Belgium’s floriculture sector is thriving after demand for ornamental flowers and plants has risen sharply, which is welcome news after the difficulties faced during the beginning of the coronavirus crisis.
The production value of the ornamental plant and tree nursery sector in Belgium amounts to approximately €600 million, according to the Flemish infocentre for agriculture and horticulture (VILT), with around 90% of that value realised in Flanders.
The cultivation takes place on 6,500 hectares throughout the country and the sector employs some 3,600 people, including 1,000 seasonal workers.
Wim and Annelies Scheers-Hens in Kontich are among those 3,600. They’ve been able to use their success to expand efforts in the fields of sustainability and biological crop protection.
“There are fewer and fewer chemical pesticides available and consumers are also demanding more and more organic products,” Wim Scheers explained.
One way the Scheers-Hens have been able to keep their costs down (and therefore weather the pandemic) is by tackling the energy bills with LED lighting, and exploring biological pest control in the form of cryptobugs, which eat the eggs of nuisance beetles.
They were one of the first rose growers to make the switch to LED, increasing their light output and improving production.
The success they’ve had has been enough to afford investing €600,000 towards the purchase of an automatic sorting line.
Their flower farm is a family-owned one in its fourth generation. Scheers’ great-grandfather grew lettuce, but after his father switched to roses, Wim decided to go organic.
He’s also entering the circular economy: the leaves that are removed from the bottom of the rose stem go to the Planckendael ZOO in Mechelen, where okapis and giraffes enjoy them as food.
There are only five remaining rose growers in Belgium, and the total area of roses in Flanders has shrunk to about 15 hectares.
“A lot of companies have disappeared in recent years, but the remaining ones are all companies with top quality production,” said Sonja De Becker, chair of Boerenbond, a farmers collective, who says the Scheers-Hens success is representative of the sector as a whole.
“A lot of effort is put into sustainability: efficient water and energy consumption and integrated crop protection.”
In the 3.8 hectare greenhouse of the Scheers-Hens, there are more than ten rose varieties in different colours, which VILT says sets the company apart from Dutch players who sometimes grow one or two colours on ten hectares.
“That’s because Dutch companies also grow for export, while our products remain in Belgium,” said Scheers.
“There is no market in our country for large volumes in the same colour.”
Nearly all the Scheers-Hens’ roses end up on the Belgian market via Euroveiling, an auction house in Brussels specifically for flowers and plants.
The cut flower market alone generates an annual turnover of €28 million and is grown on 66 hectares, of which 39 are in the open and 27 are under glass, according to Boerenbond statistics.
There’s strong competition from abroad, however: a large part of the supply in Belgian flower shops or supermarkets comes from the Netherlands or beyond, VILT says, including Kenya and Ethiopia.
Low labour costs, less regulatory pressure and favourable growing conditions mean that the production price is considerably lower there, but the overseas competition has diminished somewhat as a result of the global pandemic.
“In the normal situation, planes depart from our company with passengers for Kenya and then return with flowers,” Scheers explained.
But with the elimination of passenger traffic, people importing from Africa had to rely on more expensive transport planes.
The result was a greater demand for now-scarcer red roses.
“These often come from overseas, but the supply seems a lot lower now, because there is a lot of demand,” Scheers said.
To respond to the demand, he wants to expand his red rose acreage. It’s a big decision to make: a rose plant lasts about ten years.
“After that, the quality and quantity decreases significantly and it is better to replace it,” said Scheers.
By heating and lighting the plants, they’re able to produce roses all year round.
The growth cycle takes about five weeks, depending on the type of weather, and 40,000 roses leave their greenhouse every week.
Not all of them end up at the auction in Brussels anymore.
A few years ago, Scheers started using a flower dispenser at the front of his business, selling about two to three percent of his roses that way.
During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, vending machine sales peaked because all other sales outlets were closed.
Sensors warn the grower when 25 bunches have been sold and a refill is needed.
“During holidays we sometimes have to refill the vending machine at night,” Scheers says.
He thinks that automation, biological crop protection and economical use of energy and water is the way forward after the success enjoyed so far.