Thursday, 26 May 2016

The Dutch Flower Auction

Last month Mike took me to Holland for a few days (it was my Christmas present). The main purpose of the trip was to visit the Flower Market at Aalsmeer, just outside Amsterdam. This is the market where most of the flowers sold in the UK and all around Europe are traded through the Dutch auction process. FloraHolland is the cooperative company which runs the trading platform. The company was set up to support its member growers from Holland and from around the world. It enables growers to bring their products to Aalsmeer where they are sold and then dispatched all over Europe.
Seeing the operation in action was a mind-blowing experience – it is a fantastic logistical triumph. I am going to try to give you a flavour of it. As we entered the building at about 6.30 in the morning, the first thing we saw was acres and acres of metal trollies which are used to transport the flowers around the massive building.
FloraHolland has members in 60 countries including Kenya, Columbia, Ethiopia, Israel, Ecuador, Italy and the UK – but it is still the case that 65% of the flowers sold are grown in the Netherlands. We took the bus from the centre of Amsterdam at about 6.00 in the morning and we passed by many flower growers with extensive greenhouses in the vicinity of the market. Very convenient for the growers, and one of the main features which strengthen the Dutch flower industry.
After the growers have harvested their products they have to prepare them for sale using standard boxes, buckets and trays supplied by FloraHolland. There are support companies who prepare the flowers airfreighted in from countries like Kenya. Growers are given lots and these are drawn every day to determine the order in which their product will be taken into the auction. The flowers are then stacked up on the trollies and sent along rails like these to be gathered together in what are called buffer zones.
From the viewing platform we could see all sorts of flowers moving along the rails and then held in the buffer zones waiting for their turn in the auction. Here you can see gypsophila, peonies, pink roses and orange roses making their way along the rails.
The lots are then put up for auction. In the early days, individual growers carried. or wheeled, their produce into the auction. The idea of the auction clock is that the circle shows a set of numbers which indicate price. Bidding starts at a high price, then the price reduces until a buyer bids for the produce at the price shown on the clock. Buyers have to hold their nerve to get the lowest price possible, without waiting too long to bid and failing to buy anything.
Today the auction clocks are projected in a room in Aalsmeer (rather like a lecture hall), and on computer screens. The clocks show a wide range of information, including price per stem, stem length, maturity, country of production and quality. Increasingly, trading takes place remotely and only 20% of the bidding takes place in the auction room at Aalsmeer.
One of the things that hit me was that virtually all the people bidding at Aalsmeer were male. I suspect that this is also true of the remote wholesale buyers since nearly all the wholesalers in Sheffield and in the New Covent Garden Flower Market are male…by comparison the large majority of florists at the retail end of the chain are female….I think there is scope for a spot of gender research here!
The next stage of the process is the most fascinating to watch. Each buyer has a numbered bay in the building where their purchases are added onto trollies. Individual workers collect trollies of flowers from the sold lots and then scoot about the building delivering the bought flowers to the individual bays. It looks just like organised chaos.
Here you can see one bay building up with different flowers.
When an order is complete all the trollies are hitched up like a little train and moved off to the place where lorries are waiting to drive the flowers to their final destination.
In Sheffield the destination is GT Flowers or Flower World just off the Parkway. Flowers start to arrive from 4.00 am – about 2 days on from when they were harvested. This is a seriously impressive operation and it made me feel very supportive of the flower wholesalers I use in Sheffield. The Dutch flower trading platform makes the flower industry work all across Europe, and it provides a trading avenue for flower crops from the developing world. If you ever go to Amsterdam, think about taking a look – it only costs 7 euros and a bus fare. You will be amazed.