Grown in Wales

Grown in WalesGrown in WalesGrown in Wales

3

January

Skills

Charles Warner

It was the build up to Christmas. We don't go in for Christmas in a big way. We have a £10 limit on presents (I managed to find Duke Ellingtons Far East Suite on Vinyl which was a bit of a triumph). We don't do decorations or Christmas trees but with the money that we save we treat ourselves to a couple of special bottles from a proper wine merchant (it took a trip to Cardiff) and some nice bits and pieces to eat. The favourite bit for my partner and I is probably choosing the christmas cheese. We didn't have to go far. Wales has a growing food culture these days. Twenty years ago there were few cheese producers but now we are a bit spoiled for choice. six miles or so from us is a producer of national renown. They have a multi award winning range of cheeses that have graced the halls of some of the largest food retailers in the UK as well as some of the poshest. I remember Derek Cooper describing their Caerphilly in such glowing terms on the food programme that I felt the need to rush to my nearest stockist to buy some. I was not disappointed. You can watch them making the cheese now from a viewing gallery and you you have quite a choice. I prefer the unadulterated, natural rind, soft cheeses especially those with some blue veining. You can also see the whole cheeses stored adjacent to their new shop. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I can't think of a business that I feel warrants higher praise. They have a wonderful, artisan product which they have tirelessly marketed to the world. They have kept their integrity and not pandered to the needs of a market place awash with uniform, mechanically produced and inferior produce. They have been innovative whilst staying true to their Welsh farming roots.

I got chatting this time. It would be hard to hide my enthusiasm for what they do. They had had their works Christmas do the day before and were a bit frayed around the edges and didn't open until they heard our car pull up. The owner looked tired. He was very pleased I think, to have such enthusiastic customers first thing but we got on to the subject of how it is to run a small business and he told us how this year his stress levels had peaked in the week that he had had to tell the staff that he couldn't pay the wages .

I can empathise with this. They, like us, have concentrated on producing a truly great product with no compromise. Their marketing is good and they probably work harder than you could ever ask an employee and yet they are faced with the truly awful situation of telling their staff that they had to wait for their pay packets. Some of my garden centre customers have been the same this year. Two are up for sale. One has gone and another had to usher me into the office to explain that they were unable to pay the £200 that they owed from their spring sales. This is not some down at heel garden centre. This is an exemplary place with two shops. Small but with an attention to detail that many larger businesses could learn from. These businesses are not run by fools or lazy people. They are run by hard working people with integrity. Some of them are just finding that the simple premise of working hard to sell a good product for a fair price is not enough.

It's the same for us. We have created a product that is second to none in the UK. We have led the way in terms of going peat free. We are innovative in our marketing and our method of selling (which is so generous to the retailer that some of them don't seem to believe it). We stick to our principals of growing our own stock from scratch without importing from abroad. The seasonal nature of our industry has always been a deciding factor. Despite many innitiatives that have tried to get people to plant hardy plants in the autumn and winter we are left with a three month window in the spring in which to make a living. Last year the window was not open until late April and it slammed shut for us in late May. With the best will in the world you can't make a living like that.

These days, if the extreme seasonality is not enough to contend with, the garden centres also have the likes of Aldi and Tesco muscling in. In the spring the supermarkets now have Danish trollies parked by the door. Full of bedding plants and imported hardy stuff. Some of it is good quality and some of it is atricious. In the coop the plants arrive in perforated boxes that are ripped open and stacked by the front door. If they get watered at all the boxes collapse. If not the poor little plants die of thirst or botrytis which ever gets them first. In Homebase I checked out the little Jamie Oliver six pack of herbs. On average half of each pack were dead. You can buy plants online now but you'll be paying twice the price without ever seeing what you are buying and you'll never get the expirience that you can get from going to a proper garden centre.

I think that for my little business, ten pence on the wholesale price of a 1L plant would make all the difference. This would mean that the retail customer would pay 20 or 25 pence more . For that he or she would get the advantage of seeing the plant there in its pot and therefore being able to check it's quality. Advice from the staff or garden centre owner and the warm glow of possibly saving two small businesses. My garden centre customers say that people won't pay it. They say that they just quote the prices that they see in Tesco or Aldi or the ones that they see on Amazon and quietly disregard the cost of the postage. I don't believe it. I think that given the choice people will choose a UK grown product. They will choose peat free and they will choose the quality and advice that they get from their local garden centre even over Jamie Olivers smiling face. I would like to know what other people think.

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