Right after Horti Fair last fall, Fides hosted a group of North American growers in South Africa. This was an opportunity not only to see where their kalanchoe cuttings come from but visit growing operations in another part of the world and take in cultural attractions while cultivating new friendships and business relationships. The tour was hosted by Reinoud and Rian Hagen of Fides North America, and the following growers participated:
- Ed and Joanne Boekestyn, Boekestyn Greenhouse, Jordan Station, Ontario
–Mickey Ferragine and Tony Gutta, Bradford Greenhouses, Barrie and Bradford, Ontario
–Bert and Jane De Bolster, Hanemaayer Greenhouses, Vineland, Ontario
–Sim and Debra McMurry, Metrolina Greenhouses, Huntersville, N.C.
–Bob and Joanne Newhouse, Walden Gardens, Wainfleet, Ontario
–Duane and Marion Van Alstine, Balfour Greenhouses, Fenwick, Ontario
–Stuart and Liz Van Staalduinen, Bayview Flowers, Jordan Station, Ontario
Based in Holland and owned by Kirin in Japan, Fides is a flower breeder-producer with a global presence in key blooming potted plants and cut chrysanthemums. Fides’ 15-acre cuttings farm in South Africa is called Safropa–blending South Africa with Europe. The facility outside Johannesburg was originally built to supply chrysanthemums, but that production has moved to Uganda. Today, the facility is completely focused on kalanchoe cuttings.
Safropa produces 1.8 million cuttings per week. While 65 percent of the production is the double-flowered Calandiva varieties, the remaining 35 percent is single-flowered kalanchoe varieties. In just four years, the double-flowered varieties have dominated the European market.
Adjacent to the property is a strawberry farm, also owned by a Dutch enterpreneur. Dutch ingenuity has come into play at Safropa, building canals to catch rainwater and secure a stable year-round supply of water, which isn’t found on most farms in South Africa.
The primary heating source is coal, and Safropa uses between 15 and 20 tons of coal per night. While coal is abundant and cheap compared to other fuels, the price has doubled from 400 rands (about $40) per ton a year ago to 800 rands per ton (about $80). For electricity, the facility has two generators to compensate for blackouts.
Safropa employs 350 workers. While 20 take cuttings at any given time, the rest are involved in crop maintenance and shipping. Some come to the greenhouse by foot. Others come by bus and Fides pays for the ticket. Workers get paid by the unit. While you wouldn’t think there would be a lot of worker protections in a Third World country because of the Apartheid legacy, there are social reforms and laws employers must follow under the Employment Equity Act and Basic Conditions of Employment Act.
One thing we noticed across the kalanchoe varieties was differences in leaf shapes and sizes. Large leaves are taken off to enhance cuttings production. Supplemental lighting is used to keep plants in a vegetative state. Safropa has been testing energy-saving bulbs from Philips. Lights are on 10 minutes and off 20 minutes.
The rooting medium consists of coco fiber, bark and Styrofoam. It is steam sterilized and reused for three crops. “We had to learn a lot with coco, making sure it wasn’t too wet or drying out,” says Frank Enthoven, the managing director at Safropa. “We were almost not sleeping at night, testing the cocos.”
Stock plants are changed out every 40 weeks, which keeps production fresh. “When I came here, the place was full of kalanchoe trees!” Enthoven says. “This system works. The main thing is the plant needs to be ready for the next order in three weeks.”
Growers had the opportunity to ask questions about their production concerns. Enthoven says he fields between 30 and 40 eMails a day on these matters.
When we went into the shipping coolers, the growers had fun finding boxes of cuttings addressed to their operations in Canada. A few even put surprise notes in the boxes for their employees to find. Cuttings were shipped on Friday to arrive on Monday for sticking Tuesday. They were packed in Styrofoam-lined boxes for temperature control.
Transportation takes longer to the United States and Canada than to Europe. If temperatures are consistently high or low, that’s okay, but when temperatures fluctuate, the plants sweat.
Another logistical difference between North America and Europe is what happens when substitutions need to be made. In North America, where there is usually a broker in between, the substitution needs to be cleared through the broker before it can happen. In some cases, brokers will allow growers and Fides to resolve these issues directly.
For blooming potted plant specialists with 52-week programs, timing is critical to receiving the same colors on the same date. They need all the colors in the box of cuttings.
Ready For Retail
In addition to visiting Safropa, we visited two finished plant growers who supply local markets through the Plantimex distribution alliance. Retailers range from florists to nurseries, interiorscapers and chain stores.
Patio Plant Nurseries, owned by Jan and Elvira Bronger, specializes in pot mums. Cuttings are shipped in from Uganda. While quarantines are an issue with chrysanthemum cuttings coming into the United States, other countries do not have restrictions.
The Brongers focus on a limited assortment of varieties with strong colors and schedule crops every two weeks, 10,000 pots at a time. They sell all they grow.
In addition to supplying cuttings to growers, Fides has been selling 120 million stems of fresh cut mums in South Africa, where the cut flower market is stronger than potted plants. While cut flowers represent $100 million in annual sales, potted plants are just 20 percent of that. In potted plants, Plantimex claims to have 55-60 percent market share
Going For Upgrades
The flagship grower for Plantimex is LVG, owned by the Van Geest family. Ivo van Geest is managing director of Plantimex, the distribution arm. He, his father and two brothers run 14.82 acres of greenhouse and all live on site. “The houses are just far enough apart to not fight,” he says.
The business is just 12 years old with modern greenhouse facilities with attractive brick foundations that match the buildings throughout. LVG looks like a nicely landscaped industrial park. Specialty crops include orchids, Rieger begonias, gloxinias, gerberas and Poulsen potted roses. While larger roses go to nurseries, smaller ones go to retail chains.
One quarter of Plantimex’s business is Woolworth, which is different in South Africa than what it was in the United States. It is more like a higher-end department store, like Kohl’s or JC Penney. Stores near Johannesburg receive deliveries every day, and plants are delivered to Cape Town every two days. Between 2,000 and 3,000 units are planted every week.
Plantimex also has a pottery factory to control its destiny with stylish plant upgrades. “It has improved our market tremendously on certain items,” van Geest says. “We’re not as cheap as China. Pots are $1.50 to $2 from our factory. We looked at importing but we can do shorter runs here, change molds. We’re not bound to inventory. Every six months, our looks change.”