Flower farmers and florists, the Van Der Meers, open up on how to make a family business blossom

The Van Der Meer family work together as a tightly knit team to plant, harvest and deliver flowers from their New South Wales Southern Highlands farm to nearby regions.

During the pandemic, online shopping and telephone orders tripled, and they were running a prospering roadside stall.

As markets closed, a new income stream opened up for A&M Flowers when they started supplying wholesalers with flowers from their Tallong property.

For Arnoldus ‘Arno’ Van Der Meer, the secret to the thriving family business is investing in his children. 

Arno offers advice on how they achieve family cohesion and prosperity even though they work 365 days a year.

“As an older person, I grew up the old-fashioned way. You have to open yourself and listen to the ideas and the ways younger people see things,” he said. 

“When you understand that and you respect that, you bring that into practice and it works”. 

Early morning set-up at Wollongong markets
Arno and Melanie Van Der Meer arrive at the markets at 5:30am to serve customers by 7am.  (ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

From little things big things grow

Arno’s daughter, Melanie Van Der Meer, 18, is an early riser, these days by choice.

Her strong work ethic can be attributed to a childhood on flower farms and rising early to catch the Sydney Flower Markets with her parents.

Now, on market days, it is Melanie arriving in Wollongong before sunrise with Arno to unload the truck and display flowers for sale. 

Melanie Van Der Meer trading face-to-face at Wollongong Markets.
Melanie enjoys trading face to face at the Wollongong markets.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

Melanie says she enjoys the market stall, and clearly her creativity and people skills are put to good use here. 

“I like to mix it up, so people look around everywhere,” she said. 

“You get to see their expressions and notice, ‘Oh, they are happy with this’.”

Melanie spends her day at the stall. There’s no time for shopping. 

“I know what needs to be done,” she said. 

Having completed high school and a patisserie course, Melanie plans to one day open a flower cafe at the Tallong farm.

Arno Van Der Meer and his daughter Melanie at the market in Wollongong
Arno and Melanie at the Wollongong markets.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

‘Born between the flowers’

Arno was “born between the flowers”, having grown up on flower farms in the Netherlands. 

“My parents, they are flower growers,” he said. 

“Us kids, we helped our parents on the farm in the Netherlands, growing flowers, doing things.”

Arno left the family farm for a job that took him to 82 countries as a glasshouse builder and supervisor. 

“For 25 years I built glasshouses over the whole world and when I was almost 40, I thought, ‘That’s it, I am getting out of this and go back into flowers’,” he said. 

Arno Van Der Meer bunches sunflowers.
Arno is in charge of bunching flowers and carrying out farm maintenance, including on hothouses.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

Arno says the business is like a jigsaw puzzle and when the pieces fall in the right direction, it works.

“Without forcing your children and telling them what to do, just let them work on themselves, let them create their own path and see if they fit in the system,” Arno said. 

A master grower at 20

Adrian Van Der Meer
Among other jobs, Adrian Van Der Meer delivers flowers and foliage to the Sydney markets.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

Arno’s son, Adrian Van Der Meer, has become the master grower on the farm, a big responsibility for a 20-year-old.

“We take the seedlings, we plant them, we nurture and grow them,” Adrian said. 

“We pick them, we harvest them, we pack them, sort them out and bring them to the wholesaler.”

“We plant every week to make sure that we have flowers every week.”

Adrian said there were ups and downs in the family business.

“We all have our own ways of how we want to do stuff, but we have to come to a mutual understanding.”

Success is not all about money

Margie Van Der Meer
Margarita Van Der Meer makes bouquets for online orders, markets and the farm stall.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

Arno’s wife, Margarita ‘Margie’ Van Der Meer, has studied floristry.

“We were growing tulips and lilies and I thought, ‘I like flowers’, so I studied in a community college, but I thought I’d like to know more, so I went to TAFE,” she said.

But when Margie developed diabetes and allergies, she was forced to stop picking flowers.

“I am mainly making the flower bouquets/arrangements and doing the orders for the markets as well,” she said. 

“The kids, Adrian and Melanie, they are our strength, physically and mentally, they are a big support.

“Arno and me, we are growing old and physically too we are not that strong, and I think without the kids, we realised if they didn’t get on board, we might not continue this.”

Family portrait of the Van Der Meer's
Margie says success lies “in the balance of financial wealth and physical and mental health”.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

Ms Van Der Meer said a business’s success was not all about money.

“We learned it goes hand in hand with personal development as well,” she said. 

“The success of a family business is found in the balance of financial wealth and physical and mental health.”

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