In this week’s Farmer Focus, That’s Farming, profiles Mags Riordan of Bumblebee Flower Farm. We discuss transforming a blank 4-acre field into one of Ireland’s only flower farms.
Becoming a flower farmer is not for the faint-hearted. It requires adaptability, creativity, the ability to think ‘outside the box’ and the heart of a lion, as Mags Riordan knows all too well.
The 58-year-old is the owner of the “only flower farm in Ireland supplying bouquets 52 weeks of the year solely from produce grown on-farm or foraged locally”.
Her 2-acre Bumblebee Flower Farm is dedicated to cut and edible flower production with nine polytunnels for crops needing protection. The rest is a mix of annual, biennial beds and large plantings of perennials and woodies.
She has grown her business from a small flower farm providing edible flowers, bouquets, and wedding flowers locally to a full nationwide delivery of all products.
Mags is originally from Cork City but moved to West Cork in 1993 to purchase a blank 4-acre field in Castledonovan, where her farm evolved.
Bumblebee Flower Farm
Establishing a flower farm was “never on my radar,” as she explained to That’s Farming.
“I started the garden as a refuge for wildlife, and as it grew, habitats were created, and biodiversity increased.”
“I am a city girl and never had a garden. Honestly, I did not know the difference between an annual and a perennial crop. However, I had always loved nature and was always rescuing animals. I was always active in environmental issues since my young teenage years.”
“When I got my first garden in 1996, I realised my passion. Once I started planting, I couldn’t stop. It is here I really got to understand the cycle of life and how we are all connected; every action has a reaction.”
“It taught me as species humans are part of the circle of life does not separate and how specific plant selection, species and timing can have a supportive or negative effect on the greater environment, habitat, and biodiversity.”
Her first garden helped her lay the foundations for how she gardens and lives today.
“I started my garden here in Drimoleague in 2004 but did not start growing cut flowers professionally until 2010.”
Her mission is to educate, preserve, protect, and restore natural balance, focusing on Ireland’s bumblebee populations. She undertakes this by regenerating natural habitats, ecology, soil health and cultivating the most “breathtakingly beautiful, nectar-rich flowers and foliage in the world”.
Back in 1999, she trained as a professional florist, and for general growing in 2007, she participated in horticultural training at Rossa College. In 2016 to develop her enterprise’s edible flower side, she completed the speciality food production diploma at UCC.
Then to increase volumes and scale the business in organic intensive successional flower production in 2017, she participated in Floret Flower Farm’s online course.
In 2018/19, she undertook business training through UCC’s Ignite entrepreneurial business programme.
Flower farming in Ireland
Gaining knowledge through these courses has been instrumental in growing a mixed selection of annual, biennial, and perennial nectar-rich cut and edible flowers. There are three criteria for flowers to make the cut for production.
They must be:
- Pollinator-friendly; this is non-negotiable;
- A good cut flower;
Each stem must meet at least two of these criteria. They must be pollinator-friendly and either a good cut flower or edible flower. From March to October, over 70% meet all three.
She explained that this time of year has a huge bearing on how long a crop takes from seed to harvest.
For example, calendula sown in March will be ready to harvest by mid-June. However, the same flower sown in late August, planted out in mid/late September will not be ready to harvest until the following May or June.
“Biennials are sown from May to August but will not be harvested until the following May/June. Our prolific bloomers will also be planted undercover to provide an earlier and later harvest which extends our season either end.”
Successional sowing is another critical factor to be mastered. Most crops only have a harvest window of six weeks before production decreases and become unviable commercially and need to be replaced.
Timing and planning can ensure an interrupted supply. However, December and January are very limited, focusing on foliage, twigs, berries, and cones.
“Most crops can be resown to produce a second or third crop. Because our method is intensive, closer plant spacing generates higher yields, but on the other side of this, there is extra work involved in keeping the soil alive, fed naturally and able to sustain growth.”
The 58-year-old deploys regenerative growing practices, crop rotation and companion planting. To ensure clean, untreated stock, she saves her own seed and propagates her own herbs and woodies.
“There are so many variables when you grow 50 plus crops over the season and all with slightly different needs. However, we group into winter/spring, late spring/ early summer, and late summer/early autumn.”
“With divisions of one-hit wonders, both annual and perennial and cut and come again crops. We then organise them in their spacing requirements and the longevity of their harvest window.”
Online store, selling direct and Covid-19
Mags runs an online store and supplies products directly to customers with less than 1% wholesale.
Her target market is eco-conscious people who appreciate natural flowers and are aware of the critical pressures of pollinators and wildlife. “They actively seek out businesses like mine that do not just talk the talk but who walk the walk.”
Her special on-farm events, such as Flora Fauna and Food for A Taste of West Cork Food Festival, are the highlights of her year.
“Initially, Covid-19 wiped out my business overnight because hospitality and weddings were where most of my produce went. As the world went quiet, people started to listen; my voice started to be heard.”
“Because I do not rely on imported flowers, it turned out I was the only flower farmer in Ireland with an uninterrupted supply of organically produced flowers. Because of this, I was in a position to offer nationwide delivery.”
“This grew my market, and I went from less than 5% online sales to over 90% in weeks. We have built on this and appearing on the Late Late Show promoting Irish business last November allowed us to go from strength to strength.”
“I could not have conceived where it would have grown to pre-Covid to where it is now,” the owner of Bumblebee Flower Farm added.
Awards and challenges
Mags also has some awards under her belt, including the 2019 land award from Euro-Toques for her edible flowers grown with respect for biodiversity.
In 2020, she won the solo businesswomen of the year awards with Network West Cork and highly commended at national level.
But the Cork woman admitted that running a business of this nature is not plain sailing. She listed logistics, mobile and broadband coverage, and sourcing skilled labourers as challenges.
“The long hours, the physicality of the work and seasonal income are other challenges. Also, having the ability to forward plan successional crops without relying on imported flowers.”
“Educating people on what is an environmentally friendly flower and what is not is another challenge I have faced. Greenwashing is one of the biggest challenges.”
“However, I enjoy being immersed in nature, seeing all the wildlife thrive, and knowing I am doing my part to protect my grandson’s future.”
Flower farming is a ‘viable’ business
The determined businesswoman has a vision to develop an environmental flower school focusing on cut, edible and pollinator flowers and plants. Build on unique events like our ‘Flora, Fauna, and Food Events’ possibly for weddings.
Her ultimate goal is to help educate and demonstrate to people how with a change of mindset and gardening practices, we can all play our part in reversing climate change and growing a future. “We can all be proud of not just for the next generation but also for future generations.”
“Flower farming is a viable business but with a caveat! To succeed you need to set yourself apart, define your USP and have strong, unwavering beliefs that become your north star.”
“These will carry you through the hard times and give you the strength to battle on regardless of what life throws at you.”
“Our world is in crisis, but there are solutions. We need leaders and guides that stand for something greater than just for-profit. I would love to see flower farming in Ireland become a beacon of hope, a true inspiration for others to follow. One where trust, honesty and integrity were at the core of all its actions.”
“I often wonder if I had known the hardships that lay ahead, would I have embarked on this journey. Or would I have chosen the easier road to follow the crowd, keep my head below the parapet and do nothing?”
“I might have been better prepared. However, I wouldn’t change a thing because of what I have learned, the privileges and riches nature has bestowed on me, no money can buy. My wealth cannot be calculated in monetary terms, but its value lies in the kind of future that’s worth living,” she concluded.
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