From Boat beginnings to the biggest Bulb propagator in Australia
The Broersen family have never shied away from hard work. The Dutch immigrants have established themselves as one of the biggest bulb producers in Australia growing over 140 varieties of tulips and supplying up to 900,000 tulip plants to the Floriade Festival held in Canberra annually. The family business is built on traditional growing techniques, timing and precision to ensure the quality and reputation is upheld. We spoke to the Broersen Brothers to learn more about their origins and what goes into perfecting their production.
Jan (John) Broersen migrated from Holland in 1951 and followed the horticultural heritage that preceded him. Back in Holland, Broersen was a seed merchant who bred and produced cabbage. The voyage to Australia with his wife and 3 children (Frank, Eddie and John) was a big leap of faith and whilst their ship was still docked in the Port, Jan made his way directly to the ‘Growers belt’ in the Dandenongs, Victoria and quickly identified a grower agreeing to employ the Dutchman in Silvan. With their ship set for sail to Tasmania, Jan made a timely return to retrieve his family, relocating them to Silvan where they lived in a shed on a bulb farm with no power or electricity.
In the 50’s, kale, spinach, endives and witlof lettuce were unheard of in Australia and Broersen had bought his seeds from Holland which he sold through the suburbs of Melbourne. He gradually built up clientele by advertising in a Dutch newspaper offering a mail-order service and walking the streets looking for houses with lace curtains as he knew they would be Europeans most likely interested in purchasing the varieties they were accustomed to and common in Europe.
The family soon purchased land in Silvan and set up home with their pre-fabricated house that arrived all the way from Holland along with their other possessions. They grew their prized cabbages, kale and lettuce and started importing tulip and hyacinth bulbs from their native land. The flower side of the business gained in popularity until they completely phased out their vegetable lines in the 1970’s and stuck to growing chrysanthemum, bulb lines and peonies.
The last 15 years have seen the family focus on tulips, hyacinths and peonies and following the same systems used in Holland with the right storage and temperature controls implemented to improve quality. The family used to grow 200,000 plants of chrysanthemum before the crop succumbed to White Rust and at one stage grew 9 acres of freesias. The late 80’s right up to 2008 saw a peak in bulbs and dutch iris and the Broersens assessed the direction of the business following the restrictions placed on importing.
Expanding their production to Tasmania, the family acquired 8+ acres dedicated solely to tulip propagation for other growers and gardeners. The rows of endless colour thrive under Tasmania’s cool climactic conditions and many of the varieties perform better than those grown in Holland.
“To produce enough saleable bulbs you have to grow decent volume” John says “We are currently harvesting between 6-7 million bulbs and over 140 varieties of tulips. The cooler conditions in Tasmania allow for a taller more robust plant”. 750,000 bulbs per hectare are planted out in nets which are up to 700sq metres long x 1 metre wide. When brown specks appear on the bulbs, this means they are ready to be dredged by tractor.
September and October is dedicated to ‘virusing’ and contracters, often from Holland tulip farms, are employed during dead heading season to inspect for viruses. It seems a shame that all the spent flowers are not used in the cut flower industry, but it’s the plant itself that is most in demand. Their farms in Silvan, Monbulk and Wandin still cater to florists nation wide. As trends are hard to predict, the family grow a mix of colours and varieties and are always trialling French, doubles and parrots for the cut flower industry. New tulip varieties include ‘Versace’ and ‘Sensual Touch’ while the staples are ‘Adrem’, ‘Apple Dawn’, ‘Barcelona’, ‘Ile de France’, ‘Verandi’, ‘Snowboard’ and ‘Antarctica’. Popular parrot varieties are ‘Weepers Parrot’, ‘Yellowsun’, ‘Angelique’ and the fringed tulip ‘Queensland’ and the spectacular double white variety ‘White Heart’.
Broersen Bulbs continues to flourish, recently celebrating their 65th anniversary of trade. Frank, Eddie and John Broersen oversee and manage the production and operations side of the business with Franks son Dale also involved and his daughter Jenny managing the office. It’s all hands on deck with the Broersen brothers’ three sisters also pitching in during peak season.
“This business can be a 7 days per week job at times and we employ up to 35 people in peony season”, Frank says. “We’re lucky that we have all inherited the flower growing gene but you never cease learning in farming. We are constantly experimenting and keeping our eye on foreign trends and in the early stages of the business took risks which saw us cut out lines, scale back and specialise. We are now happy satisfying local markets and supplying Floriade with their annual floral showcase which we have been doing for over 25 years”.
Below: Frank, John and Eddie
- Bulbs are sent to Tasmania for planting in May.
- Bulbs are planted using a special planter which inserts the bulbs into special netting. This netting is used to assist with bulb harvesting.
- During the flowering season in September and October, the bulbs are intensely checked for viruses, which is important to keep the stock as healthy as possible.
- The flowers are then deadheaded. This is done so that the bulbs don’t waste energy producing a seed pod and instead increases bulb production.
- In December when foliage has died off, bulbs are then harvested using special bulb harvesting machinery which draws up the netting and bulbs which are then collected into bulk bins.
- The bulk bins have ventilated bases and are stored against special ventilating units which force air through the bulbs allowing them to dry.
- Bulbs then receive an initial cleaning and grading process before being shipped to the main warehouse in Silvan.
- Upon arrival at Silvan the bulbs are stored against the ventilating units for further drying after which they are then removed from the bulk bins, hand peeled to remove any old husks and graded into sizes.
- The bulbs are placed in bulb trays which have open wire bottoms and then stored in climate controlled storerooms at the optimum temperature. This ensures proper development of the next seasons flower.
- Saleable bulbs are counted using an electronic counter to prepare orders for distribution to nurseries, growers, mail-order companies and distributors.
- Bulbs are also supplied to various bulb festivals/displays such as Floriade in Canberra, Bowral Tulip Time in Bowral and in the parks and gardens of Bendigo and other councils.
- During March/April, all planting stock is closely inspected over conveyor belts to remove any substandard bulbs.
- In late April, bulbs are transferred to bulk bins ready for transportation to Tasmania for planting in May.