New Zealanders helped flower enterprise be a blooming success

As the Ballance House New Zealand Museum and Event Centre outside Lisburn opens again from Sunday, July 4 agri entrepreneur Lesley Bell recalls lessons learned on visits to Kiwi family farms, writes Rodney Magowan.

Monday, 21st June 2021, 10:00 am
Lesley Bell visited NZ cut flower producers as she developed this colourful alternative enterprise on the family farm outside Rathfriland
Lesley Bell visited NZ cut flower producers as she developed this colourful alternative enterprise on the family farm outside Rathfriland

Peonies and Chrysanthemums are at the heart of a successful cut flower business Lesley established on the family farm near Rathfriland, Co Down.

Success partly based on lessons gleaned during a visit to South Island, New Zealand flower growers during 2009.

Each summer since then cut flowers from Moorfield Farm have been sold directly to the public at the farm gate honesty box and through leading retail outlets.

Peonies have proved very popular even in lock down with great demand in supermarkets and at the Moorfield Farm gate honesty box

Lesley Bell explained why this cut flower enterprise blossomed in an area better know for livestock farming and cereal growing.

“By 2007 our family of two boys and a girl were moving beyond their late teens to university and careers on and off the land, “ recalled Lesley.

“I had no wish to work off farm and the rest of the family were much involved full and part time in livestock farming, including the Kiltariff pedigree Texel flock, and producing award winning oats for Whites, the Speedicook porridge makers.

“Hence it was time for ‘Mum’ to do something of her own that tied in with family life on a busy farm. An article about cut flower growing from Greenmount CAFRE campus was intriguing. Why were we importing flowers from far afield, often through Amsterdam, that could be grown equally well in our damp, temperate climate?

“Thus Moorfields Flowers was born as a farm diversification. The first few years were very much a learning process. My late parents owned a bakery and grocery store in Ballynahinch, Co Down which involved long, busy days. Yet they relaxed after hours by working in their garden. We also had a great aunt, a retired dentist, with a passion for gardening and garden design.

“So all those youthful hours spent around my aunt and my parents meant that working with flowers is very much in the DNA. Work that to me is a pleasure.

“At first quite a variety of plants, including lilies, scented stock and sunflowers, were produced and a Saturday stall in Belfast’s St George’s Market gave us a real feel for what grew well and what sold well in Northern Ireland.

“Then in late 2009 I joined my husband, Barclay Bell ,on a memorable trip to New Zealand. A country with a climate in some areas not unlike ours. Barclay had spent seven weeks in New Zealand three decades earlier on a Gibson Travel Scholarship for young farmers.

“Like most Northern Ireland farming families we would tend to look towards New Zealand for technology that might suit conditions back here.

“Thus during our 2009 trip we visited cut flower growers on South Island around Alexandra and Arrowtown in Otago province. Very busy people in the midst of harvesting flowers such as Peonies.

“Yet typical Kiwis they welcomed us and were very helpful to fellow farmers from another land. No wonder that a decade later we still have New Zealand friends visiting our farm overlooking the Mournes.

“Visitors, who are urged to see the Ballance House Museum on the home farm of NZ Premier John Balance. The first prime minister in the world to ensure women had the vote, founded the NZ welfare state and promoted family farms in the 1890s.

“We learned at lot from that visit to NZ though some Peony varieties, such as Coral Sunset, successful in the slightly cooler South Island climate were actually not the best for a south facing field back in Co Down.

“It took a couple of years to really establish our Peonies to be harvested over two weeks each June and early July. But since 2012 I have been busy each May debudding the peonies to ensure each produces one glorious, long lasting flower per stem.

“Many of our flowers are sold through an honesty box at the gate, which also offers a click and collect facility for peony orders by phone, telephone; 077 407 97761 or on line www.moorfieldflowrs.com

“During peony harvest this is a seven day a week enterprise as flowers must be picked by hand and chill stored just at the correct time. Until Covid struck we likewise found a ready market for peonies at weddings.

“That simply could not happen in 2020, but we still had a strong, if different market for our quality flowers produced in the heart of Down. Retail outlets, including major supermarkets ensured demand outstripped supply even amidst the pandemic.

“If this all sounds a fabulous enterprise just bear in mind the amount of physical work involved. Especially at the busy times debudding, harvesting and preparing Peonies to ensure they leave here just about to come into a long lasting bloom.”

Indeed Lesley is adamant the enterprise could not succeed without massive support from her family and friends. Peony debudding and cutting makes for a busy time even after the family’s famous Kiltariff pedigree Texel sheep flock has lambed and first cut silage is safely in the pit.

“Cut flower producers in NZ face fewer weeds and pretty well everything is outdoors, but they have other problems to us such as ants. And remember in NI our customers are often at the farm gate or just 40 mins away in the Belfast conurbation. Kiwi ‘down the road’ customers can be many hours drive away with no motorways.

“Over the years Moorfield Flowers has opted to supply two niche markets for Peonies and Chrysanthemums grown on the green rolling drumlins of Down. Not transported by truck or air from the Low Countries or further afield.

“The Chrysanthemums reach the market from late August through into October so with all the other happenings on the farm from sheep lambing to porridge oats being combined the Bell family keep busy. Escaping from the flowers to spend joyous time with our first grand child, Robin Bell, who arrived in April last year, piled on the pressure.

“As ever with any successful business ensuring it does not impinge on family life is vital. That is another lesson we learned from New Zealand where farmers actually have an off farm interest. Something that seems to make them actually better farmers having stood back from the routine chores for a few hours. Yet few Northern Ireland farming couples make time for tennis, golf, sailing or team sports?”

Looking ahead Lesley and husband Barclay have no plans to expand this colourful cut flower business. The arrival of grandson Robin reminds them how hard working Kiwi farming couples know when to make time for life beyond the farm gate. Even one with cut flowers selling successfully!

Visiting the new IT enhanced exhibitions at the Ulster New Zealand Trust Ballance House, Glenavy Road, Lisburn being a must do outing for the Bells this summer. For visitor information and bookings browse www.theballancehouse.com.