Walberton man's fight for British flowers

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Fourth generation grower Ben Cross is a man on a mission – campaigning to raise awareness about the benefits of growing and buying British flowers.

For the past 10 years, through talks, and latterly via social media, Ben has spread the message that British Flowers Rock, seeking more support and recognition for what he sees as the Cinderella sector of British horticulture.

The qualified marine biologist and NFU member came back to the family business, Crosslands Flower Nursery at Walberton near Arundel in West Sussex, in 2011, concerned at the number of nurseries being lost to development.

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“Flowers are a £2.2 billion industry in the UK but over 90% of flowers are imported. I didn’t want us to go the same way,” he said.

West Sussex grower Ben Cross.West Sussex grower Ben Cross.
West Sussex grower Ben Cross.

“When my great-grandparents started in 1936 there were thousands of nurseries. Now we’re one of the last larger growers left in the UK, specialising in producing alstroemeria.”

The business began under the Government’s Land Settlement Association scheme, set up during the Great Depression of the 1930s to resettle unemployed workers from struggling industrial areas. The Cross family has been growing flowers at Walberton since 1957.

“Originally, we were market gardeners, growing many different crops. Then with the birth of the supermarkets the public became used to having what they wanted all year round whatever the season, such as blueberries for Christmas,” he said.

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“Alstroemeria seemed a good crop to grow as it was available all year round, at a time when the supermarkets still wanted to buy British.”

Ben and David Cross.Ben and David Cross.
Ben and David Cross.

Ben, who runs Crosslands Flower Nursery with his father David, said the unique microclimate around Walberton made it an ideal location for the plant. The South Downs protect the area from colder weather during the winter, and its proximity to the south coast keeps it cooler during the summer. Soil and light conditions are ideal as well.

“British alstroemeria is a cool crop, so it doesn’t need much heat input, and it doesn’t need a lot of watering either. We only water the crop for 20 minutes once a month in the winter and 20 minutes every 10 days in the summer,” he said.

Sustainability lies at the heart of the business. When heat is required it comes from a biomass boiler fuelled by locally-produced wood pellets. Ben and David don’t use herbicides or pesticides, relying on natural predator controls instead, such as encarsia to tackle whitefly.

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The plants are grown, peat-free, in soil under natural light, and fewer than 5% are replaced every year. Many of the plants are 30 years old and still producing stems.

Ben Cross.Ben Cross.
Ben Cross.

Once picked, the stems are not frozen but chilled if required, and only stored for a day or two before they are delivered to customers, minus the plastic sachets of plant food supplied with supermarket flowers. More than 70 different varieties are grown to ensure the nursery can supply the full colour range, all year round.

Alongside offering deliveries nationwide through direct sales, Crosslands Flower Nursery also supplies farm shops, cafés and restaurants that support sustainability.

The plants are sorted into two grades, premium and posy, Ben’s floral version of wonky veg. This has reduced wastage, no longer throwing away stems that didn’t quite make the top specification.

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“People don’t care about the weight of the stem or if there’s a slight kink in it. The flowers are exactly the same,” he said.

Recruiting and retaining a local workforce is part of the ethos at Crosslands Flower Nursery.

Ben works with local colleges, including going in to talk to students once a year and offering apprenticeships and work placements.

“It does offer a benefit working with the colleges – sustainability is about people as well,” he said.

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The links with the local community paid off during lockdown. While many businesses struggled to find labour, the nursery had 30 people working there on a rota basis.

“When I was growing up, there were about 20 people working here and now there are just six of us. I would like to employ more people but unfortunately, due to the economic situation, we can’t,” said Ben.

He added: “If something of quality can be grown here more sustainably, why import it from abroad? We can produce more but we need help, support and funding to do so.”

Ben launched his British Flowers Rock initiative in 2014, beginning with a talk to a local horticultural society.

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Since then, he has delivered more than 600 talks to garden shows, festivals, RHS clubs, the WI and many others. Bookings are already coming in for 2025. He also leads tours of the nursery and participates in the National Gardens Scheme.

“I delivered 80 talks last year. People seem to like the content and they find it fun and engaging – that’s why they keep booking me,” he said.

One of Ben’s objectives is to achieve clearer labelling in supermarkets.

“Product placement and labelling in supermarkets is shocking. By law, food has to be correctly labelled. Customers know a lot about where it comes from and how it was produced,” he said. “If you are buying eggs you know if they are free range, barn or cage, but that’s just not the case with flowers. If you are buying an Easter bouquet there’s no information about where the flowers are from, what chemicals were used, how long ago they were picked, where they were packaged.

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“We’re seeing informative labelling for food, fashion, music but nothing for flowers, which is lagging years behind. Wouldn’t it be great if flowers were included in the Buy British button that supermarkets are now introducing?”

The NFU has long campaigned for improved provenance labelling of cut flowers in retailers and florists to enable the public to greater recognise which flowers are home-grown.

The organisation also published its strategy to increase horticulture production last spring.

The NFU Horticulture Growth Strategy set an agenda for policy change, both within government and the supply chain, to halt the current decline in production and put the horticulture sector on a better footing for growth.

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Key issues raised in the strategy include sustainable energy supplies, access to skilled labour, productivity investment, supply chain fairness and a range of other critical support necessary to create growth in the sector.

It has been used a key source of evidence for the No.10 Farm to Fork Summit, the Independent Labour Review and the House of Lords horticulture inquiry.

The strategy was also directly referenced when Farming Minister Spencer was challenged as to why Defra backtracked from its own promise to write a strategy.

Meanwhile, Ben is proud to be the fourth generation of his family at Crosslands and that the nursery is still going, almost 90 years after his great grandparents took advantage of the Land Settlement Association initiative. He just wishes today’s politicians would take imaginative action to back British growers.

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“I don’t sleep much because I’m so busy. I work from about 6am to 4 or 5pm, and then I’ll often drive to a village hall to give a talk. When I get home late at night there will be paperwork to complete before bed and then I’ll be ready to do it all again the next day,” he said.

“It’s worth it but it would be nice to have more representation and support for British flowers. I will just keep doing what I do and hope that people will keep backing me.”

You can find Ben on Instagram: @crosslandsalstroemeria.And on Facebook under Crosslands Flower Nursery.

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