A blooming good business
PUBLISHED: 11:48 02 September 2014 | UPDATED: 11:48 02 September 2014
Fresh, local and seasonal. It might sound like food but this is flowers. Jayne Lindill visits Suffolk Seasons Flower Farm at Cratfield
It would be difficult to find anyone quite so enthusiastic about dahlias as Ali Pinn.
She roams around the paddock at Cantley Farm, from where she and best friend Liz Mobbs run their new(ish) venture, Suffolk Seasons Flower Farm, praising their deep red and gold hues, their showy blooms and elegant, upright stems. I confess, I’m not much of a dahlia fan, but even I have to admit they’re terrific. They look like they’re off to a party.
In the flower fashion world I doubt that dahlias get much of a look in, but that’s sort of the point. Liz and Ali aren’t growing the sort of trendy flowers that only flourish in tropical climes and require transporting half way round the world. Rather like the food movement, their aim is to be fresh, local and seasonal.
Their flowers are quintessentially English. There’s nothing here that would look out of place in a country cottage garden. Luckily, that’s exactly what their customers, including the Suffolk brides who beat a path to their polytunnel, are looking for.
Liz and Ali have been friends for years. Liz farms Cantley Farm in Cratfield, near Halesworth, with husband Roger where they run 28,000 hens laying free range eggs for supermarkets and other outlets. Ali went to school with Liz’s husband and they both went to Writtle agricultural college.
The friends’ lives have run in parallel – marriage, followed by children and work, Liz on the farm, Ali a teaching assistant at Bedfield. Neither realised they shared a burning ambition to ‘do something with flowers’ until a couple of years ago when they started talking about it.
Trained in horticulture, Ali always had the idea of a cut flowers business in the back of her mind, while Liz wanted something of her own, apart from the farm.
“We both love gardening, flowers and floristry,” said Liz, “so we thought why don’t we do it full time and try and make a business out of it.”
They finally got under way in spring last year. On a small patch of ground close to the entrance of the farmyard, they grew mainly annuals to test the market and see what sort of business was out there.
“We didn’t know how it was going to be received,” said Liz. “We sold everything we grew to local shops and brides who came to see us. We didn’t have enough stock to be a supplier on a big scale, but we had enough for people who came here.”
Suffolk Seasons Flower Farm had germinated. Liz secured more land from Roger so they could install a polytunnel and grow all year round. They also created more beds, fencing off an area once happily occupied by free ranging hens, who now strut up to the fence and peer through, slightly piqued at the loss of territory.
The women did much of the planting themselves, but Liz is quick to acknowledge the help she’s had from her husband and some of the farm team who installed the fence, constructed raised beds and spread copious amounts of compost. Having supportive husbands willing them both to succeed has been key, she says.
The first year has taught them how to organise a continuous supply of flowers and helped them decide what to grow.
“It was the sweet peas that decided us,” says Ali. “They’re hard to get hold of because of the freshness factor, but they’re very popular with brides wanting a country look.
“We grew sweetpeas and larkspur in succession, but we knew they would peter out eventually. Now we have a plan of what to plant and when and we’ve kept to it.”
They grow about 60 different seasonal crops – annuals, perennials, roses, dahlias (of course), herbs and some shrub foliage – on about 1.5 acres, and while they might not necessarily have exactly the flower that someone asks for, they can usually find something that will suit.
They supply local greengrocers and farm shops, the Fox and Goose, Fressingfield, Figa and Co floral artistry, as well as selling at Halesworth farmers market and to the brides who seek them out.
They’d be the first to admit that it’s been hard work and there have been periods when they’ve spent more time in the polytunnel than in their homes. But, they say, it’s all been worth it. Who wouldn’t want to earn their living growing beautiful flowers for appreciative customers? I can see their point.