Lilies with a tale to tell

Successful lily producers, Anne and David Blewden (centre), with operations manager Josh Bull (left) and marketing manager Bobby Grindrod.

Twenty-five years ago, Anne and David Blewden stepped out of a classroom and into a venture that has blossomed, quite literally, into a successful secondary career.

They’re the couple behind Lilies by Blewden, an operation tucked down the bottom of Pukerimu Lane.  It’s there that they turned a one-time asparagus field into 11,000 square metres of automated greenhouses producing 1.1 million stems a year; and it’s from there that they have garnered respect as one of the country largest producers of premium-grade lilies.

The Blewdens’ journey grew out of a frustration with teaching, yet oddly redirected their innate ability to nurture children into nurturing flowers of a different sort. Now, after a whirlwind two decades of perfecting systems, of expansion, exporting and bedding in their markets, the Blewdens’ focus is on quality and margins.

“There are probably about four other lily growers in New Zealand that are around the same size as us. A lot of growers believe that they must keep getting bigger to remain profitable,” David explained. “We followed that model for years, but now all our energy goes into innovation, research and development. It’s about how we improve our efficiency with what we have; improve our margins in relation to production.”

To that end, they invested heavily in what David calls ‘business intelligence’, installing computer dashboard software that allows them to watch in real time how many flower stems sell per labour unit, tracking their progress minute-by-minute.    “It’s important for us because we are price-takers, rather than price-makers.  Having that technical ability lets us see what the market is doing in real time, it allows us to see how our business is flying.”

They then package that up with added value in terms of quality of service, part of which is the application of a product imported from Holland which extends the vase life of cut lilies by up to 50 per cent. Stems are treated after harvesting, and customers are able to purchase the product to add to their vase at home.

Lilies by Blewden have garnered respect as one of the country largest producers of premium-grade lilies.

It’s all a delicate dance linking nature, science, business and technology. Bulbs are purchased from Holland, then planted, tended and harvested at Blewdens in an operation David describes more as factory than farm. The lilies themselves include Asiatics, Longiflorums, L/As (Longiflorum/Asiatic cross), Orientals, and the relatively new OTs (Oriental/Trumpets), all grown in fully automated greenhouses where heating, ventilation and irrigation is tightly controlled.

Intermittent trips to the Netherlands keep them abreast with new cultivars. Their next visit is June 2019, when they will also attend the annual Dutch lily trade fair.  They’re hoping to be able to take with them the prototype of a new development currently under wraps. It’s all part of that innovation they espouse, and they’re saying little else right now beyond the fact it involves a university, Callaghan Innovation and robotics.

The Blewdens stumbled upon this secondary career after an architect friend of David’s, a man whose heart was really in horticulture, squired them around the Pukerimu Lane property on which he was growing asparagus and calla lilies.  At the same time, other friends were growing Asiatic and Oriental lilies. Those connections, combined with the Blewdens’ growing frustration with their occupation, saw them purchase part of the Pukerimu Lane property.  Once in, they kept the asparagus going for a while, put greenhouses up and mapped out their future – all the while teaching part-time to keep body and soul together.

A quarter of a century later, they now employ six full-timers and one part-timer to help them run what has become a thumping good business selling lilies.  And they’re not stopping there – next up for the Blewdens are peonies … trials, it seems, are already underway.

A limited number of tickets for a behind-the-scenes tour of Lilies by Blewden are being offered as an ‘optional extra’ of the November 18 Garden Festival, a new Cambridge Rotary Club fundraising event. Tickets for those are available via the website www.cgf.nz.

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