U.S. flower growers fight to survive amid flood of imports

Working since 5:30 a.m., Dennis Westphall, co-owner of Jello Mold Farm, unloads a crate of freshly picked sedum flowers at his farm in Mount Vernon, Washington. He will move them into a refrigerated room until they are delivered the following morning.
Working since 5:30 a.m., Dennis Westphall, co-owner of Jello Mold Farm, unloads a crate of freshly picked sedum flowers at his farm in Mount Vernon, Washington. He will move them into a refrigerated room until they are delivered the following morning. Bellingham Herald/MCT

As she took a break on Monday from picking dahlias, zinnias and amaranths on her Jello Mold Farm in Mount Vernon, Wash., Diane Szukovathy wondered why, in her opinion, the federal government is working so hard to put other flower growers and her out of business by helping competitors thousands of miles away in the temperate regions of Colombia.

First came the international war on drugs, with the U.S. government spending millions since 1999 to help poor Colombian farmers destroy their coca plants and replace them with flowers. Then Congress passed a free-trade agreement with Colombia last year, making those blooms cheaper for Americans to buy.

With Colombian imports now accounting for three of every four cut flowers sold in the United States, domestic growers say they can’t compete with the planeloads of Colombian flowers that are flown in through Miami each day.

“It’s job robbing. I mean, it’s so bad. It’s so wrong,” said Szukovathy, 49, who’s run her farm in the Skagit River Valley, about an hour north of Seattle, for nearly 10 years. “Those politics are such a mess. I don’t really feel like that’s my government, almost.”

For small growers caught in the crossfire of global trade, it means the possible loss of an industry they love. For Americans, it means the possible loss of the simple notion of heading to the neighborhood florist to buy locally grown flowers for special friends or spouses or to decorate the graves of loved ones.

In Washington and California, two of the top-producing states for flowers used mainly in bouquets, growers are trying to fight back, but they fear they don’t have much time before their industry collapses.

For starters, they’re banding together by forming cooperatives that they hope will reduce their transportation costs and make it easier to deal with the expanding foreign competition. And they’re trying to push new buy-American, buy-local campaigns, hoping that consumers will think twice when they realize that their Valentine’s Day bouquets and nearly all the roses on the California’s Rose Parade floats are South American imports.

“My sense is that people don’t understand what we’re really up against, the Costco effect of flowers being shipped in by 747s each day, between seven and 10 a day and up to 35 on the holidays,” said Kasey Cronquist, the chief executive officer of the California Cut Flower Commission. “It really puts us at a sizable disadvantage.”

Growers say it’s a far cry from 20 or 30 years ago, when Americans could be reasonably confident that florists were selling local products.

Cronquist said that foreign nations, led by Colombia, now sell 82 percent of the cut flowers in the United States. And he said the U.S. flower industry was on its “last stand” and needed U.S. consumers to demand more locally grown flowers. He said flowers growers wanted to piggyback on the growing demand for locally grown food.

“We’re really trying to educate a group of people who are receptive to this message now, before it’s too late,” Cronquist said.

The booming flower imports from Colombia reflect growing demand from Americans, who’ll want even more as the economy recovers and consumers start piling up more non-essential purchases, said Jerry Haar, the associate dean and director of the Pino Global Entrepreneurship Center at Florida International University.

While flower growers are lamenting the situation, they’ve found little support in Washington, D.C. Touting global trade has long been a winning argument in Congress, which last year approved free-trade agreements sought by the Obama administration with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Many U.S. industries are eager to cash in by exporting more of their products: In Washington state, for example, exports of apples, cherries, pears, potatoes and wine are expected to increase.

Colombian flowers already have created nearly 225,000 jobs in the United States, most of them near the port of entry in Miami, according to August Solano, the president of the Association of Colombian Flower Exporters. When the Colombian trade pact took effect May 15, he noted, 4,200 boxes of Colombian flowers marked the first import of any product to hit the Miami International Airport under the deal.

“Florida is always a winner when trade barriers – tariffs and non-tariff barriers – are lowered within the importing countries,” he said. Last year, trade between Colombia and Florida totaled more than $9 billion, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott is planning to lead a trade mission to Colombia on Dec. 2-5 to line up more business deals.

Predicting that the new trade pact with Colombia will boost U.S. exports by $1.1 billion, Haar had a message for the flower producers in Washington state and California: Consumers are calling the shots.

“They need to understand that global trade is not about protecting select groups of producers but about affording consumers choice, quality and price,” Haar said. “They need to find ways of improving their operations. . . . Bottom line: There are many more consumers of flowers in the U.S. than there are producers. Consumers rule, as they should.”

In Washington state, 19 growers from Washington, Oregon and Alaska are part of the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market, a cooperative of smaller growers that sells directly to florists and retailers.

Szukovathy, the president of the market, which was created last year, said the co-op was an attempt to lower distribution costs for producers and to make it more attractive for prospective buyers to have a greater selection of flowers to choose from.

“I don’t personally have a problem with some imported flowers; it’s just the ratio is wrong,” she said. “And it’s crazy that the majority of flowers are coming from 3,000 miles away, when there’s really good ones that can be had locally.”

While it ended up passing easily, the Colombian pact drew criticism from some liberals on Capitol Hill, including Rep. Jim McDermott of Seattle, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, who said workers and labor leaders in Colombia “are killed every year by the dozen.” At a hearing last year, he said that nearly all the workers in the Colombian flower sector were women, who were subjected to violence if they tried to assert any rights in the workplace. Labor and human rights groups have long made similar complaints.

Cronquist said the value of imported flowers from Colombia jumped 89 percent from 2002 to 2010. And he said the number of acres of cut flowers in the U.S. was down by at least 22 percent in the past decade. As a result, Cronquist said, there are only 225 flower farms in California today, compared with more than 500 in 1991.

The issue promises to be a dominant theme at the national conference and trade show of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, set for Nov. 12-14 at the Tacoma Courtyard Marriott in Washington state.

Cronquist will be a keynote speaker, with a speech titled “Heart and Soil: Reclaiming the American Cut Flower Industry.” Part of his talk will focus on a “California grown” marketing campaign aimed at luring more customers back to U.S. flowers and pressuring florists to provide more local products.

From Szukovathy’s viewpoint, Congress has helped kill an industry and a heritage, “and we’re trying to shore it up, reinvigorate it and make it sustainable into the future.” But since she isn’t expecting anything to change in Washington, D.C., the key to survival will be to win over the hearts of consumers, she said.

“These products are connecting people to nature: They don’t feed your body, but they feed your soul,” she said. “Rather than get bogged down in a fight that we don’t have the resources to win, we’re putting our energy into romancing them into falling in love with what we’re doing and coming on board that way.”

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