Belgian grower Kristof van Laere: ‘We’re going on pretty well with azalea’

„Generally speaking, azaleas aren’t doing great, but we’re getting on pretty well”, says Belgian azalea grower Kristof van Laere. He’s not sure though if he will be growing azaleas in ten years time. ”Things are changing rapidly.”

How did you get on with the hot summer weather?

“The heat was definitely a challenge, but that was true for many sectors. Bakeries were probably also struggling to keep their sales up. We never experienced a water shortage. The large amount of light and high temperatures were more of a problem. For next year, I’d like to have some more shading cloth. If we’re going to have another summer like this one… But apart from that, we can’t complain. Generally speaking, azaleas aren’t doing great, but we’re getting on pretty well. That optimism might not be shared by everyone, though.”

Why do you think you’re still doing well?

“We deliver high quality and continuity, which is appreciated. Customers never have to go looking for an alternative, they know we have plants available every week. Due to the hot summer weather, we might have a lot in December that doesn’t meet the usual standard, but that’s probably the case for all growers. We have noticed though, that the popularity of azaleas is going down. Everyone’s fighting for their place. The problem with azaleas is that there are growers who don’t offer consumers the right quality, and as a result, the plant loses its popularity.”

Have you considered a value-added approach?

“We’d like to keep it simple. We listen to our customers. When a customer has a specific request, we try to meet it. We do have a web shop, through which we sell directly to consumers. We send them the products by mail. We aren’t yet selling truckloads of plants, but it’s going quite well. It does require a fair bit of effort though, and consumers do need to be tempted via mailing lists for example. But the advantage of the web shop sales is that we provide the consumer with high-quality azaleas. That encourages them to buy more plants in the future.”

Who are your customers?

“We sell some of our produce directly in France, England, Spain and the Netherlands. And some of it is sold via exporters. On the domestic market, our customers include florists and market stallholders. We hardly ever send anything to the auction in the Netherlands. Apart from when we’ve got a batch that really needs to go. You can make some money there with reasonable quality, but the top segment isn’t valued at the auction.”

Will you still be growing azaleas in ten years time?

“That’s a good question. I’m not sure. Things are changing rapidly. Take consumer behaviour for example. You’ve got to keep your eyes open, you can’t just assume that you’ll be growing azaleas until the day you retire. It’s important to stay open-minded and be willing to discuss things. Being stubborn when things go badly, that’s dangerous. But I do like the work and I’m earning enough.”

Is your company a family business?

“I took over the business from my father, I expanded it and focused on automation. My wife also works full time, she runs the azalea shop. We receive around three to four coaches of company visitors each month. My parents still help out on a regular basis.”

What do you do when you aren’t working?

“I try to do as much as I can. I cycle with a cycling club every Sunday and I like going out with friends. We’ve also got two children, they’re 10 and 12 now. I attend their football matches. You’ve got to make time for things outside work, or you’ll go crazy.”

Kristof van Laere

Crop: Azaleas, 220,000 pot-size 14 per year

Acreage: 3ha

Place: Zaffelare (Belgium)

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