Kim and Mary Nilson, export orchid growers, Whangarei.

October 2007
The Nilsons were leasing a tobacco, maize and cattle farm in Zimbabwe that they hoped to buy, when they were forcibly evicted. Zimbabwe- born Kim was raised in New Zealand and Mary came from Scotland, so these were the countries they considered returning to with their two young children, to start a new life.

New Zealand was chosen and first they moved to Canterbury where Kim worked on a dairy farm with the idea of eventually buying his way into the industry as a sharemilker. However, he didnt enjoy milking cows and the family found the Canterbury climate uncomfortably cold after Zimbabwe.

On the suggestion of ex-pat Zimbabwe friends, they moved to Northland and within two weeks had bought a new home and orchid-growing business. With his background in tobacco-growing, Kim knew the basics of horticulture but initially found flower production a huge learning curve.

The previous owner, whose help and advice since has been vital, sold the orchid-growing business to them. The purchase was complex, with the land where the sheds stood about to be subdivided. The Nilsons bought the business in January 2004 and leased the land under it for two years, with the understanding that they would then have to move onto a new site.

In the summer of 2005/06, the 6000 plants were moved 15 kilometres to the land where the family lived and new sheds were built. This was not only a massive task but proved costly in lost production. The plants had to wait a while before being given food and water and unsurprisingly, sulked or a couple of years before returning to full vigour. Fortunately, all survived.

Orchid-growing is a demanding business. During the May to October picking season, Kim and Mary work six days a week plus a few hours on Sunday. Someones in the shed from 7am until 6pm.

Once a week, the plants are sprayed with pesticide and fungicide, with set-up done in the dark so Kim can spray at first light the next morning.

With 31 varieties grown the harvest can be staggered; essential in a family business with only one part-time employee. There are two main sheds; one late and one early.

In mid October, flowering stops and the splitting up of plans for the following season begins, lasting through until Christmas. Each plant is split into four then replanted in the shed to fill space, change the variety mix or replace mature stock.

The downtime for the couple is January/February when the orchids are dormant. In March/April they start to spike and the task of tying them to stakes ready for flowering from May to mid October begins.

The orchids are sold through three exporters. Communication is essential, as preferred presentation is different for the three main markets targeted.

The US likes bold, bright orchids that are distinctive in some way, for example are striped or spotted. Bronzes and golds are the in colour, whereas in Japan theres a preference for pure colour with pale shades popular. Italy likes big and bold and also pure white. Presentation of boxes is equally important to the quality of flowers. Mono-boxes of a single colour and size appeal most in some markets while others will pay a premium for a striking mix.

Fashions change, but fortunately not too fast, as it takes five years from first introducing a variety to the shed to achieving full production. Reds browns, greens and coppers are very lucrative in the US yet not so long ago these colours were not desirable. The previous owners pulled reds from the shed when they went out of fashion; now theyre in vogue again.

Each year, the Nilsons go to Auckland to compare their crop with others and learn what they can about varieties and presentation. Reject stems are sold at a local farmers market, rather than discarded.

The Nilsons describe themselves as living comfortably off 2500 to 3000 boxes, but you wouldnt want to analyse returns on the basis of the hours spent. Equally important to income, is the flexibility to spend time with their children, even at the height of the season.

A box of orchids sells for roughly $40-$95, depending on colours, markets and the exchange rate, says Mary. The high Zealand dollar has made an impact this year, with prices remaining static through the season when usually they would improve as supply diminishes.

If we can turn over $100,000, were OK.

It was difficult to analyse the costs involved as apart from direct costs like fungicide, pesticide and labour, with the business being the familys sole income source it also had to support expenses like rates. Mary stresses that they are still relative newcomers to the industry, earning more as they learn more a about growing and presentation.

The Nilsons belong to the Northland Orchid Growers Association, formed this year to formalise a local tradition of mutual support. Regular field days are held, where knowledge and experience are shared.

There are at least five ex-pat Zimbabweans growing orchids in Northland, many also previously farmers who know that its unrealistic to expect to replace 2000 acres of farmland in Zimbabwe with a similar spread here. However, they all want to be out of town, and prioritise a good family lifestyle.