Based on quintessential Turkish family values such as ‘mutual love and respect’ and ‘helping each other’, the Dutch-based cut-iris nursery Middenweg Flowers is run by father Murat Kaya and his son Can. Their complementary skills make the business work; Murat is more of a collaborator and very technically oriented, while Can is not afraid to be told no, and continuously comes up with innovative ideas to create happier customers. Their straightforward approach helps them cement long-lasting business relationships. However, this does not mean that colourful iris sepals sprinkled their path to business growth.
In a large packing shed with plenty of natural daylight and some upbeat Turkish music playing in the background, five workers keep the production stream going. Standing at a conveyor belt, they carefully prepare hundreds of cut-irises for dispatch. With all eyes continually quality checking, they introduce the flowers stem by stem into the bunching machine, checking whether each bunch is uniform, doing a quick trim to remove some occasional brown leaf tips, then packing and loading the flowers into buckets or boxes. This assembly happens in the Dutch town of Poeldijk, but grower Can Kaya explains that today’s harvest is sold through the auction to ship to wholesalers and flower factories in the UK, Germany, France and even as far afield as Russia.
Twenty-one year old Can represents a second-generation Dutch Turk, whose parents have been growing and serving the ornamental horticulture industry for many years. The family’s passion for the iris is firmly rooted in the company’s mission and values. “For my dad, growing irises is a labour of love. My mother may probably not want to hear this but he probably gives more love to his flowers than to his wife,” jokes Can.
His father is Murat Kaya, who moved to the Netherlands in 2003 to work in the iris nursery with his two brothers Mehmet and Sam. They were both kind and hardworking entrepreneurs, but they also found it difficult to resist living a lavish lifestyle when their side-business – a horticultural temping agency- was booming.
The venture went bankrupt in 2005. However, Murat decided to keep his energy focused on moving ahead. Two years later, he and one brother set up a new iris nursery, with Murat being the sole owner of Middenweg Flowers from March 2019. While growing irises is the core business, Middenweg Flowers can provide temp workers with work including planting, harvesting and packaging.
According to Can, bouncing back, cleaning a somewhat tarnished reputation, and rebuilding trust is not an easy task. He says, “My father faced many challenges. One of them was the lack of success at the beginning and the feeling he wasn’t getting paid fairly for his hard work and that the competition was taking market share.”
Then Can finished law school in 2017 and joined the nursery. He recalls, “From the onset, I was convinced we needed to overhaul our business model with branding being an important tool to usher growth and more profitability. We changed our logo, ordered new sleeves and took to social media to promote our flowers. Subsequently, I started addressing the key questions such as: Who are our buyers, what and when do they buy? I soon found out that there was little customer loyalty with buyers typically calling us during the peak season sales for last-minute orders while being absent during the slower seasons. This wasn’t the path forward. I explained to our customers I was striving for a long-term business relationship combined with year-round deals.”
Can is aware that his direct business stance on things may have come as a surprise to buyers, but his heart-felt beliefs were worth the effort. “I am not afraid to take an unpopular position and be told ‘no’. It is always better to get down to actually solving issues and moving the needle of discussion forward. I think that the majority appreciated my honesty and transparency. At the end of the day, it’s simply about business. Whether you sell gold or irises, the same basic principles apply. Today, we are proud to have a strong customer base of 10 to 15 regular buyers, ready to reward our quality flowers with a few cents more than our competitors. What also helps is that at auction and the buyer’s level you can see an influx of younger people starting with whom it is easier to make new bonds. Some have become really good friends.”
The Kaya family originates from Elazığ, a city in Eastern Turkey, and are among the 4,301 272 people with an immigrant background that now live in the Netherlands, which equals 24.6 per cent of the Dutch population. In 2020, Turkey was the most common country of origin for migrants (421,542) in the Netherlands. Of this group, 52.7 per cent were born in the Netherlands and today represent the so-called second-generation. (Source: Dutch statistics office CBS). The Turkish and Moroccans were the first migrants to arrive in the Netherlands in the 1960s and have largely contributed to Dutch horticulture growth.
Can believes that, although the situation has improved, migrants still need to prove themselves, particularly the older generation for whom Dutch is their second language. This group of people will never sound as eloquent as native speakers, and as such, it is sometimes hard to have their voice heard, also because as an immigrant they were taught to be obedient and hardworking. Can notes, “When my father and uncle restarted their business as Kaya Flowers, they worked day and night, growing flowers of top quality. Yet, it seemed that only typical Dutch names such as Groenewegen or Wagenmaker were rightly rewarded. Until the moment we changed our name into Middenweg Flowers. Then things started to change for the good, instead of paying for the name buyers started to pay for the quality.”
Determining the market’s size, Can says that the Netherlands hosts four year-round iris growers and an additional 15 seasonal growers who together occupy a production area of 20 hectares. Year-round growers produce several crops per year, and their output added to the harvest of seasonal growers accounts for approximately 80 million Dutch grown Iris stems per year.
In Europe, France is the only country that hosts some cut iris nurseries with Kaandorp in Plomeur (Brittany) involved in both iris bulb farming and cut flower forcing. From a more global perspective, Iris ‘Telstar’ is one of the stars at Sunvalley Group’s Oxnard division in California which specialises in seasonal crops such as irises.
Middenweg Flowers operates from two rented greenhouses in Poeldijk and Monster (2ha), with an additional 1ha dedicated to field production from April to October. The company has a full-colour range of 5 million irises available all year round.
The Kayas grow the traditional Dutch iris styles (see text box), including classics such as ‘Prof. Blaauw’, ‘Blue Magic’, ‘White Magic’, and ‘Hong Kong’. Depending on the season, Beerepoot in Wijdenes provides fresh Dutch bulbs between October-April and the so-called rem (retarded) irises between August-September. These bulbs are prepared and stored for one year. Iris bulb growers are in North Holland’s province in areas with sandy soils and a marine climate with cool summers.
Fresh and costly Iris bulbs from France have a special status as these fill in the very short void between ending rem bulbs and fresh Dutch bulbs.
Can elaborates, “The greenhouse production cycle starts with ‘Blue Magic’ and ‘White Magic’ plus the heavily blue ‘Prof. Blaauw’. In February, we start harvesting the first ‘Hong Kong’, gradually expanding our portfolio into summer when the full range is available.”
Pondering over the available range of cultivars, Can says the iris industry is not the most shining example of innovation except breeding companies Maveridge and Iris Nova. “There is still a lack of variation in colours. There is a new yellow cultivar but only the three falls are yellow while the heart has a touch of cream and ivory. Unfortunately, the market for breeding companies to develop new iris varieties is small. Producing a marketable variety can be the product of many years of development so you need a certain scale.”
As in nature, the Dutch Iris is limited to a handful of colours – in which blue dominates – Can started to look for ways to increase the colour palette artificially. A year ago, Middenweg Flower was one of the first growers to introduce a range of dyed irises selling under the brand names ‘Scarlett’ (red falls and standards and a central yellow stripe), ‘Céladon’ (green falls and standards with yellow stripes), ‘Sapphire’ (light blue falls and standards and a central yellow stripe) and ‘Magenta’(magenta falls and standards and a central yellow stripe).
Can has it on good authority that an iris painter’s job requires a lot of patience and practice. “The first three months created headaches with many flowers ending up on the compost heap. The secret lies in ‘less is more’; when using too many colourants, there is a risk of buds dying off. Conversely, when you use too little you hardly see any colouring effect. The dying job should also be done under the right climatic conditions.”
Outsourcing the dying process is no option. “You can hire a specialist who will easily charge you 25 cents. But with an average selling price of 27 cents at the auction this is not a profitable undertaking. Do it yourself flower dying is also easier these days because the natural pigment colourings are readily available at horticultural wholesale supplier Royal Brinkman.”
The availability of irises in a rainbow of colours does not grow from a golden pot, but a ‘dazzled’ clientele are nevertheless ready to pay a premium. “When our dyed collection made its debut, it received an overwhelmingly positive response. The first batches of ‘Scarlett’ achieved a peak price of 40 cents. Next, we saw how in the more regular iris range, average prices were between 13-14 cents, while dyed iris yielded 25-30 cents and even more in peak periods.”
The Kayas follow several steps to successful iris growing. First, to keep the flowers upright and increase the number of straight saleable stems, they use chrysanthemum mesh netting and typically hand-plant three (‘Prof. Blaauw’) to four, pre- disinfected bulbs per opening. The planting of bulbs are done with care and immediately follow the planting with watering to ensure that the soil nice seamlessly fits around the bulbs, which will encourage hassle-free rooting.
The soils in Poeldijk and Monster are perfect in that the clay is not too compact and is well-draining. Upon completing the last greenhouse harvest, soil steam sterilisation happens once a year to keep weeds and some soil born pathogens out of the greenhouse.
Ideally, the greenhouse temperature is between 12°C and 17°C, and 15°C up to 17°C when growing outdoors. As irises are salt-sensitive, the growers must keep a sharp eye on the EC levels.
Middenweg Flowers is an MPS A+ certified nursery. “Iris is by very its very nature an ecological crop as it hardly requires chemical treatment. Problems with Fusarium can happen but mostly occur in the bulbs”, says Can.
The first harvest typically occurs eight to ten weeks and 15 to 20 weeks after planting in the greenhouse and field respectively. Can outlines that irises should be harvested in the ‘pencil tip’ stage when a line of colour projects out of the sheathing leaves. “Pre-treatment with Chrysal BVB helps to avoid post-harvest problems such as leaf yellowing and extends the vase life, which is typically five to seven days.”
As a member of Royal FloraHolland, Middenweg Flowers sells its flowers through the auction from which exporters truck them to key markets such as the UK, France and Russia. “The latter is a country of flower lovers with wholesalers paying a premium for genuine quality in the run-up to International Women’s Day. By contrast, the UK is more of a mass floral market with extremely tight margins. The UK is also the country where large players such as Flamingo Ltd, a core supplier to the leading UK multiple retailers, dominates the market,” says Can.
Can is a member of Royal FloraHolland’s Product Committee for Bulb Flowers and is not shy rocking the boat when necessary. He notes, “Compared to cut tulips, irises are a tiny little market. But being the smallest boy in class does not mean I will sit silently in a corner. We gather every three months to discuss production matters and market dynamics. The auction’s latest acquisition of three leading transportation companies De Winter Logistics, Wematrans and Van Zaal Transport is currently the subject of heated discussions. When talking to my peers in Decorum, almost all agree that the auction’s latest business venture Floriway is a bridge too far. Discontent is growing. In my view, if you really want to support your grower members as an auction, why not reign in all the additional costs that are increasing year over year? Paying 70 euro per month for having market insights may not seem much but they add up to other levies and costs which are often overlooked because as a grower what interest you most is what you have earnt.”
With the lockdowns affecting many cut flower businesses, 2020 has been a singular year full of harsh new realities. “But there is a discrepancy between the first and second coronavirus wave. In spring 2020, we were forced to compost one million stems, while we had to offer 400,000 flowers at cost, forgoing our profits.”
Conversely, the wage subsidy scheme from the Dutch government worked quite well. “But the lost revenue claims made under the country’s aid package are still a work in progress. We are now in the middle of a second wave, and fortunately, it is more ‘business as usual’ than in spring last year. Prices continue to be good, and I guess that the Russian market is largely contributing to our positive sales.”
Another explanation can be that the air cargo market for flowers is still anything but normal. Can knows that “A very tight air freight capacity and soaring rates goes hand in hand.” Iris is sometimes called the ‘Eye of the sky’ in homage to its typical blue colour, which experts say is a rarity, seen only in around ten per cent of the earth’s flowering plants. “The iris faces competition from other blue flowers such as cut clematis, which are grown in Africa. Sending them to Europe has become a costly exercise. Meanwhile, imported irises from Israel do not really harm our business as they belong to the group of iris germanica or bearded iris, a species which Israeli growers only sell at the Dutch auction during two months in winter.”
In the Victorian age, a blue iris was a symbol of good news. So Can thinks there is enough reason to be confident for the near future. “February 2021 will mark a new membership of grower’s allliance Decorum. As a result we will start to pack all our flowers in the recognisable Decorum sleeve featuring the Middenweg Flowers and MPS A+logo, plus care tips. Decorum’s membership brings us instant benefits as it entitles us to discounts when purchasing for example flower boxes or horticultural supplies plus a more prominent presence at trade fairs and Decorum events.
Another exciting venture is the opening of a new production site in Almeirim, Portugal which will allow us to auction off an even wider range of outdoor irises. Our Portuguese irises are already sure to wow our buyers as they will feature bold colours and sturdy stems for which Mediterranean production is known for. Our Portugal branch will bring our total area of iris production to 3ha with around an estimated eight million harvested stems per year.”