Smart Farmer: David Mathews

From just five hectares near Melbourne, Australia, David Mathews dominates the national retail market for Protea flowering plants. He also works with nurseries on five continents. “It’s all about sustainable management,” he says.

David Mathews’ father Peter started cultivating Protea to keep him busy during his retirement in the 1970s. What started as a hobby soon turned into a full-blown business – one that he passed on to David in the mid-80s.

Partner nurseries

Back then, their interest was in growing the brightly colored flowering plant for cut flowers. “But,” says David Mathews, ”we soon saw that there was an even greater opportunity in the home garden trade, producing potted plants for domestic landscaping”.

Today, Proteaflora dominates the retail market, producing over 500,000 potted Protea plants, in over 70 varieties, that sell in garden centers and chain stores across Australia. Mathews and his team of 25 also cooperate with partner nurseries in Japan, Italy, California and South Africa, all supplying local markets.

David Mathews grows new roots

One of the first challenges he faced was ‘taming’ what is originally a wild flower, native to South Africa. “We learned by looking at other crops. We also selected hardy varieties that were the right shape for the market. In the early days we would buy a batch of seeds, grow it out, have a look at the variation and say, ‘Okay, let’s try these’. We’ve also done some targeted breeding, taking desirable characteristics from two plants and fusing them.”

Knowledge sharing

Mathews shares this knowledge with Proteaflora partner nurseries abroad so that they can grow the plants close to the markets where they are sold. “We only export products to the nurseries when we introduce new varieties, or their own production needs topping up. In the case of Europe, we work with a cooperative, Flora Toscana. Its member nurseries supply plants to markets across Southern Europe. Our advice and technical expertise has been critical to their success.”

Located on a plot measuring just five hectares, the Proteaflora nursery is limited in terms of expansion. “That means we have to look at other ways to remain relevant to our customers and increase profitability,” says Mathews. “We’ve been bringing in new varieties and looking at new channels, like the gift market and online trading.

"There's a lot to be gained by understanding pests’ life cycles"

- David Mathews, Proteaflora

Alternatives to chemicals

Effective pest and disease control have been crucial to Proteaflora’s success. “In the end, it’s all about management,” says Mathews. “There's a lot to be gained by understanding the life cycle of pests so we can tackle them at the most vulnerable stage. And as we see chemicals disappear from the market, we have to look for alternatives to managing risks effectively."

Mathews participates in an industry program, BioSecure HACCP, which helps assess current and future pest, disease and weed risks, and manage them effectively. “The program doesn’t just look at minimizing chemicals, but at integrating government interests and those of the business.”

Proteaflora grows 500,000 plants a year on just five hectares

Recognition

Proteaflora is accredited by EcoHort in recognition of its ‘sound environmental and natural resource stewardship’. It has also received the Smart Approved WaterMark seal of approval, Australia's leading labeling scheme for products and services that help reduce water use outdoors and around households across Australia.

Mathews is now coming up to retirement age himself. “But I have no plans to stop and no real worries about succession with two sons and a committed staff. I see the main growth opportunities for the future in our partner nurseries, particularly in Europe and Asia. We want to grow without increasing our footprint here.”