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The great Norfolk tulip massacre

They may look beautiful, but life is brutal in Britain’s biggest fields of blooms, finds Christopher Middleton as he joins the pickers for the day.


Blooming lovely: Christopher Middleton in Britain's largest tulip field.

From a distance, they look like long strips of coloured Plasticine. Get closer, though, and those corrugated lines of purple, pink and yellow turn out to be row upon row upon, well, row of tulips.

Get even closer, and you find that each seemingly single line is, in fact, five flowers wide. Which, at 85 flowers per metre, and each row 500m long, makes for 42,500 blooms per row. And there’s at least 200 rows in this field.

Quite a daunting prospect when you’re starting your first day as a Norfolk tulip-picker. The good news, though, is that you don’t have to pick all 8.5 million flowers, just the odd ones out.

“It’s called ‘rogueing’,” explains Mark Eves, commercial manager of Belmont Nurseries, whose headquarters are at Terrington St Clement, near King’s Lynn. “You make your way along the row, picking out the rogues, ie the ones that are a different colour from the rest.”

Sounds simple enough. The task facing myself and my fellow pickers Gulpera and Siclika, both young women from Bulgaria, is to make our way along an avenue of bright red flowers, removing any pinks, purples or reds that are a bit pale.

Within minutes, though, it becomes clear that there’s more to the job than meets the eye. First, the soil is all soft and sandy, which suits tulips (good drainage), and which is why they have done so well in Holland, a part of the world that shares the same low-lying, semi-marine past as Norfolk. For humans, though, the terra could do with being a bit more firma; what starts out as pleasant underfoot give, turns into increasingly unwelcome suction, as one’s knees tire.

Having set off several paces in front of Gulpera and Siclika, then, I find they are catching up with me. Each time I have to up my pace accordingly, like an ageing Morris Minor attempting to accelerate away from a tailgating truck.

“I do not think this is hard work”, says Gulpera, a 30-year-old teacher.

“We talk and pick flowers, I like it,” says Siclika, a sociology student. “We work from 8am to 4pm, not too long, and we have a nice caravan, too.”

Soon they have overtaken me, and a couple of minutes later, they’re out of conversation range, reverting from English back into the Bulgarian and Turkish in which they communicate. Even though I’m just picking out the borderline rogues they’ve missed, I reach the end of the row as they are already two-thirds of the way up the next one.

Hardest to master is the rather crab-like way you have to make your way along the beds; it’s hard to know whether to walk sideways or face straight ahead and bend down to the left each time I spot a bloom for removal.

“With experience, you learn how to vary your stance, so you don’t get back problems,” says Eves. “If you’ve done one row working to the right, you do the next to the left.”

There is one job, though, where you don’t do any bending, and that’s when operating the heading machine. This is a sort of high-rise lawnmower which is piloted along the channel between two rows (or “ends”) of tulips, performing the kind of multiple decapitation operation that Madame Guillotine could only have dreamed about.

However, junior pickers don’t get to handle the heading machine until they’ve put in a few years’ hard graft. The young man driving it today, 28-year-old Sergeij Kovalcuks, from Latvia, is not some muddy-booted itinerant, but a paid-up Belmont Nurseries employee.

“I have been working eight years with this company,” says Sergeij, in a heavy East European accent. “Now I live in King’s Lynn; before I lived in Terrington Saint Clement.”

And will it be all right if we take photos of him aboard the heading machine?

“Of course,” he smiles. “Mister Peter says it is OK, so no problem. He is the boss.”

Peter Ward began Belmont in the 1960s, with a bungalow and three glasshouses out the back. Now the company has a 20-acre headquarters and produces up to 24 million tulips per year, plus 33 million other flowers (daffodils, gladioli, lilies, stocks and Sweet Williams).

However, because continually growing the same things on the same land is an open invitation to disease (remember rotation of crops at school?), they have to shift the tulips from year to year, perpetually seeking out the sandy soil.

In all, there are more than 100 acres of fields under tulip cultivation (the biggest expanse in Britain), but the astonishing thing is that none of the beautiful flowers in those fields ever find their way into a shop, let alone a water-filled vase.

The closest they get is taking part in the annual Spalding Flower Parade, at the end of April (this year on Saturday April 30), when lavishly decorated floats move in procession through the small Lincolnshire town. Even then, though, it’s only the tulip heads that feature, removed from their stalks and arranged in giant floral designs (the yellows come in handy for The Simpsons characters).

The majority of blooms, though, are denied that final blaze of glory, as becomes apparent the minute Sergeij gets to work. One minute, there are two rows of beautiful tulips stretching as far as the eye can see; the next, there are two trenches shin-deep in beheaded blooms, beside two long lines of headless green stalks. And there they lie, just left to rot. Not for them a starring role on someone’s dining table; for them, the future is mulch.

On the surface, it looks like madness; dig deeper, and you find the method.

“The flowers that are grown in the fields aren’t up to the standards we require”, says Eves, as we inspect the freshly inflicted carnage. “Now that the heads have been removed, though, all the energy and goodness in the stems will revert back down to the bulbs in the soil below.”

Come July, they’ll be back here, with a monstrous orange machine that plunges metal hands into the earth and brings up millions of tulip bulbs, which are transported to Terrington St Clement, placed in the glasshouses and encouraged to produce blooms.

“It’s called forcing,” says Eves. “By using cold storage, then increasing the temperature, we fool the bulbs into thinking they’ve been through a winter and a spring, and that it’s time to produce flowers.

“A process that takes five months out in the fields, can be achieved in five to six weeks in our glasshouses.”

Which means the tulip harvest happens not out in the fields, but under glass, where workers gather up armfuls of blooms not from the ground, but from thousands of black, plastic trays in which the bulbs stand in water, fixed on tiny spikes. A machine then slices off the bulb, and by evening, the flowers can be in supermarkets as far away as the Scottish Borders (and in Scotland the next morning).

The most surprising feature of all, then, is how labour unintensive a business this is. You have romantic visions of hundreds of smock-clad bloom-gatherers moving scenically through the fields, but in fact, the firm only employs 60 staff, and most of them are back at base.

They’ve got their own in-house reservoir, they’ve got vast cleaning machines that steam-disinfect their soil and, instead of men sprinkling seeds from haversacks, they have £45,000 tractors that are steered by an automatic, satellite-guided system, producing ramrod-straight furrows that allow 10 more rows of flowers per field than a flesh-and-blood driver could achieve.

And all I’d brought was a pair of scissors.

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