Grower of the Month – July

A true ‘plants man’ retires – Les Baguley and his legacy

When you were born to be a flower grower in the days before robotics and technical developments, years of labour intensive farming take a toll. Retirement is not an easy decision for any flower farmer, especially one born with verdant knowledge and an ability to produce flower quality envied by an industry for consistency in quality and production. Les Baguley, son of 93 year old Victorian Flower Growers founder Frank Baguley, spoke to us about winding down and the final chapter of a business that’s been home to many faces, flowers and a historic florist.

“Flowers were my destiny”

Les recalls his earliest memories of being put to work on the flower farm in Heatherton. “From the day I stopped crawling and started walking I was out there on the farm with Dad. Flowers were my destiny. I used to come home from school and go to work alongside many ethnic migrant workers, mainly from the Greek and Italian communities who settled and resided in the area. They were part of our extended family and we learnt so much about their cultures”. One Italian man in particular made an impact on young Les and became a mentor and like a second father. Giosie Stenta was subcontracted by the Baguley’s and arrived on the farm when Les was 18 years old. An engineer by trade, Giosie migrated from Italy and was employed to do welding and pipe maintenance on their property and never left.  Succumbing to a terminal illness in recent years and currently hospitalised, Les regularly visits his bedside to lift his spirits and emotionally reflects on their time together.

Sharing is Caring

The Baguley’s supported many migrants by converting sheds on their property to living quarters and looked after their workers and families. To this day, many of those workers have become friends and revisit the farm to catch up with the family.  “They were and are such amazing people. Head down, bum up. So hardworking and happy to take on everything. Very different work ethic to what we see from many employees today”.

It’s a similar story with his mentoring of the Albanian community who arrived as refugees in the country and started establishing foundations in the flower industry.  Jashar Rustemi and his brother Valer were the first to start growing flowers and Les shared knowledge (and seeds!) to assist them with their new endeavour, advice that extended to the many Albanians to follow the Rustemi footprint.

“I never understood the reluctance to assist other businesses and people in the same industry.” Les says, “We do things well, so why not share that information? Everyone has different techniques and ways of doing things so if you can keep up consistency with growing premium product in high volume and can do it as well or better than us, then good luck. Honesty is the most important part of a business. A reputation can be ruined very easily if you don’t grow things properly or say and do the wrong thing by suppliers and customers”.

“Father knows best”.

Les admits that in a time before the internet and evolving developments in growing, they didn’t always do things well and there was lots of trial, error and risk with their cut flower plants. His Dad’s first love was carnations and they overcame huge challenges with Fusarium which led to the father/son duo pioneering soil fumigation with methyl bromide treatment , a first for Australia at that time.  Soil fumigation was solely responsible for turning their crop around and Les can’t stress the importance of hygiene practices enough with the entire process requiring treatment including  taking cuttings, handling mother stock with gloves , water sterilisation through to how deep you plant. They soon saw an opportunity to not only grow flowers for profit, but to also start propagating “high health” plants for other growers. “We were always striving for perfection”  Les says.

The pair were also a forerunner for hydroponics with cut flower production, trialling their own polystyrene boxes and NFT (Nutrient Fungal Technique) via a water troph system, also developing their own dye and the utilisation of red scoria in their plantings. They experienced fantastic success with fungicides fed through the dripper system which kept their crop dry and completely eradicated all traces of brown rust as a result.

“Dad was and is my idol and a hugely respected patriarch of the flower industry.  We have certainly had our fair share of butting heads as we are both very strong willed” Les laughs. “I learnt everything I know from him but sometimes I’d have different ideas on growing things a certain way which he discouraged” he continues “So I decided to do it my way, stuffed up and had to admit that to him. At the end, he’s still the boss!”

At the age of 15, Les went to work at the Baguleys 10 acre QLD property as a Foreman with a team of 18 under his supervision. The land was purchased by Frank, without the family knowing as he had quite the alterior motive which was to commence growing Gladioli. The Gladioli would fetch triple the money when grown in Victoria’s ‘off season’.  Terrible union problems eventuated in 23 workers losing their jobs and foreclosure of the QLD farm after negotiations broke down between Frank and the Union. Les vividly remembers the proud words of his war veteran father declaring “I didn’t go to war to fight for freedom to be told what to do”.

The end of an Era

With Dad Frank at the helm of the business,  most family members have had involvement with the farm and their on site flower shop built at the front of the farm, managed by Les’s wife Verna, which recently shut the doors after 39 years of roadside customers, Mothers Day and Valentines days. Les’s sisters Evelyn, Lorraine and Sue worked packing and bunching their lines.

Their farm also hosted annual general meetings and social get togethers for the Victorian Flower Growers Group, now Flowers Victoria. There’s something about the place that makes people stay. Some of those meetings were meant to go for an hour but after a few beers the industry folk certainly enjoyed the hospitality right up until the early hours of the morning as Les recalls.

Over the years Les observed his focus shifting from his original intentions which were more commercially driven. “I always wanted to be the biggest and the best and the wealthiest and was pushing myself and the business on the farm and commuting to and from the Wholesale Flower Markets 3 times a week doing over 100 hour weeks” Les said. Fate dealt him a cruel blow when Les suffered a stroke in 1999. He experienced total paralysis, lost his voice and memory. It took 21 months of rehabilitation and physio to get back on track and a lot of determination.

Les’ health scare changed his perspective and priorities. It was family first, then health, then flowers. During his recovery, Les got back on his feet and on the land to help with his post trauma and depression. He eased back into growing and tending to a small garden of vegetables grown for the family. In true Baguley style, the patch soon turned into 3 hectares and was producing too much to manage. This led to donations to the Sacred Heart Mission, a relationship that has spanned 17 years. Volunteers from the mission soon joined Les on the farm to assist with picking and farm maintenance. The yield produced, and still continues to provide fresh vegetables picked for those in need every Wednesday with new and regular volunteers returning frequently to assist and also because they love to be there.

“I’m still going into market once a week to drop off certain lines to wholesalers as we will still continue to grow crops like our recently new and patented Hellebores and foliages but I’m not doing the hours I used to anymore. I already miss the market strangely enough. It’s been a big part of my life.”

Retirement is not something taken that seriously in the Baguley family with Les not exactly ready to trade flowers for golf clubs any time soon.