A productive retirement in colourful bloom

Lifelong Eastern Cape stock farmers Pam and Ivan Buchler left their farm near the
small hamlet of Bolo almost two years ago to face retirement. As Mike Burgess learned, an idle life was never an option for the couple, who quickly established a vibrant flower business on 12ha of land on the outskirts of Stutterheim in the Eastern Cape.

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Lifelong Eastern Cape stock farmers Pam and Ivan Buchler left their farm near the small hamlet of Bolo almost two years ago to face retirement. As Mike Burgess learned, an idle life was never an option for the couple, who quickly established a vibrant flower business on 12ha of land on the outskirts of Stutterheim in the Eastern Cape.

BOTH PAM AND IVAN BUCHLER agree that the thought of being ­unproductive during retirement terrified them. “We knew we wouldn’t be able to sit still,” says Ivan. Furthermore, having lived on a farm all their lives, they had learned to appreciate and cherish personal space and the privilege of producing from the soil.

Pam says, “I don’t want to see somebody’s wall outside my window – I need my space. We miss the farming, but if we can get our hands dirty that keeps us happy.”

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It had always been their idea to get a small piece of land when leaving the farm to their sons, and they jumped at the chance of a 12ha property near Stutterheim as it ­provided the space of the countryside and the amenities of town. Turning an old storeroom on the large plot into a comfortable cottage was then quickly followed by the buying and erection of their first tunnels for flower production.

This first venture ended in disaster, however. Pam explains, “When we got here we searched for a tunnel and eventually bought small dome tunnels from Paterson, but we had terrible winds and they buckled, forcing us to start all over again.” Undeterred by the loss, they erected a much bigger and stronger structure from treated wooden poles and were soon ready for production. Pam says it’s going so well at the moment that she has to stop Ivan from putting all 12ha under flowers. “I think we should just focus on what we have now and do that well,” she says.

Producing flowers naturally
Pam and Ivan produce various varieties of flowers from seedlings, but specifically bulbs under 400m2 of plastic and another 400m2 of shade cloth. They decided on flowers because it would allow them to produce intensively, yet simply and at a low cost, once the investment of the tunnels and the irrigation system were in place.

Their low production costs stem from lifelong organic production of vegetables on their farm – knowledge they are now determined to apply to their production of flowers. No chemical fertilisers are used – they have opted for a mixture of compost, chicken litter and lime to fertilise their 1,2m x 20m beds, which are rested for about a month after harvesting to allow for the concentration and resultant acidity of the chicken litter to dissipate.

For this reason their vegetable garden and chickens play an important role in their flower production, producing a constant flow of organic material and chicken litter. Every piece of organic material, ­including flower offcuts, is stored in old pigsties on the property to produce compost. Simple, natural production techniques are in turn complemented by a simple yet effective Netafim computerised irrigation system.

“Water is pumped up from a dam to a reservoir, while another pump boosts the water through the pipes, creating pressure to irrigate the entire tunnel or just sections whenever I want, through normal garden sprayers attached to metal stands,” says Ivan.

Fighting disease with flowers
The couple’s commitment to adhere as much as possible to organic production principles has been particularly difficult when it comes to disease. “It has been a case of trial and error, and it’s difficult when you’re facing disaster,” says Ivan. When they first started, their carnations contracted a disease that seemed to target the buds of the flowers, and nobody could tell them what it was. They sprayed blindly and nothing worked, and ­eventually found it was caused by tiny insects called thrips, which are hardly visible to the naked eye – to check, one shakes a bloom above a white sheet of paper. “Because of our lack of success with certain chemicals, we did some research and found that marigolds act as good decoys for thrips. We now plant them around the sides of the tunnels and between beds, which is working very well,” says Ivan.

Similarly they also discovered that aphids prefer nasturtiums, which in no time found themselves in the role of aphid decoys in the tunnels. If by any chance natural defences are breached, a homemade mixture of blue soap, bicarbonate of soda and Jeyes fluid is used to kill aphids. Other diseases they have had to deal with include botrytis, which is caused by plants contracting too much moisture and can be prevented through continual and efficient management, but is very difficult to eradicate without spraying once it is prevalent.

Variety ensures success
Pam believes that success in a small-scale flower business lies in producing a variety of ­flowers. “I think the essence is not to grow too much of one flower, rather have a variety and have ­flowers coming on at different times – too much of one kind and you will flood the market,” she says. They therefore make sure that they have a variety of flowers throughout the year, ­planting winter bulbs under shade cloth and summer flowers under plastic during winter. Their most popular flowers include liliums, Inca lilies, arum lilies, begonias, ranunculi, irises, anemones, ­daffodils, tulips, carnations and Barberton daisies.

One problem is the lack of bulb and seedling producers in the Eastern Cape, and the resultant expense of transporting bulbs and seedlings from Gauteng. “We are slowly in the process of ­growing our own seedlings, but for the time being we buy what we need from Johannesburg,” says Ivan. ­Buying seedlings and bulbs in bulk (mostly a minimum of 1 000) is at times a problem, however, they try to buy less than 1 000 on spec. The expense and effort is worth the effort, and the market in the Eastern Cape is now growing.

A growing market
The Buchlers market their flowers up and down the N6 between East London and Queenstown. Flowers are couriered to several florists in East London and Queenstown, while some are ­personally delivered to local florists and businesses in Stutterheim. “I also sell to private people from my home – everybody wants flowers, they are timeless and the perfect gift and will always be an essential feature at any anniversary, wedding, funeral and in any business and hotel foyer,“ says Pam. With a fast-growing African middle class in the Eastern Cape complementing the already vibrant market, it seems likely that Ivan will one day convince Pam to put all their 12ha under flowers.

Contact Pam or Ivan Buchler on (043) 683 3206 or 082 727 3617. |fw