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Ben Cross fights for the British flower

"British flowers rock"

You could call him the Jamie Oliver of the British flower industry. He is young, passionate, and enthusiastic and just like the famous chef who is fighting for better awareness and education when it comes to food, Ben Cross fights for the British flower. “Over 90% of cut flowers in the UK are imported from countries like Ecuador, Cambodia, Colombia and Kenya”, he says. The situation of the British flower is bad, and that’s a shame, Ben says. “Flowers are supposed to be fresh and romantic; it’s not very romantic if the flowers you give as a present only last a few days and you have no clue as to when or where they were harvested, let alone the carbon footprint involved.”

A lonely battle

Ben is a fourth generation grower at Crossland’s Flower Nursery, based in West Sussex, England with his Great Grandparents starting on the LSA (Land Settlement Association) “When my great-grandfather started in 1936 there were thousands of nurseries. Now we are one of the last professional growers in the UK. There used to be hundreds of acres of just British Alstroemeria grown in the UK. My uncle used to be the head of the Alstroemeria Society. We are one of the last flower nurseries producing cut flowers in a full colour range all year-round.” Crosslands Flower Nursery specializes in the British Alstroemeria. They have over fifty varieties.

Next to being a fulltime grower, Ben Cross is an avid campaigner for British Flowers and takes any opportunity he can to spread the word that "British flowers rock". “I do over 50 talks a year. Yes, I am very busy. But I want to keep going, because I find it very important.” Ben has been doing this for six years now. “I was working on the nursery fulltime. I knew the situation for the British flower was bad, but little did I know it was this bad. I did my first talk in 2014 to a flower club of a hundred people. I was amazed no one knew what was going on with the British Flower Industry. They didn’t know that most of the UK's flowers are imported from all over the world before showing up in the supermarkets.”

Customer information
Most of our food in supermarkets by law has to be correctly labelled. A customer knows exactly where the product comes from, when it was harvested and if and which chemicals have been used. When buying eggs, the UK public are educated and aware you can choose between battery cage, farm and free range eggs. That is not the case for flowers, Ben says. “All flowers are presented in one big flower stand in the supermarkets and consumers have no idea what to pick. The only thing they can consider is the price.”

Ben only sees benefits with British flowers. “People might think British flowers are more expensive in the supermarkets because foods like British asparagus are more expensive than the ones from Spain, and Dutch tomatoes are cheaper than the British tomatoes. But for flowers that is not the case. Imported Alstroemerias sell in supermarkets for about £4.00; we can supply them to florists that can sell them for half that price. Also the carbon footprint of my flowers is a lot less because we save on transportation costs and we don’t need to use chemicals on the flowers or on the packaging. We also don’t need to waste plastics like sachets of flower food as the flowers are fresh anyway. They last two or three weeks in a vase. All those differences add up to one big difference.”

A blooming future
Crosslands Flower Nursery used to supply millions of stems per year to supermarkets, and they sent hundreds of boxes of flowers a week to wholesalers at Covent Garden Market. But now they supply less than a hundred thousand stems to the supermarkets a year, and only supply a small amount of boxes a week to wholesalers. That sounds like a miserable situation. But Crosslands Flower Nursery survives. “The reason for our survival is that we now supply about a hundred boxes a week direct to florists, farm shops and people who care where their flowers come from. We found a niche. These people care about the environment, sustainability and their carbon footprint.”
“Our British Alstroemeria is not sprayed with any chemicals after being harvested. They go into recyclable, reusable cardboard boxes and arrive at the florist the next day. We also don’t use any kind of soil cooling techniques or any techniques that force production. A lot of our beds are over 20 years old, still producing premium quality stems. We only replant about 5% of our crop a year. So we are not always sterilizing the soil either.”

The British Alstroemeria is also a ‘Cool Crop’ and a ‘Dry Crop’ so doesn’t take much heat input or watering. Optimum heat at night through the winter is just 13°C and the crop is watered for just 20 minutes once a month in the winter and just 20 minutes once every 10 days in the summer unlike flowers grown in warmer countries that use a lot more water resource.

“When our flowers have been picked we don’t put them into big freezers. Our cooling system usually is turned off between November and March. And if we need to chill our flowers they’re only chilled at about 6°C instead of 0.5°C like most imported flowers. They are only stored for a couple of days before they are with the customers. This way they are a lot fresher than flowers that go all around the world.”
Consistent campaign
“There needs to be a consistent campaign for the education and awareness in the UK when it comes to cut flowers, just as Jamie Oliver is doing with food,” Ben says. ‘British Flower Week’ is fine, but I do not grow flowers for just one week a year. When I do my talks I speak to thousands of people over the course of a year and less than 1% of my audience has ever even heard of British Flower Week. It would be better to have a spokesperson or someone in government that supports British Flower growers all year round. I do what I can, but public awareness and education needs to come from a bigger voice like the NFU (National Farmers Union) as it is harder for the public to gather information from just the grower.”

Crossland's Flower Nursery

On a personal note Ben says “I won’t ever become disillusioned because at the end of the day I realise how lucky I am to carry on this fourth generation flower business, and if I didn’t believe in it I wouldn’t be doing it.”
For more information:
Crossland's Flower Nursery