We all know that opium comes from poppies, but what does cocaine have to do with roses?Prior to the 1980s, most of the world’s flowers were grown in California, says David Clark, director of mass market sales and marketing for one of the state’s remaining flower growers, Kendall Farms. But as part of the U.S. war on drugs, the Reagan administration helped Latin American coca farmers turn their acreages into other cash crops ranging from coffee to roses. The result? About 70 percent of all flowers sold in the U.S. today are grown in Columbia and Ecuador, says Robert McLaughlin, CEO of OrganicBouquet.com, a San Francisco-based organic flower importer that wholesales to retailers. Not only have growers in these countries benefited from Uncle Sam’s greenbacks, but they also farm in equatorial zones that have mild climates and 12 hours of sunlight a day—perfect growing conditions for everything from daisies to calla lilies.
While that’s bad news for retailers looking to stock locally grown bouquets, there is a flip side: An increasing number of South American farms are producing organic or sustainably grown flowers. As a result, consumer demand is budding. According to the Organic Trade Association’s “2009 Organic Industry Survey,” Americans bought $42 million worth of organic flowers in 2008, up 54 percent from 2007—the second largest increase in any organic category, behind fiber, linen and clothing. OTA spokeswoman Barbara Haumann says blossoming sales are due to organic consumers expanding their purchases to cover a broader range of products, green consumers looking for eco-friendly items like flowers, increasing publicity, and more retailers offering organic flowers.
Still, organic bouquets carry a hefty premium—about 20 percent more than conventional flowers, Clark says. Surprisingly, that’s not because of import costs—freight charges are offset by the ability to grow flowers year-round in South America rather than in pricey winter greenhouses in the U.S., McLaughlin says. The real cost of growing organically is in production. “Growers shy away from organic because of the risk of lower yields or crop failure,” McLaughlin says. Whereas an organic lettuce grower can get away with a raggedy clump of romaine as long as it tastes good, an organic flower producer can’t sell roses with black fungus spots. Using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers can translate into 1.5 flowers per plant per month versus 0.8 flowers per plant per month on organic farms, McLaughlin says.
Consequently, there are only about 50 acres of U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic flowers in South America, McLaughlin says, and domestic growers are decreasing their organic acreage. Kendall Farms, one of the largest organic flower producers in the U.S., has cut its USDA-certified organic production to about 10 percent of its 500 acres, Clark says. “We were hoping as more and more organic growers got on board that the costs of things like organic fertilizers and pesticides for flowers would go down, but there’s still probably less than 1,000 total acres of organic flower production in the U.S.,” he says.
Kendall Farms and other growers, including many in South America, are focusing instead on certified sustainable flowers, which McLaughlin says sell for 20 percent to 30 percent less than organics. Ecuador and Columbia have their own sustainability certifying agencies, FlorEcuador and Florverde. New York-based Rainforest Alliance and California-based VeriFlora offer sustainability certifications for flower farms around the world. TransFair USA certifies fair-trade flowers.
“We see our certification as a pathway toward organic, with biological controls, biomechanical controls and reduced-risk pesticides,” says Michael Keyes, PhD, certification manager for VeriFlora (which is administered by Scientific Certification Systems). But USDA organic certification (which is the same for flowers as for produce) doesn’t address issues like fair trade, farm ecology and labor practices, he points out. VeriFlora has a 128-page standard that requires certified growers to provide fair wages, worker safety, freedom from discrimination or sexual harassment, and parental consent for minor workers, along with minimal pesticide and chemical use and environmental mitigation factors like limiting farm runoff into nearby streams. Farms also have to demonstrate that they hire locally and are financially stable. VeriFlora representatives conduct an initial two-day audit and then visit certified farms every year, along with spot inspections, to make sure standards are enforced.
As of January, VeriFlora had certified 82 flower farms for a total of 4,552 acres. About one-third of them are in the U.S. The program also certifies 10 distributors and importers. Still, Keyes estimates that half a percent of all cut flowers grown worldwide are certified organic. The organic flower industry experienced 13 percent growth from 2003 to 2008. According to the OTA, organics accounted for 3 percent ($42 million) of all U.S. flower sales in 2008. “But more customers and retailers are asking for [certification] from growers, so those numbers should be increasing,” he says.
Sure, more and more consumers are buying organic or sustainable flowers. But stocking these blossoms is not always a pretty proposition when you factor in the price of additional coolers and staff, not to mention sourcing hassles. Here’s how to easily add flowers to your product mix or make your existing sales blossom—without being a pansy.
Optimally, flowers should be stored between 33 and 38 degrees, but they don’t have to be. Wholesaler Ecoflowers.com, a division of Organic Bouquet, overnights cut flowers every three days to Elephant Pharmacy stores in northern California. The flowers are placed in backroom coolers and transferred to buckets during store hours. “Flowers will keep about three days if they’re not refrigerated and five to seven days if refrigerated,” says Ecoflowers.com CEO Robert McLaughlin.
Outside flower stands also work well, especially in winter when temperatures are lower. “Make sure to mist the flowers if you have low humidity, and keep them shaded,” McLaughlin says.
Most organic and sustainable flower minimum orders are low, so you don’t have to tie up a lot of cash in inventory. Ecoflowers.com has a minimum of one box, or about 125 stems. FreshBlooms, a Sewell, N.J., sustainable and organic flower distributor that specializes in supermarket sales, has a one-case minimum, or about 100 to 200 stems. You can find other distributors at veriflora.com or rainforest-alliance.org/agriculture.
Consider partnering with a floral designer to offer your shoppers customized arrangements for weddings or parties. Not only does this give you a niche in the flower business without having to devote much space to bouquet sales, but you can cross-merchandise party foods and favors with flowers. “The flower role has changed over the years—now, people rely on getting their flowers from the supermarket more than from the florist, so take advantage of that,” says Brad Sennett, purchasing supervisor for Fresh Blooms.
Lyle Davis, owner of the 35-acre Pastures of Plenty organic vegetable, herb and flower farm in Boulder, Colo., remembers when the whole country was dotted with flower greenhouses. Now, as the industry consolidates, most domestic flowers are grown in California, Washington, New Jersey, Hawaii, Oregon and Florida. You can still find local growers like Davis, but they tend to specialize in hearty flowers they can plant with other crops. “Field-grown flowers like cosmos, sunflowers, larkspur and zinnias are easy to grow organically,” Davis says. “Sensitive flowers like lilies, dahlias, lisianthus and roses are harder to grow,” often requiring greenhouse space and expensive organic pesticides like pyrethrum.
If you want to buy locally grown organic or sustainable flowers, produce farmers like Davis are your best bet. You can find these growers at farmers’ markets, but don’t expect to get a “super low deal” on their daisies, Davis says. “We try to price as close to retail as possible.”
For more ways to bring flowers and fragrances into your store check out naturalfoodsmerchandiser.com/aroma.
Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based writer who would love to live on an Ecuadorian rose farm.