DARLING, South Africa: Duckitt Nurseries in Darling in the Western Cape region of South Africa is one of the biggest orchid nurseries in the southern hemisphere. This revealing interview gives deeper insight into South Africa’s orchid business that involves huge pressure to maintain forward momentum.
Apart from a primary preoccupation with the wholesale production of cut Cymbidium stems that are sold to clients in Holland, Italy, Asia and the United States, they also supply potted orchids to the local market and have open days and other marketing and promotional events from time to time, well patronized by South Africans, situated as they are en route to the picturesque Namaqualand region, famed worldwide for its magnificent floral displays in winter.
Why so overly Cymbidium-centric?
Started in 1979, Duckitt Nurseries today covers a production area of nearly 6ha. Floraculture International spoke to Wilfred Duckitt (co-owner with his brother, Nicolas) and asked him about his experience as a South African producer and exporter of flowering orchid stems.
The first question that comes to mind when appraising Duckitt Nurseries against the backdrop of the global orchid trade, in an orchid world that has shifted from a Cymbidium dominance a decade or two ago towards a preponderance of Phalaenopsis, Paphiopedilum and Cattleya, is why is Duckitt Nurseries still so overtly Cymbidium-centric?
“It works in our climate. Plain and simple. We have the seasonal temperature drop required to induce the flowering stems so it just works as a production.”
We asked him whether he could hazard a guess as to how many hectares of South African orchid production exist? “I have no idea and those figures, even were they available, can be deceptive. In South Africa one finds a lot of smaller concerns that grow almost nothing but merely import orchid plants, mostly from the Far East, and there’s no growing as such as the plants come in pre-induced and the grower will sit on them for 3 – 6 weeks until they flower and then they’re gone. Sold. At Duckitt Nurseries, we have 5.5ha under exclusive Cymbidium production.”
Labour is a big issue
Orchid production at any stage has a global reputation of being labour intensive and Duckitt Nurseries is no exception employing about fifty people on the production side. “Labour costs have become an issue. Absolutely,” said Wilfred. When asked about the rise in recent times, anticipating perhaps a hike from a wage bill consuming around 5% of turnover years ago to around 15%, Wilfred commented, “It’s way more than 15% now, that I can tell you. It’s expensive. It’s too high. Against that backdrop, however, mechanization is also problematic. It’s an easy comparison if you look at, let’s say for example, Aalsmeer. There a grower can go down the street and find five companies that will supply the mechanization he needs for his set up. Here in South Africa any desire to mechanize entails probably one person that you’re dealing with – a limited, one man show – and weeks for delivery. Spares are going to crawl in and impact on production when they’re needed and don’t arrive. We’re basically talking about availability and having to deal with logistical issues. We need to optimize logistics in the business at all times and thinking about mechanization would mean facing the reality that the implied, specific logistics surrounding mechanization make it unattractive. There is a bit of a vacuum now though, because we’re heading towards a theoretical desire to mechanize as the wage bill increases yet absolutely have to acknowledge the challenges mechanization will pose. On the broad logistical issue, we need to optimize logistics to make labour affordable. Not great. We end up with one part of the business subsidizing another part. That’s not ideal. Labour has become, let me say, very expensive. This business involves huge pressure to maintain forward momentum.”
No longer cashing in on exclusivity alone
On the subject of other current, key industry issues that are impacting on the short term outlook for Duckitt Nurseries, perhaps climate, healthy plant material availability, transportation costs or environmentally grown orchids and, also, perhaps consumer demand versus the risk of consumers getting tired of seeing the same orchids over and over again, Wilfred offered the following, “Well…. That’s a big subject that involves a number of things. I do want to say that it would help if the world’s economy would spend more on Cymbidium stems than on Phalaenopsis plants or cut flowers per se. If you go into a hotel it’s always very fleeting bouquets or orchids in pots. I don’t think people realize you can get six weeks from a cut Cymbidium stem. Also, the orchid was a special product twenty years ago. I think the ‘exclusivity’ of the orchid has gone in some sense and we can no longer cash in on that.”
A 6-week window of opportunity
Started many moons ago by the brothers’ mother, Duckitt Nurseries has decades of growth and trading under the belt and is a truly global competitor. Asked to outline a few details of their export trade, Wilfred said, “Our clients are essentially based in Western and Eastern Europe, Asia and the United States. We basically have dedicated clients who will take our product because they know and favour it, albeit only within a window of opportunity lasting around six weeks in a year.”
Only six weeks? “Yes. The opposition and by opposition I mean local growers and by local I mean anyone who ships a lesser distance than we have to reach our clients, as well as truly local European growers, has become pronounced. For about ten and a half months our usually dedicated clients become, for all intents and purposes, self-sufficient. Buyers will then very often first buy flowers that have traveled less as the assumption is that there is less mechanical damage done to stems that travel shorter distances. It may happen that a society wedding or other event is taking place and there is a sudden demand for green or green tone flowers and then we’ll sell lots of green if we have them, in spite of being out of that brief window, but local growers – those closer to our clients – have changed things drastically over the last ten years. Of course, there’s a limit to how far they can go as the more they manipulate the seasons and close our window the higher their energy costs become, so it has to peak somewhere and then cease. We are pretty much in our routine of that six week window though, but are hoping to expand it. The devaluation of the Russian Ruble will also affect potential trade to Russia, however we hope to continue developing that market.
Prospects for the trade?
Are there any South African species or varieties coming up as prospects for the trade? “We do a lot of research on and development of any number of orchid species including South African orchids but, then again, I would say not really South African species but African species, yes. For example, Ansellia africana occurs in the wild in South Africa but is also found all the way up to the south of Sudan so, is it South African? But we do a lot of looking, yes, yet it’s premature to talk about great South African orchids coming on line any time soon. It’s premature. Disa (uniflora) is of course a beautiful South African plant and has huge potential as a pot plant. Ansellia as a genus. has potential as a hanging bowl subject. It is really an amazing hanging plant. But it’s all still at a developmental stage,” Wilfred said.
A truly world class outfit
All in all, it’s clear that Duckitt Nuseries has no comparable competitor in South Africa at this stage and that their dedication to Cymbidium, which they are constantly seeking to breed into a more glamorous and simultaneously hardier and easier crop, serves them extremely well in terms of refining a product offering and demonstrating the value of their offering.” Their flowering stems are amazingly beautiful and somewhat larger than life, with an array of colours and hues that speak of years of dedication to the Cymbidium orchid. A truly world class outfit,” enthused Wilfred adding that better customer service is high on the agenda for the years to come. “More products, with an infrastructure that can deliver rapid comes and responses to those customers that results in an overall reliability being generated. We are reliable to our clients and we can rely on their custom. It will all mean better profits.”