by Ron van der Ploeg and Maria Starodubrovskaya
AALSMEER, the Netherlands: Dutch flower exporter De JetSet BV and former New York-based floral wholesaler Dick Houtenbos have teamed up to jointly market Morocco-grown peonies on the international marketplace.
The driving forces behind the peony project are Driss El Hadji (De JetSet BV), Anasse Al Omani and Dick Houtenbos (Doublewood Peonies), three visionary entrepreneurs who saw a great opportunity for growing peonies in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. In 2010, in-depth market research resulted in the set-up of Atlas Peonies sàrl. which was granted financial support by the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Just like in Asia, Southern Europe and Western North America, there are wild peonies in Northwest Africa, so growing these flowers in Morocco was only a logical decision. Furthermore, peony production in this Northern African nation allows to extend the sales season. Driss, ”Normally, peony varieties are available as fresh cut flowers for 2 to 4 weeks, however, natural environmental conditions allow to extend their availability to 2 to 3 months.”
The main customers for Atlas peonies are wholesalers from the USA (basically New York and the Northeast megalopolis), Russia, Middle Eastern countries and the Netherlands, where part of the production is sold at the Dutch auction while the rest goes directly to Dutch customers. Moreover, peonies are sold locally in Morocco. In the future, Driss believes the amount of locally sold fresh flowers will reach 10-15% of the total production . Currently, about 30% of the peonies go to the Netherlands, while 40%, 15% and 15% are destined for the US market, Russia and the Middle East respectively.
Commenting on the peak sales season for peonies’, Driss said that the company’s fifty plus seasonal workers started harvesting in the first week of April. “So unfortunately, we don’t have fresh flowers on Valentine’s Day, nor on International Women’s Day, which takes place on 8 March. Our production starts in April.”
One of the benefits of growing peonies in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains is that plants produce an advanced crop. Driss, “Our production schedules are designed to be at market earlier than the Dutch growers. Therefore, different cultivars were experimentally tested at different altitudes (500 to 2000 metres), while carefully observing and recording the plants’ performance. Finally, when all climate and soil conditions were assessed, the team of Atlas Peonies selected the farm plots for early, middle and late production (April-June). Located within a 50km radius of each other, the four fields cover an area of 7,5ha with a 8ha expansion planned for this year. This will result in an annual output of 300,000 to 500,000 stems. This spring , Atlas Peonies’ first mayor harvest is expected to yield around 350,000 stems.
Driss grows about 60 different varieties of peonies. When asked about growing techniques and conditions, he said, “Before planting, Bllg AgroXpertus tests soil samples for the presence of nematodes and determines the organic matter levels. Fertilizer recommendations are provided to reduce the effect of nematodes on plant growth and yield.”
Atlas Peonies has opted for sowing green manure Lucerne Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) as this is the perfect organic fertilizer. According to Driss they improve soil structure, suppress weeds and revitalise the soil naturally by ‘fixing’ nitrogen into the soil. “We have sown the deep-rooted Lucerne Alfalfa to bring nutrients and an airy structure to the subsoil. When harvested it is used as cattle feed. The remaining 15-20cm stalks including the roots are left in the soil which are dug into the top layer where it decomposes. ”
In situ, wells were drilled for the supply of fresh water which is distributed through a drip system which allows to maintain an ideal moisture level in the soil. Peonies relish cold winters, because they need chilling for bud formation. Therefore , crops that are grown at lower altitudes are covered with a layer of straw to avoid sunlight penetration and extend the dormancy cycle.
In terms of logistics, there are several steps that fresh flowers are going through. Firstly, the flowers are harvested and put in a truck where the temperature is around 1°C . Upon arrival in the warehouse, the peonies are directly water-stored. Later, flowers are packed in boxes containing bunches of 5 to 10 stems each and then stored. Direct flights to the USA, Russia, Holland and the Middle East take the peonies immediately to the wholesalers. The whole process from the field to the final consumer takes about 48 hours. When asked about the shipping costs by plane, Driss said that there are special airfreight rates for flights between Morocco and the USA and that these are much cheaper when compared to Israel, their competitor in growing early flowering peonies.
Speaking of Israel, Driss stressed that he doesn’t consider Israeli growers as strong competitors because they produce different varieties. He said that real peony experts will immediately recognise whether the flowers are from Morocco or Israel, while ordinary people wouldn’t see the difference. Israeli peony growers need cold storage facilities to extend the sales season as the number of different climatic zones and altitudes are limited.