On the last day of March, 2020, Darragh McCullough dragged himself out of bed heavy with the knowledge that he had tulips and daffodils and all kinds of other lovely flowers piling up in his tunnels and fridges with no prospect of sale. COVID had hit.
The previous 25 years had been spent slowly building a unique 100 acre flower and bulb business. It started with outdoor flowers like daffodils, before Darragh ventured into tunnels, heated propagation boxes, fertigation and increasingly complicated systems to grow continuous sequential supplies of tulips, lilies, alliums, irises, dahlias, alstromeria, wildflowers, freesia, sweet pea, peony…gardeners will recognise the wonderful rabbit hole that the magical world of plants becomes when you let yourself venture further into it.
And as every grower knows, there’s no way to turn off the tap once Mother Nature flicks the switch. While €20m of flowers were being shredded daily at the auction houses in Holland at the start of COVID, Darragh’s tulips and freesia were blooming furiously in the scent-filled tunnels.
In this slightly panicked state he decided to post on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that Elmgrove Farm would deliver bouquets of Irish-grown flowers anywhere in Ireland for €20.
The price was set deliberately low to simply avoid dumping the flowers, and the public weren’t long copping on.
What followed can only be described as online-storm, as hundreds of emails, tweets, posts, texts and phone calls started to bombard every device in Darragh’s little portacabin office.
That was when he realised his first big rookie error. He hadn’t given as much as a thought to how people were going to pay for these bouquets????. Some wanted to pay with Revolut and Paypal, which were fast and easy to set up – that was those under 50 sorted.
But for those born before 1970, the credit card is king. Some 24 hours later, Darragh was amazed to find himself operating an online credit card payment facility that allowed people to pay over the phone. The next question in his frazzled head was whether a courier would be willing to suddenly start handling a huge spike in daily deliveries from the farm.
And as the hours ticked by, and the phones and laptops blinked with increasing numbers of unanswered requests, he also realised he had no idea how much stock he had left to cope with all the orders. It was becoming overwhelming, but he clung to the belief that this was the start of something that would stand the farm well in the long run.
The next day he started at 6.30am to get a head start. His wife pulled him out of the office that night at 9pm. The next day he started before 4.30am, determined to get ahead of the latest wave of enquiries. There was a good chance of succeeding until an article in the Irish Times was namechecked several times throughout the morning on RTE Radio 1.
The phone literally never stopped ringing. Everybody was so nice, wishing the team the best of luck and more than patient as the creaking order system creaked and floundered. Darragh was rapidly realising that he needed a streamlined online system. The next series of panicked calls was to find out if a webshop could be set up by the weekend.
Of course, every web developer has been snowed under with work as the world locked down and moved its everyday shopping habits online. That’s when Darragh learned that websites are a bit like tractors. The more work you want them to do the more horsepower they need. And more power costs more money. So in the same way that farmers drive around the country looking in over hedges to admire the lovely new kit that their neighbour has just bought, Darragh found himself staring enviously at the flawless websites of huge international competitors.
They never freeze, and everything is intuitive about them. You can’t put in the wrong postcode. You can’t shove special requests for your granny into any old data field. Darragh was realising that none of this stuff just ‘happens’. It all has to be ‘baked in’ to the formulas behind every text box, usually after key trial and error periods.
The problem for webshop virgins like him was that he was coming of age a little late in the game. The public isn’t really that interested in persevering with clunky websites that aren’t slick and fast to navigate. They simply swipe left and move onto the next option in the limitless world of online trading.
So after 12 months of constant reinvestment, www.elmgrovefarm.ie has a website that can go toe-to-toe with the best in the business. It’s all a long way from a portacabin wallpapered in Post-it note orders! Along the way, Elmgrove Farm has learned that every bouquet really counts.
When families haven’t been able to visit Granny, a delivery of flowers to the nursing home on her birthday means everything. Dads wanted to tell their daughters how proud they were of the long hours they were working on the frontlines. People wanted to let their grieving friends know that they were thinking of them even though they weren’t allowed attend the funeral.
Excuses about teething problems and a national courier service that was barely coping under the strain of providing a frontline service in a national emergency don’t cut any ice.
So, it has been a baptism of online fire. There have been mistakes. But Elmgrove Farm has still managed to grow a huge following of loyal customers, who really appreciate the unique offering of Irish grown flowers delivered anywhere in the 32 counties 52 weeks of the year.