Western Australia’s native flower exporters are struggling under increased cost pressures that are threatening their viability.
Exporters are being hit with increased costs – particularly for freight – a rising Australian dollar and international competition that is eroding the bottom line.
Additionally, some say, sales are being hampered because of the lack of a ‘collective’ to drive marketing efforts.
Many individual growers sell Australian native flowers on consignment through export businesses.
However, countries such as Israel and South Africa produce cheaper Western Australian native varieties, such as the popular Geraldton Wax.
While Israel produces the WA native flowers in Western Australia’s ‘off’ season, more industry funding coupled with even more aggressive marketing means WA is slipping in the international arena.
Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation consultant Max Bourke, who runs MEB Consulting, said the Australian industry, as a whole, was in dire straits.
“The flower industry is so disorganised that it is gradually slipping off the radar,” he said.
“The industry obviously needs some kind of organisation; it needs someone to stand up and run it.
“The flower industry will never be as big as it needs to be unless someone is willing to organise it.
“There is a ‘loose’ flower industry in WA, but it has been very difficult to organise.”
However, Mr Bourke said other nations were unfortunately doing a better job of producing and exporting WA native flowers than WA.
“They put money into it. It’s a big business in countries like Israel, South Africa and that is what we need to do here,” he said.
WAFEX managing director Craig Musson said post September 11, WA had become increasingly isolated and less competitive than its eastern States counterparts.
“We are finding ourselves increasingly marginalised,” he said.
“What we’ve done to offset that is to develop new varieties in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and to spend money on research and quality improvements and also look at cost efficiencies.
“It does mean that some of the growers who are involved in the older varieties are really struggling.”
Mr Musson said freight costs, including increased surcharges due to the rising oil price and security concerns had driven up the cost of doing business.
He said freight could cost anywhere between 30 and 50 per cent of the landed value of the native flowers and, when coupled with the impact of a rising Australian dollar, freight had the biggest negative impact on the industry as whole.
Coorow-based Golden West Flowers is one the State’s largest native flower farms and exporters and the largest producer of waxflower in the southern hemisphere.
However, it closed its doors recently and is currently for sale, following the death of managing director Bob Ward.
Golden West Flowers farm manager Jackie Catto said the business remained viable, but faced the same increased pressures as similar WA flower operations.
Ms Catto said the smaller, family-operated businesses were less likely to have the overheads of the larger operations and were therefore less likely to feel the current, industry-wide, pinch.
Ms Catto said that in addition to freight costs, Golden West Flowers had also granted its workers two pay increases over the past two years totalling $3.50 per hour, which had a significant impact.
She said the price of boxes, which had gone up about 36 per cent in the past two years, had created additional pressure on the bottom line.
With the WA native flower industry niche-driven many researchers, growers and exporters say the only way for the State to stay viable is to boost research efforts to further tap the vast natural pool of native flora to develop and market new commercially viable varieties.
Research undertaken by UWA, Murdoch and Curtin in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and the Kings Park and Botanic Gardens in WA has resulted in several new native flower varieties hitting international markets in the past two years. Earlier this year WA scientists drew international accolades for a discovery in seed science.
The research resulted in the identification of the molecule in smoke that stimulates seed germination.
However, this work is time consuming and cost intensive.
Scientists involved in native flower research, like their peers in other fields, remain frustrated by a lack of funding that they say hinders their ability to make discoveries that could deliver direct commercial benefits.
Kings Park and Botanic Gardens science director Kingsley Dixon, who leads a team of scientists conducting research into native flowers, said WA was rapidly becoming a centre for new varieties.
“We sit in one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots and it seems that the funding is woefully inadequate to meet the needs of the local industry, floriculturalists and the overseas industry interests,” he said.
While statistics vary depending on the source, the Department of Agriculture estimates that WA leads the nation in the export of cut flowers.
Its figures indicate that last year WA was responsible for the export of almost 80 per cent of Australia’s preserved flower and foliage crop – with the majority of those being Australian native species.
The Department of Agriculture estimates production in WA from well-established crops to be $52 million, with exports estimated at $12.5 million.
The department’s information indicates that world economic conditions in 2002-03 meant stronger acceptance and growth of WA native flower species.
Its information indicates that world economic conditions in 2002-03 meant stronger acceptance and growth of WA native flower species.