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Endless Patience and Attention to Detail Make South Canterbury Daffodil Business a Success

November 2017

Breeding daffodils commercially requires patience, and plenty of it. From the start of the process, cross-pollinating two daffodils with appealing characteristics to selling the first bulb of a new breed takes 12 years or more.

Gordon and Cindy Coombes are patient people. They have been breeding daffodils for 24 years, building what was originally a family horticulture hobby into a successful South Canterbury business with a worldwide reputation, supplying bulbs to daffodil growers throughout the country.

Although Gordon loves the flowers, he enjoys the people even more.

“Over the years, we have developed great relationships with our customers. Each spring, many of them visit us to see what new breeds we have developed. Sharing an interest that gives so much pleasure is lovely. Spring is a highlight of the year because we meet all those people again. When we see our regular customers, we invariably greet each other with a hug,” he says.

Gordon and Cindy’s business, Pleasant Valley Daffodils, located eight kilometres west of Geraldine, sells about 70,000 bulbs a year nationwide. They describe their market as a high-end niche: people who grow daffodils as a serious hobby and to compete in flower shows. Gordon’s stepfather, Colin Crotty, and mother, Ness, started the business in 1977. Gordon and Cindy took over in 1993.

Breeding daffodils is relatively simple, explains Gordon.

“In principle, it is no different from breeding anything else. Just like cows or dogs or sheep, you want to pass the desirable traits on. With daffodils, that might be better colour, better size or a more appealing shape. In the spring, we use a paintbrush to transfer pollen from flower to flower and back the other way. We then come back in late November to harvest the seed-pod. Each fertile seed-pod, might have one seed or possibly up to 40 seeds so it can be a hit- and-miss process, though the more seeds from any particular cross, the greater the chances of success,” says Gordon.

After the trial and error of pollination and harvesting seeds comes the long and painstaking process of building up a stock of bulbs.

“As soon as we take a seed, we plant it, though from there, it usually takes up to five years for a daffodil to flower for the first time. If that produces an appealing flower, it can then take another seven years at least before you have enough bulbs to market the new variety properly.

“While that is a long process, requiring careful monitoring and meticulous record-keeping, to see a flower you have bred for the first time is like holding your own new born baby,” he says.

Daffodils have given Gordon and Cindy so much. Now, however, they are ready to move on.

“Although it’s been a great lifestyle, we are now making an active decision to pass the business on rather than having circumstances change and dictate to us that it’s time to go.

“My mum and stepdad were there right the way through to help us settle in and keep the business on track. They still take an interest today. When we find someone else to take over, we are staying in the district so plan to be available to whoever buys the business, if required, to keep the continuity and help them become established.

“There are busy times and it is mostly a two-person operation. In our case, I’m the outdoor guy, while Cindy is the other half of the business. She is the computer wiz, keeping the books, making sure the administration is in order, looking after the website and all that side of it,” says Gordon.

Susie Williams of PGG Wrightson Real Estate, Timaru, is marketing Pleasant Valley Daffodils, which is for sale as a going concern, comprising the property and the business. She describes it as an exciting opportunity for anyone with a horticultural bent.

“Gordon and Cindy’s property is 8.5 hectares, of which approximately 500,000 daffodils are planted on around two hectares. Most of the work is concentrated into a few months of the year from the start of spring to the middle of summer, with another burst of activity in March and April. That provides options of other employment or working from home. Depending on the interests of a new owner, there is space to grow other plants or fruit on the extra land. Blueberries are a possibility, for example, and Gordon and Cindy have grazed stock so there are multiple options.

“When the flowers are in bloom from early September to mid-October, Pleasant Valley Daffodils is open to the public seven days a week. Visitors are welcome to stroll around inspecting the blooms and view a large indoor display, which is an important part of the business. There is also a significant mail order and online market to maintain,” she says.

With around 1500 named varieties of daffodils developed over the last four decades and hundreds more seedlings going through the process, it is a business and a lifestyle that Gordon thinks has plenty going for it.

“Apart from breeding the daffodils, which I find hugely rewarding, being self- employed, being able to go out the door and go straight to work, knowing we are supplying a quality product to many people, and knowing we are doing things right is extremely satisfying,” he says.

Pleasant Valley Daffodils has a list price of $1.2 million.