NFU British Farmer & Grower Magazine.
GROWING FUTURE TRADE
Rod and Kym Richards’ back garden is tucked away off a minor lane in rural Herefordshire, but at the same time, it’s the proving ground for a high-tech, international and growing business, with clients in Europe, the US, Canada, South America, Israel, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Tom Sales investigates...
NFU members New World Plants are breeders in their own right, but they specialise in sourcing fresh varieties and turning them into the garden centre sensations of the future.
They cast a wide net – to this manicured 3.6-acre site they bring in specimens from around the globe for down-to-earth testing, assessing their suitability for the UK market and those far further afield.
Here the pride and joys of future borders are weighed up, photographed and then promoted to the nurseries which will sell them on licence, with every sale returning a royalty.
The Richards are a husband and wife team, their premises small, but this is big business.
“Take Salvia Amistad,” says Rod, pointing to a profusion of deep purple
flowers on near-black stems.
“That came from a breeder in Argentina and we’ve sold 1.36 million worldwide
since 2012. We started with just one.”
Iberis Masterpiece, meanwhile, has clocked up 2.7m sales, again from a handful of promising plants on the Richards’ trials plot.
The rate of attrition is high; as Kym puts it, “for every 20 new plants, one or two will have potential”.
It can take years, but those that prove their worth will meet a hungry market.
“All the nurseries want the next new plant,” says Rod. “And there are avid collectors out there looking for new varieties. People collect them like postage stamps - it’s such a vibrant audience.”
The novel specimens come to Herefordshire courtesy of contacts established during a lifetime in the trade. Rod is a graduate of the Royal Horticultural Society’s elite seven-year qualification and went on to run a highly successful wholesale nursery in Hampshire, specialising in Alpines.
Then there’s the hands-on approach to sourcing which sees Rod just back from America for a few days before a trip to Israel and then a four-week world tour of breeders and shows.
Add to that the unexpected hybrids sent to them by amateurs and “the odd chance discovery in a field”, and the Richards’ garden is a treasure trove of rare colour, both for New World Plants and the breeders they work with.
Salvia Amistad has returned “life changing” opportunities to the grower who first came across it, while a widow in Somerset benefited for a number of years from her late husband’s Schizostylis Pink Princess due to the Richards’ ability to bring the plant to market.
The cultured approach
Turning this idyll into a thriving business has meant a high-tech, outsourced approach to ‘scaling up’ discoveries. The
The biggest single threat toThe Richards’ business is a word with an ‘X’ in it, but it’s not the one you might think.
“A bigger concern than Brexit is a disease called Xylella,” says Rod.
“So far it’s not in the UK but, sadly, I believe it’s only a matter of time. There
are consequences already–Australia sees us as the EU, which means every single variety we send in, even though we are free of the disease, has to be tested. It costs around £100 per sample. Then there are the regulations around quarantine and the cost of precautions. It’s a real worry, but our strategy is to make more of our plant varieties available as elite stock (highly screened parent plants) to safeguard the future.”
The NFU is in regular contact with officials at the APHA about Xylella and is in discussions with the European Nurserystock Association to ensure a joined-up vision of plant health issues across the EU.
Richards nurture their valuable hybrids in Herefordshire, but they also cultivate relationships thousands of miles away.
With barely any on-site glass, they work with two laboratories in the UK and one in Poland, who take tissue cultures of successful specimens and return ‘plantlets’ in sealed flasks and agar jelly.
“If only you had been here in July,” says Rod pointing to the office table.
“This table had 20,000 plantlets for shipping to our broker at Heathrow.”
Then there are the relationships with licensed growers, including two huge new nurseries in Israel which capitalise on a perfect climate to produce millions of cuttings year-round, some of the Richards’ varieties among them.
“A nursery which happens to grow our hardy fuchsias ships several million plants across a wide range of varieties around the world each week at the start the year – that’s how big the business is over there, it’s phenomenal.”
There’s also the more prosaic - but vital - relationship with the Animal and Plant Health Agency. It inspects their site under the EU Plant Passport regime, but also arrives on the morning of each shipment to ensure it meets the plant protection requirements of its destination.
“We have a very good connection,” says Rod, flicking through certificates for
exports around the world. “Some things can go under a general permit.
For others they specify that this plant must be certified by a UK lab as being free from X,Y, Z diseases. The APHA knows the requirements for each country and it’s our job to meet them.
“One of my biggest fears is that moving plants around will become more difficult in the future.”
The Brexit effect?
For now the requirements are rigorous, especially for Australia and those mega nurseries in Israel. But the Richards’ shipment records show they are clearly achievable, and that should provide comfort as UK Horticulture looks to fresh post-Brexit markets.
In that respect, the New World Plants model might prove a particularly hardy variety.
“In terms of the business I don’t see it changing much,” Rod says.
“I was very pro-Brexit. I don’t like a lot of the red tape. There are going to
be some implications. Are we still going to have European Plant Breeders’ Rights or will we go back to how it was set up originally – one for the UK, one for this country, one for that?
“There might also be currency impacts. But overall? Because of that hunger, the desire for new plants, people are still going to be interested. I’m the one that’s going around the world, they’re not.
“Without being complacent, why should it be any different than the people we are already dealing with in Australia, New Zealand and the USA? Brexit doesn’t even enter into it.”
Blueprint or not, the Richards’ business certainly offers a perspective for the thousands of customers who flock to garden centres every Sunday.
“If you look at a plant on sale you haven’t a clue about the story behind it,” says Rod.
“Someone could have been evaluating it for years, they’ve had to enter in legal agreements with the breeder, they’ve had to research it, get it into tissue culture, test it for diseases, deal with the rights and regulations and get it produced en masse so it’s available for the public.
“It’s not a business where you can grasp the nettle overnight, you have to have passion and patience,” Rod concludes. ■
NewWorld Plants offers bare roots plants, plugs in various sizes, tissue culture and unrooted cuttings, as well as plant development and export opportunities.
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