Yorkshire flower farmer Gill Hodgson is a bit of heroine in the world of British-grown cut flowers.
Her story begins in 2010. Like so many other British farmers at the time, Gill was casting around for a new source of income for her family farm in Everingham, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where she grew up with her parents and grandparents. She still farms here today with her children and, in recent months, has been running “Granny School” each morning for her three young grandchildren, aged three, four and five.
“It’s mostly running around, singing songs and drawing, but counting the cows’ legs, naming the flowers and finding worms counts as a bit of maths, botany and biology,” says Gill. She explains what happened in 2010:
“I decided to experiment by growing garden flowers in amongst some of our fields of vegetables,” she recalls. “I had an idea that I’d sell them from a table at the end of the lane … just a few bunches of flowers and an honesty box.
“I didn’t charge very much – a pound a bunch to cover the cost of the seeds, I think – and I had no interaction with the people buying them, but I was amazed to find every single one of the bunches had gone by the end of the day.”
Encouraged, Gill decided to take her flowers to nearby Driffield Market, to see how sales went there. That first Saturday, she was staggered to find her stall quickly surrounded by queues of enthusiastic marketgoers all eager to dip their noses into the bunches of freshly cut blooms and demanding to know what was the name of this, and of that, and who had grown them, how, and where?
“Imported blooms, which at the time accounted for 90 per cent of the cut flowers sold in Britain, have had the scent bred out of them to make them last longer, and most people had forgotten what locally grown, freshly picked, seasonal British flowers looked or smelt like,” says Gill. “When I saw the looks of sheer pleasure on people’s faces, I thought, there’s a real business opportunity here.”
Her flowers had become the “new exotics” in the area, and inspired by this clear interest in provenance and desire for local produce and having found her target market, Gill turned a spare acre over entirely to flower production and named her new income stream Fieldhouse Flowers.
Growing and selling the flowers was one thing, but Gill wanted to share her excitement about the possibilities for British flowers with other like-minded growers. After a fruitless search for an organisation to join, Gill decided to set something up herself, and in February 2011, she registered Flowers from the Farm as a not-for-profit association.
The idea was simple: encourage more people to grow cut flowers for market in Britain, promote British flowers to the public, and foster a support network for the growers. “I was aiming for 40 to 50 members and, with no social media to speak of, I sent a press release to my local NFU. Within days, I was photographed for the Yorkshire Post, and BBC Look North filmed me for its breakfast programme.”
The Yorkshire Horticultural Society saw the coverage and asked Gill if she would bring FFTF to the Great Yorkshire Show that same summer. “They also invited me to present Prince Charles and Camilla with a buttonhole and a corsage,” she remembers. “I’d never made a corsage before, but I did it by torchlight at the campsite, surrounded by 500 young farmers dancing, drinking and singing!”
As her own flower sales took off locally, applications to join FFTF also began to roll in, and by the end of 2011, it had 25 members. That number rose to 140 in 2012 and 500 in 2018. This week, as the growers gather for its annual conference online, and to celebrate FFTF’s 10th anniversary, there are almost 1,000 of them listed on the association’s interactive website map.
The business model was vital to that early success, says Gill: “It wasn’t aimed at women in particular, but they picked up the idea fastest because it suits many circumstances – caring for young children or elderly parents, working part-time, or starting a second career – and you don’t need huge funding, just enough money for the seed.
I also think it was the timing. People were increasingly concerned about our carbon footprint and about provenance and production methods for food, and applying the same thinking to flowers was the logical next step.”
As interior designers moved away from industrial and glossy corporate looks in favour of soft natural materials and a more individual, craft-influenced style, florists were championing naturalistic flower arrangements, and Shane Connolly’s overnight transformation of Westminster Abbey for the royal wedding in April 2011, using living English field maples and hornbeam and armfuls of fragrant lily of the valley to bring the English countryside into town, sent the message loud and clear.
It all confirms that, for the last decade, Gill and FFTF have been very much in tune with the zeitgeist.