From Rakaia to the world

Anton Warmerdam checks the condition of dormant lily bulbs in a chiller. Photo by Maureen Bishop
Anton Warmerdam checks the condition of dormant lily bulbs in a chiller. Photo by Maureen Bishop

Millions of lily bulbs leave a Rakaia processing plant every year on their way to growers around the world.

About 33 million bulbs are exported from the Rakaia plant by Royal Van Zanten Flowerbulbs Ltd, a Dutch company that has turned to New Zealand to supply bulbs in the off season for northern hemisphere growers.

Most go to Japan, China, Taiwan and Europe, but they are also supplied to India, Vietnam, Australia, Colombia and Mexico.

The company came to New Zealand in 1998, trying first in South Otago. Wet conditions and heavy soil did not produce good bulbs so the company moved to Rakaia, where soil conditions were favourable and irrigation provided a more controlled climate.

About 80% of the bulbs are oriental varieties. They are grown on 105ha of leased land, of which 75ha-78ha is harvested each year.

Rakaia shed manager Anton Warmerdam said with a crop rotation of eight to 10 years, it was not economical for the company to own land. Instead, it was providing another income for local farmers through leasing land, particularly areas that had been in grain the previous year.

Mr Warmerdam, who followed his grandfather and father into the bulb industry in Holland in 1986, moved to New Zealand in 2008.

The plant was now a processing plant. Landowners ploughed and rolled the paddock and provided irrigation, while contractors planted, fertilised, sprayed, debudded and harvested the bulbs.

The planting machine was imported from Holland but potato harvesters had been adapted to harvest the bulbs.

The company had 12 permanent staff but the numbers swelled considerably during the harvest period of June and July, when 80 seasonal workers were employed. About 30 were local people, while the rest were backpackers or motorhome travellers who followed seasonal work.

If weather allowed, harvesting started by June 1. The cycle began again in August and September, when main varieties were planted. Planting was due to be completed by September 25.

Bulbs to be sent out were washed, air dried, graded by weight and packed in Southland peat. They were stored in chillers and the temperature lowered slowly to below freezing point to keep the bulbs dormant.

Stringent import conditions, particularly in Japan, meant the bulbs must arrive with no soil attached.

During the season, two or three trucks loaded with crates of bulbs left the plant each day, headed for Timaru on their way to overseas markets.

Other bulbs were scaled to multiply the crop. Bulbs scaled now would produce a crop by September 2016.

Buds were removed in January to ensure growth went into the bulb and not into flowers.

''We don't want to see any colour at all,'' Mr Warmerdam said.

The demand was always for new varieties with better bud presentation or stronger colour.

''They must always be better than the last one,'' he said.

The company supplies bulbs to some New Zealand growers and donates bulbs to Lions clubs for fundraising.

- by Maureen Bishop