed.

Not long into the new venture however, it became clear that lilies were unsuited to west Otago’s wet climate and heavy soils, and after two years of research, Bakker Bulbs moved the operation north to Rakaia because of its favourable soil conditions and stable climate with Adin at the helm. “The perfect season is a hot summer, coolish autumn and cold, dryish winter, so Mid Canterbury was perfect.”

The operation started small, building a processing plant and cool stores, which have been added to over the years in line with growth. Now, it operates two processing plants, one for planting stock and the other solely for its export bulbs and has some 11 cool stores on that same 14 ha property.

Because lilies are grown on a minimum seven-year crop rotation initially they leased paddocks from individual farmers nearby, but in 2003 they managed to purchase a further 200 hectares and also have a long-term lease on 170 hectares from neighbours, Edward and Bronwyn Oakley. “We used to lease just a paddock here and there, and then they asked whether or not we wanted to lease the whole thing. It works really well. Edward still helps out from time to time. We are also able to rent some fields from other neighbouring farmers too.”

Bakker Bulbs grows mostly Oriental lilies as well as some Oriental Trumpet hybrids. They have around 30 different varieties with 65% of bulbs produced shipped directly to Asia, 25% back to Bakker Bulbs’ parent company in Holland, and the rest to USA, Australia, Kenya, Indonesia and Mexico. Less than 1% stays in New Zealand, explains Adin.

About 75 hectares of what they farm at any one time is tied up with the lilies. Around 42 hectares are harvested each year, while the other 32 hectares or so stay in the ground for two years. When the land is not in use for lilies, Adin puts in a variety of other traditional arable crops including wheat, barley and clover seed. “The main reason for sticking to the more traditional crops is because clover is good for the soil and the others have straw residue to put back into the soil. If we need a clean seed bed we might cut the straw and bale it, but most goes back in. We also grow black oats to be ploughed under. The soil has to be in top notch condition. Lilies are quite sensitive to compaction and fertiliser.”

He also runs a beef finishing herd over the winter months, buying in mainly Angus and Hereford 18 month old cattle. “I just started doing it as a bit of an interest and its grown from there,” explains Adin. Originally they used to do about 30-40 head, now that’s grown to around 120.

Predominantly the lily bulbs are planted during spring, with nearly 50% of the crop required to stay in the ground for two years until they’re big enough for export. But if ground conditions allow, planting can start as early as June. “The best place for a bulb to be is in the ground. That's why you plant in winter if you can, but there’s no point if it’s too wet as it’s bad for the soil. It’s a little bit harder to organise work-wise because we are flat out processing. We would rather plant in August/September when everything is finished in the shed, but it’s worth it because of the fact that you are getting a better quality bulb, which in turn means a better quality flower.”

Planting is done using a specially designed automatic planter imported from Holland, with a set number planted per hectare depending on the size of the bulb. On average it can plant about 2ha a day depending on the bulb conditions. “The preparation of the plant stock is really important to us,” says Adin. “We are constantly checking during the autumn that they are growing to the correct size. If we plant big ones (bulbs) with small ones, we will have all different sizes throughout the growing season. We are always targeting a particular size, with each size planted separately. In each variety, the two bottom sizes stay in the ground for two years.”

As the bulb’s main growth period occurs during the summer around Christmas the flower buds are removed, so the plant devotes its energy back into the bulb, not into the flowers, says Adin. While 90% is achieved using a machine, what’s missed (about 10%) has to be cut by hand. It’s also peak time for irrigation. They have three wells over the two properties and use hard hose irrigators, as well as having 28 ha of solid set irrigation, which is although seen as very labour intensive but a good system for crops grown on beds.

The autumn used to be quiet on the farm, but in addition to the bulb production, they now sell cut flowers from February to April as an entirely separate business. “The main reason we started growing cut flowers was that allowed us to keep three people on full-time in the autumn otherwise we wouldn’t be able to employ them during that period. It’s also a good way of using the second quality bulbs. They still produce a perfect flower.” On average they’re selling upwards of 150,000 flowers into the local market. While some find their way to the local flower auction, 70 per cent are sold to a local wholesaler who on sells them into supermarkets, explains Adin.

Winter signals the start of busiest time of the year, with harvesting in full swing from June 1. In addition to its full-time staff, the staff numbers rise to 65 made up of locals, some of whom return year after year, and seasonal workers and backpackers employed through AgStaff.

Once harvested, the bulbs go through four different washing machines to remove any soil before going into cool storage where they are air dried. They then go through an additional pressure wash to ensure every single particle of soil is removed from around the roots. Once they have been graded and counted, they are packed in Southland peat ready for export. The size and number of bulbs in each crate depends entirely on the customer; 75 per crate at the big end, while there can be as many as 400 at the smallest. The bulbs are then stored in cool stores and the temperature is lowered slowly to below freezing point to keep the bulbs in a dormant state. And then the cycle begins again.

Export regulations for lily bulbs are incredibly stringent, from constant testing of the bulbs and leaves during the growing season for any one of nine possible viruses through to random checks through the shed to ensure there’s no soil on the roots. No bulb can leave New Zealand with more than 1% soil, but Adin says they aim for 0%. It’s the same with viruses. “We spray our crop on a regular basis to keep our plants virus free. That’s a downside of the business, but we can’t sell bulbs if a virus is found.”

While others see the constant testing as a bit of a hassle, Adin sees it as a positive. “You end up having a great relationship with Assure Quality,” he laughs. “We are used to it. In the long run it helps the New Zealand brand. We hear a lot of complaints about other countries, but our system works well. Being thorough and strict works in our favour in the end. Those that are importing from us know they can trust us. Any new varieties and new propagation material coming in from Holland has to go through the same stringent testing before it’s allowed in.”

Every bin they export has its own unique label, giving them 100% traceability. Two years ago they moved to a ‘track and trace’ live computer system where people can log on from anywhere in the world and see what’s happening. “In the past we had been working with Excel spreadsheets. It has been a huge step forward; it’s constantly updating itself making the tracking of orders much easier,” says Adin.

But in reality, growing quality bulbs is only half the equation. While lily bulb production doesn’t go through the huge 30% price fluctuations of grain, staying in tune with what their customers wants is a constant battle, he says.

Different markets like different colours. Japan, for example, likes light pinks and whites, whereas in Taiwan and Vietnam, yellow is popular, and its forever changing. “To spread our risk, we are trying to supply all markets.” Every year new varieties are being bred by specialist breeders, but in reality, few make it, he adds. “It has to be pretty special. If you breed a new variety and its looks like another variety, then it’s pretty hard.”

It’s also a long process. Any new variety can take anywhere from five to seven years to get up to a commercial quantity and customers still have to want it in five to seven years, says Adin. “The planning is years ahead. We have a 1ha glasshouse in Holland preparing virus-free material for us. It’s seven years before a flower grower can grow that material that’s in the glasshouse now. You can’t just get out of one (variety) overnight and into a new one either which makes it a reasonably stable business and the customers realise that too. You have to keep asking yourself: what do we want to be growing in 5 year’s time? You do get it wrong with a few varieties, for sure. It’s our greatest challenge.”

He says the company’s continued success rests on their relationships with the customers and exporters. Our customers are very loyal. Some have been with them since the start. In Japan, they’ve been dealing with the same families for the past 17 years and it’s a very important relationship to have. “With our Japanese clients it’s all about the relationships, but in other markets it’s all about the price of the bulb.”

“We don’t even attempt to sell into countries direct. The main reason is because we would have to be selling into so many different countries. It’s a complete business by itself. We have very strong relationships with the exporters, they have built the relationships with their customers and we have that relationship with them. We do go and visit our customers regularly with the exporters to show that united front.”

Adin says future growth is limited by how much they can process through the shed during that 10-week period over harvest. The advent of new machines has helped, but to take it to the next level further expansion is on the cards this year. “When we started; 20 million bulbs was always the magic number in the back of our minds and now that we have reached that, we need to make some changes to increase it further. We have always chosen quality over quantity, and that has served us well over the years. We have no desire to be the biggest, but we have a strong desire to be the best.”

For Adin though, it’s always been more than just a job; it’s a way of life and one that he really enjoys. While wife, Shirley, is not actively involved, she is always there and is 100% supportive, splitting her time between helping out where needed and looking after their three children. Adin would love to see their children involved in the future, but says they need “to make their own way in the life”. However, should they want to, the opportunities are there for the taking.

He also pays huge tribute to his staff, many of whom have been with them for many years and whom without, none of it would be possible.

Bakker Bulbs is a big part of the Rakaia community, and each year donates 1000s of bulbs to the local Rakaia Lions Club for fundraising.