Northern Ireland’s hard-pressed farmers are being urged to look to new markets - specifically one worth almost £1.5bn (€2.3bn) a year – supplying Britain's florists.
As traditional crops and livestock become increasingly more difficult to make money out of and as more and more farmers leave the land, the Department of Agriculture has suggested the alternative of becoming flower growers.
Farmers are being told there is profit in growing cut flowers locally. The opportunity to provide rapid transit to local shops would also give local growers a “shelf-life” advantage over imported flowers.
And the department is prepared to stump up money to help the diversification through rural development funding schemes.
The British market for flowers and indoor pot plants is worth some £1.5bn (€2.3bn) a year – close to the value of the entire music industry.
The market is expanding at around 10% a year, and a seminar for growers and potential growers at the Greenmount College of Agriculture in Co Antrim showed there was an opportunity to develop and expand the growing of foliage in the province.
The Ulster Farmers Union has not dismissed the idea. It said it was all for the new opportunities that could be offered by the flower and foliage market.
Worrying latest figures showed that 2,100 farmers gave up on the traditional farming industry during the past year.
The rural exodus was almost double that of previous years, prompting UFU president John Gilliland to say he was “gravely concerned”.
Equally worrying to the UFU is the age profile of those still in farming - just 4% are under the age of 30.
Commenting on the flower growing proposal spokesman John McDonald said: “If there is a market there and opportunities, that is great.
“What we know for sure is that most core farming commodities are in an unsustainable situation at the moment.”
While he admitted there was “less flexibility to change” among those involved in farming long-term, the younger generation was much more keen to look for market opportunities.
And he said: “A lot of young farmers going through agriculture college are looking at the industry in a new way – the nursery stock training courses have become very popular.”
It was, he said “a sign of the times and an indication that younger people are looking wider than the traditional core farming activities we are used to”.
David Kerr, Horticulture Adviser to the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland, said some of the most popular items in demand were birch twigs and twisted willow which are sold without leaves for domestic decoration.
Foliage had also become more popular making up to 35% of some flower bouquets.
Demonstration work carried out by Greenmount College had confirmed Northern Ireland had a “very suitable” climate for growing summer flowers, particularly those such as Stock and Aster, he said.
They could be grown profitably and to a quality acceptable to the market place.
Currently a very small percentage of the flowers sold in Northern Ireland are grown locally.
Mr Kerr said realisation of the potential to expand local production would require “committed growers to organise and plan production in order to provide quality and continuity of supply”.
There would also be a need for a local packaging house to administer orders, consolidate supplies and exercise a quality control role.