Where are the flowers?

Rose harvest at a plantation in Tumbaco, Cayambe, Ecuador, South America.

I looked back, and it has been five or six years since I wrote about where flowers come from, and during that time there have been tremendous changes in the marketplace. New growing areas have come on the scene and others have disappeared or gotten much smaller. Transportation has been able to keep up with the needs. Technology faster than the speed of light makes it possible to see what a particular grower in many parts of the world has in stock today, and in many cases whether a particular flower will be available five or six months from now. That is important when you are selling weddings. I, like most other retail florists, will say that it has become an exciting and fast-moving business.

This phenomenon, this shift of production, began in the early to mid-’70s, when agriculturists in Colombia saw a potential market in the U.S. They believed that they had the right climate to grow premium flowers. After all, so near to the equator, they had 12 hours of sunlight and by moving up and down the mountains, the Andes, they could plant their carnations at an altitude where the temperature always hovered between 55 and 60 degrees.

Come down the mountains and you’ll find the altitude where mums would grow; they thrive at 65 degrees. I do not believe that in those early days they could understand the depth and breadth of the market or the impact that it would have on the people of Colombia. The money people were astute enough to bring in professors from the leading colleges of agriculture.

I arrived in Colombia for my first trip a few days after Valentine’s Day in 1976. I looked at my notes about that first trip this afternoon. Greenhouses were constructed using heavy bamboo or eucalyptus poles. The coverings were plain old 4-millimeter polyethylene plastic. It was a beginning. It was crude, and the only way to make it work was to modernize.

Fast-forward six years, to my second journey there. The money from sales was flowing in, as were the investors. The greenhouses were very modern. Structures were made of steel or aluminum. Greenhouses were now covered with a hard plastic, which was better, even than glass, for growing. And each farm had its own very up-to-date labs with professional staffing to monitor fertilizer and watering and spraying. It was all very impressive.

Fast-forward again to the mid-’90s and take a short flight to Ecuador, that very small country that sits on the Pacific Ocean, near the equator. The humidity and prevailing temperatures at about 9,000 feet up in the Andes were perfect for growing roses. It did not take long for this country, primarily known as the world’s largest exporter of bananas, to become a major player in the world of flowers.

In the 20 years since the beginning, nearly 150,000 people, the majority women, are now employed. As in Colombia, the large growers provide transportation to and from work, elementary school facilities with excellent teachers and many other benefits. I have read that the minimum wage is about $360 per month. That does not sound like much to us, but it is nearly double what the minimum is in Colombia. And it is among the highest on that continent.

Today, there are about 10,000 acres of greenhouses for flower production in Ecuador; Colombia has in excess of 20,000 acres. This is big business. The numbers are staggering: thousands of different species and varieties of flowers. Four hundred orchid species are in cultivation, and currently there are more than 400 varieties of roses produced for the market. It is the Ecuadorean rose that I like best. It has the largest flower head and the most petals per flower, as well as the strongest stem. Yes, they are 10%-15% more costly than the Colombians, but customer satisfaction proves that they are worth it.

A whole lot has changed since Anne Marie and I took over this business in 1962. We had half an acre of greenhouses and grew our own flowering plants, chrysanthemums and carnations and bulb flowers. Much of what we did not grow came from nearby flower growers. At that time there were half a dozen greenhouse operations here, and Clarke’s, Shaw and Boehler, Edmunds and Preston’s are the ones I can recall now. Our roses were grown in Elmira.

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