THE proud owners of the only waterlily flower farm in Australia, Leuca Creek, started the business 18 years ago in Margaret River with just one pond.
Kathy Sassoon owned and ran a childcare centre at the time, while her partner Martin Staines, was working for the then Department of Agriculture at a dairy research farm based near Busselton.
As the couple grew their family of six, what started off as a part-time business gradually evolved into their full-time occupation.
The waterlily flower farm now consists of two large ponds that are about half a hectare each and three smaller ponds on a 22ha property.
"The first few years weren't easy, to say the least," Mr Staines said.
"They say it's trial and error, but it's probably been more error than trial.
"When I was ready to give up, Kathy kept me going and vice versa."
In the initial stages of the business, Leuca Creek sold the majority of its flowers to a wholesaler in Perth with clients around Australia, but over time it became apparent that the arrangement wasn't the right fit for them.
"For example, the cost of freight to Sydney is more expensive than to Melbourne, and the Sydney market doesn't pay as well either," Ms Sassoon said.
"We also require our buyers to understand that our waterlily flowers need to be treated differently to other flowers, as they require a quick turnaround, so the relationship with the Perth wholesaler came to an end and we took it on ourselves to sell our product, which was a big step for us."
In the years since, Leuca Creek has established a great relationship with clients in Melbourne who continue to grow their market there due to enthusiasm for their product.
Currently about 60 per cent of Leuca Creek waterlily flowers are sold into Melbourne, with their buyer also shipping some of those flowers to Sydney, about 10pc is sold in the Margaret River region and the remainder is sold into the Perth market.
"In Perth, outlets include The Flower Market at Herdsman Fresh and various wholesalers for the floristry industry," Ms Sassoon said.
When COVID-19 hit Australian shores in March 2020, it shut down Leuca Creek's flower trade to Sydney and Melbourne overnight with the business suffering major losses.
"It was at the peak of our season and we couldn't find another market for our flowers, so we literally had to throw six weeks of flowers away," Mr Staines said.
However once people began to realise they might not be able to see their loved ones for a while due to the lockdowns and border restrictions, their business picked back up with a vengeance.
"We started selling flowers again in early May that year and although our production plummets around that time because the weather starts getting colder, the final six weeks of that season were fantastic because people decided it was a good time to start sending flowers and gifts to one another," Mr Staines said.
"There were no imported flowers coming in at the time either, so locally grown flowers were in high demand."
While business is much more stable now, unfortunately the pandemic had the long-term effect of driving up Leuca Creek's airfreight costs, with a 45pc increase in 2021, and another 15pc increase this year.
Adding to their challenges, airfreight from Perth has also become increasingly unreliable.
"There are only two flights a week with our carrier from Perth to Melbourne direct and everybody is competing for that space," Mr Staines said.
"So even though we book and pay for our perishable cargo rate in advance, our flowers haven't been getting on the flights."
As a result, the couple now trucks flowers to Melbourne instead.
"It takes 60 hours for the flowers to get to Melbourne by truck and the temperature in the truck has to be chilled between 5-10 degrees," Mr Staines said.
As well as transportation, the timing of picking waterlily flower buds is another delicate and important process to get right, so the flowers have the longest life span possible once they are delivered to their customers.
"We pick them just before they open - if we get that timing wrong they either won't open or they'll open before they get to the customer and that's what we don't want," Mr Staines said.
As the fragility of the waterlily flower increases once it opens, picking the flowers in bud also means they can be transported more easily.
To slow the process of waterlily flower buds opening they are stored in cool rooms after being picked.
Once they are placed back in a room temperature environment, the flowers come to life within a day or so.
Leuca Creek grows both day blooming lilies, which open with the morning light and close again in the evening, as well as a few night blooming lilies, just for the owner's own enjoyment, which open at about 7pm at night and close at about 11am each morning.
"You can almost set your clock to them," Ms Sassoon said.
She said just as important as picking the flowers at the correct time was educating their customers on how to take care of them.
Unlike most other flowers, once picked the waterlily flowers dry out very quickly through their stem, so they need to be kept up to their necks in water to perform well.
As the stems grow, the old measurement of about an inch a day (2.54 centimetres), the flowers should also be arranged around the rim of a vase so the stems can be cut back every morning before the vase is topped up with water.
With not much known about waterlily flower growing in scientific terms, Mr Staines said he had increasingly embarked on research, recently submitting the first waterlily plant nutrition paper in the world for publication, in conjunction with two leading researchers at The University of Western Australia.
"We are trying to make the system sustainable in the long-term and that means you need to undertake your own research, as there aren't any textbooks on waterlily flower production," Mr Staines said.
"Soil under water behaves very differently from 'normal soil' because there is no oxygen, so I have done a series of nutrition experiments for our waterlily plants.
"We've tried to learn a little bit from rice, because it is also grown in flooded soil, but waterlily plants are still very different from rice."
As tropical plants, the waterlily plants are dormant in winter, they start growing in October/ November and start flowering in December.
Having experimented with about 20 different cultivars, the couple quickly discovered that not all waterlilies were suited to the flower trade.
"Over the past 18 years we've gone through that process, and some have been beautiful flowers, but they just don't work in a vase," Mr Staines said.
"However we still include some of those waterlily varieties that aren't suited to the flower trade with our production varieties growing them in pots for people's ponds, and that forms about 10pc of our income."
Mr Staines said Leuca Creek was always interested in other product lines within the framework of an aquaculture environment however, despite this, they weren't looking to expand the business.
"We are at a stage in our life where we aren't looking for more work, as the business is at a level where we can work it ourselves along with one part timer during our peak season from January until the end of April," he said.
"The current size of our business also works well for the water supply and our existing infrastructure on the farm, so we're quite content."
With the remainder of the property including about 8ha of bluegums and 4ha left for native wildlife, the couple recently applied for a Federal grant for looking after remnant bush.
"Even though we're a working farm, we want to encourage the expansion of that remnant bushland as much as we can," Ms Sassoon said.
While acknowledging that regenerative agriculture was sometimes seen as a bit of a slogan, she said regenerative practices still had a lot of merit and that they applied similar principles in how they managed their land.
"We need to make sure that our business is sustainable in the long term and that we can keep producing from our soil," Ms Sassoon said.
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