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09 May, 2018

Constant Innovation - Looking at ways to diversify

Constant Innovation are two words which sum up Pat FitzGerald of FitzGerald Nurseries. Stemming from a dairy and beef farm, developed a unique range of plants suitable for year-round colour in small garden spaces, planters and containers.

The company has grown from a traditional family farm into Ireland’s leading young plant nursery based at two locations in Kilkenny and a micro-propagation lab in Co Wexford. We met Pat, a client of our Kilkenny office, to discuss how a company originating from a family farm in Stoneyford, Kilkenny is now exporting to over 26 countries. While smaller Irish nurseries propagate their popular plant varieties in tens and hundreds, at FitzGerald Nurseries in Kilkenny the numbers are in the tens and hundreds of thousands.

The beginning – how Fitzgerald nurseries originated

Initially after leaving college, Pat set up a horticulture nursery with a couple of guys from college for people with special needs in Ferrybank Co. Waterford. After getting married he moved back to the family farm, which in 1990 consisted primarily of a dairy herd while finishing cattle also. “We used to do a lot of vegetables in the 70’s, that’s how I got into Horticulture originally. When I came home I set up the nursery alongside the farm.” “In 1997 my father went into early retirement and I took over the cows, the cattle and the nursery. At that stage, the nursery was seven years established. My wife Noirin left her job and came to work full time in the nursery doing accounts. I ran the farm and the nursery until 2005 when I bought a plant tissue laboratory down in Wexford and that was when I got out of the cows completely.”

The deciding factor

Deciding to focus solely on the nursery was not an easy decision for Pat and it took a couple of years to stop completely: “I wasn’t finishing up in the yard until 11 or 12 at night. Once the staff of the nursery had finished up in the evening I’d go out and milk the cows. So at 6pm after a full day’s work had been done I’d turn back to the yard to milk the cows and in the morning I would try to have them milked before the staff came in. It came to a stage when I had to get someone in to help with the milking, but it just wasn’t working. When it got to that point I said enough was enough.”

The growth of Fitzgerald nurseries

The business has grown steadily and now has a capacity to produce 1.5 million liners and 2.5 million plug rooted cuttings per nursery rotation. They have 20 staff and one exclusive contract grower. Production is carried out using 2.25 acres of glasshouse and 3.5 acres of poly-houses. “The use of technology and the focus on the things that others don’t do is how we have been so successful. We don’t take on plants that have been done for years i.e. stevia. We find things that we feel we can excel in and crops which have a lot of room to develop. We started exporting by originating our own crops which are not in the market. Sometimes we have to make a market for them.

The birth of beotanics

The company, known now as Beotanics, was established by Pat and Noirin in 1999 to develop and fund the alternative farm business activities. The propagation, breeding and development of many genera of plants from tissue culture, cuttings, division and seed has been the core focus of FitzGerald Nurseries. The parent company Beotanics funded activities, evolved brands and further evolved plant product development into niche food crops. In 2011 after the investigation of several niche crop opportunities, a food crop strategy was established.

“We began a breeding programme out of the laboratory in 2007 and from, this we now have our own variety proprietaries which includes 11 patents around the world on different plant varieties. We have a brand called Ever Colour, which is 50% of our production at the moment. That variety is exclusive to FitzGerald nurseries. No one else in the world is allowed to grow it. That variety is used for landscaping, living walls and ground cover under planting and are very popular in America, Japan, Australia and South Korea and everybody that grows one of them has to pay a royalty to us. We pay an agent 20% out of that royalty and the rest is ours. That began a new type of business - FitzGerald Nurseries came from the farm and now from the nursery is a company called Beotanics.”

Why export?

FitzGerald Nurseries has an export range which includes Cordyline, Yucca, Phormium, Ophiopogon, Carex, Uncinia Fasicularia and other hardy garden patio plants in P9 pots and plugs. It has the ability and expertise to produce large numbers of specific lines and meet customer specifications for uniformity. But we were curious as to why they chose to start exporting from the start and not start within Ireland. “The market in Ireland wasn’t profitable enough for a specialist like us, which is what we chose to be. We started exporting in 2005/2006 during the boom, but in actual fact, the boom affected us negatively. People were only importing finished plants and we only focus on young plants. We started selling in Holland and the Dutch were then selling our plants further developed back into Ireland and that’s how it is. We sell in 28 countries. We deal with one company in China with helping them bring the plant to market for a royalty every year. So we get something out of our genetics in China and have them licensed in every other country. It’s all exports, there only about 2-3% which is shipped to Northern Ireland and only 1% of sales to the Republic of Ireland.”

Brexit

With Brexit looming one wonders how this would affect a rural company like FitzGerald Nurseries. “We made a number of agreements 2 or 3 years ago to work with our competitors in the UK. It’s a Co-Opetition strategy for the UK and about 56% of our UK sales are with companies who want access to our genetics. We won’t allow that, but we will sell to them, and they in turn sell out to their customers. We have 4 companies in the UK who do exactly what we do, but we sell our plants as young plants, they then put a margin on it and are happy to get them into their collection. We’ve managed extremely well to de-risk from Brexit. We only sell to one customer in sterling, and the rest are in euro. We have de-risked by going out into 27 other different countries which are growing.”

Looking forward

With a company like FitzGerald Nurseries, the future looks bright. All the crops they grow have important health and nutritional attributes. The root crops they develop are low GI, and the health-food and nutrition trends have been very beneficial to the business: “For growth in the future, the biggest barrier in Ireland will be the food industry’s interest in our products. Whether it will happen here or elsewhere is a decision I will have to make in the next year or two. About 30% of the crops we are working on will have relevance to agriculture in Ireland, so if we are successful, not only will it have an impact with our nursery, but it will go out onto farms also. From a succession point of view, I would love to see the family take it over, but that will be very much up to them. They are highly qualified. My sons, John and Richard, are both qualified within the Industry, but whether or not they would like take it over is something that will be discussed. I wouldn’t force them into it but the intention is to run the company as a family business and I hope it will continue that way.”