Today’s very insightful installation comes to us from David Dahlson of Mayesh Wholesale. I spoke with David and asked him many questions about how this industry has changed and where is it going. He responded with an amazing write-up that is full of information.
“As the world goes, so goes the floral industry”, and this is poignantly true with regard to the United States. Our business is part of world commerce, and not an isolated industry as some would have us believe. In fact one could argue that events in the North American floral marketplace presaged the trend towards off-shore out-sourcing by American corporations by at least a decade.
After World War II through the 1980’s flower production grew significantly in California, as well as in Oregon and to a lesser extent in Colorado and Washington, and the surges and abeyances of supply and demand echoed the American economy. As well as considerable growth in the Pacific states significant amounts of flowers were being grown throughout New England, and in a major floral growing region in New Jersey. Domestic flower growers could be found throughout the so-called “Rust Belt”. The recession in the seventies affected many growing operations, much as the economy overall was affected. This was the beginning of the decline in production for the cut flower market in the USA.
Ironically, in the 1960’s a student at the University of Colorado doing his graduate thesis came to the conclusion that the Sabana in Colombia was a perfect place to grow carnations. In 1965 an advisor to USAID did a feasibility study in Colombia based on the thesis, and the results were moderately successful. By 1969 there were 7 profitable carnation farms on the Sabana outside Bogota.
The 1970s witnessed a steady growth in the amount of acres under cultivation for carnations in Colombia, which started to have an impact on carnation production in the USA. In the 1980s the amount of carnations coming out of Colombia at prices lower than the cost of production in the USA simply washed away the American producers like an economic Tsunami.
When I first started in the flower business in 1980 there were about 200 growers of carnations in California, with considerable production in Colorado. By the end of the 1980’s there may have been ten carnation growers and today there are none. During the Reagan presidency, pretty much all production of carnations went overseas, as well as a significant amount of jobs. Thereafter, important rose greenhouses failed in California and the demise of many other floral production enterprises occurred. I believe that today there are just four small Rose-growing operations. The story is similar for chrysanthemums, gypsophila, limonium and asters, to name a few. California growers what have survived the onslaught of competition from Colombia, Ecuador and Holland have done so by a combination of wit, intelligence and only growing high quality niche items, especially those that are difficult to pack and ship such as Gerbers, or lilies that need constant cool temperatures to avoid blowing open in transit.
Still it should be noted that in 1991 California cut flower production represented about 65% of US flower consumption, and by 2009 it had fallen to just shy of 20%!
The economic downturn has affected all parts of the industry, and even carnation production in Colombia has passed its zenith, with many farms closing. This has occurred in large part due to the fickle nature of fashion; carnations have become so ubiquitous that they are rarely a choice for an arrangement or bouquet any more. The demise of the farms has also been accelerated by the economic downturn, the lack of credit and the fact that the currency of Colombia, the Peso, keeps getting stronger with regard to the dollar. It is simply not profitable to produce them anymore.
Rose growing was entertained in Colombia in the 1980s, but hampered by bad habits, it did not expand much. However, shortly thereafter neighboring Ecuador was found to be one of the best places to grow roses in the world. One striking difference is that Ecuador did not focus solely on the USA but looked to the then newly minted economies of Russia, Georgia and the Ukraine, as well as to old world democracies of Holland, Italy and France. In contrast to the massive operations in Colombia, most farms in Ecuador were relatively small and remain fairly modest to this day.
However, when the Russian economy collapsed in the mid 1990s many growers were left without substantial revenues and had to look more to the USA as a customer. Through the first decade of the 21st century the market for roses, and indeed flowers as a whole was booming, but just like the worldwide economy as a whole, the economic collapse of 2007-2008 led to similar deterioration within the flower industry.
Today, as we survey the scene, it is fairly obvious that the cut-flower marketplace is in a state of reorganization. Just as the irrational exuberance of the worldwide economic resulted in a massive downturn which has led to significant downsizing and attrition in every walk of life, the floral industry has likewise been affected, if not more so. Let’s face it; the products that we sell are not necessities by ant stretch of the imagination.
Many flower shops have simply gone out of business, and many others that do not have sound business practices are teetering at the brink of failure. This, in turn, has led to several wholesale florists going out of business, as well as quite a few importers and in turn many farms in Colombia and Ecuador have had to close as a result of the overall malaise. And if one is critically honest, in all likelihood there will be more failures at every tier of our industry.
Today, coupled with the economic attrition, we have also witnessed significant climate change and dire weather events which seem to have had significant effects on growers worldwide, and this includes Ecuador and Colombia. The most significant aspect of poor weather in these countries is that the luminosity – the amount and quality of sunlight – is severely compromised. In general terms, most plants tend to slow down production of their blooms. This in turn leads to many other problems, but the net result is a diminished supply of export quality flowers. With respect to roses, reduced luminosity coupled with cold, rainy weather can lead to plants initiating periods of dormancy which id s fatal to a rose grower. Good growers can ensure that this does not occur, but even the most experienced will have plants producing ‘blind’ stems; that is to say, stems with no flowers! Now imagine farms that have cash-flow problems, which are experiencing bad weather, which cannot afford to feed the plants with adequate fertilizers, which cannot spray with appropriate pesticides and which cannot afford to keep plants groomed and maintained properly – then their production is severely compromised.
Thus, currently, outside of the top well-financed farms, there are very few roses available. And because of this, the top farms have sold out inventories due to the dearth of products elsewhere. And for the foreseeable future, I expect this cycle to continue, if not to get worse, especially if exacerbated by other events.
So, you may ask, where’s the good news?
Clearly, while the recession seems to go on and on, there are some good indicators in the flower business.
1. Supermarkets themselves will soon be faced with having to pay higher prices or cutting their offerings, as their contracts come up for renegotiation. The low prices they have enjoyed for several years now can no longer be entertained by farms that have had their costs of production explode over the last year. Even as I write, word of a very large farming combine that supplies one of the largest Supermarket vendors in the USA has filed for re-organization and protection from creditors in Colombia.
2. It is my opinion that flowers will remain in a fairly tight supply, as this correction sorts itself out. Remember that for over twenty years we have been the beneficiaries of an over-supply of flowers, which has led to a very sloppy marketplace, and which induced the proliferation of so-called floral businesses that really should never have existed but for the exuberant economy and terms of credit that encouraged abuse. Those days are gone, and a sober environment now prevails where good judgment, narrow focus and professional expertise will be the keystones of successful enterprises.
3. Due to concerns about the global environment, the carbon footprint, the ever rising costs of freight, as well as the desire for organic products, I am of the opinion that many more products will be grown locally. This offers huge advantages to the floral professional as they will be able to source unique items that are locally grown, probably delivered in water, and the flowers will be truly fresh products. Local growers will become the most valuable asset to a florist, as they can grow things that cannot be replicated by a plantation in South America. Attributes such as curving stems and flower heads bent askew become intrinsic design elements. These same criteria are normally rejected abroad as not being suitable for export, as well as being difficult to pack. However, in the hands of an artist they become an important tool for product differentiation, as opposed to the sterile erect and straight stems that we import. I strongly advocate seeking out local growers in your area – and tell them the kinds of things you are looking for.
4. The super market is your friend. Believe it or not, the supermarket should be transformed into an asset, and not viewed as a competitor. People go there two, three and four times a week and always see flowers. The floral displays, generally near the exit or the entrance remind consumers about flowers, at no cost to you! Generally, they offer bouquets, bunches of flowers, generally in 3 or 5 stem packs, as well as balloons and plants. It would be a good idea to visit the local supermarkets and big box stores and see what they are offering; and the make sure that you never offer those items, especially the bouquets. Let your clients know that it is OK for them to pick up everyday flowers at these locations, and you may want to go so far as to teach them know how to identify fresh product amongst the displays.
5. Differentiate your business from all other outlets of flowers, with unique designs and compositions and your own distinct style. Above all demonstrate a peerless understanding of flora and knowledge of all types of varieties, how to care for them, how to hydrate them correctly and how they can be maintained for maximum customer satisfaction. In Europe, especially Holland flowers are available everywhere, especially at street stalls and from corner flower carts, as well as at the ubiquitous supermarket, and people buy flowers all the time to simply have in the house. Despite this, the floral professional is a revered asset in the community and frequently visited for carefully designed gifts that feature good mechanics and proper hydration, and not just for weddings and events.
And coming full circle, the rise of the commercial cut carnation industry in the fifties and sixties, as well as those of chrysanthemums and roses occurred at the same time as the development of floral foam, and the TV dinner. It was a time when ease, speed and comfort were very important to Americans. Today we look back at those times with some amusement and some disdain. But the lesson to be observed is that these subtle changes in fashion led to the obliteration of a diverse variety of cut flowers that used to be available, and are now becoming available again. The fact is that floral foam could not support the more delicate floral items and so became sidelined and almost forgotten. Floral foam did support the new carnations, roses and chrysanthemums, which also lasted in foam, especially after being shipped from California.
Today designers are using more and more casual containers with fresh water as a medium and retiring foam except for specialized situations. And for this author, fresh ingredients that have been professionally prepared and skillfully arranged are what flowers are all about.
If you will remember that we are a component of the fashion industry, you will know that although carnations are about as unpopular a flower as there is; they are due for a revival. I have no idea in what context they will regain popularity though doubtless it will be an exciting and fresh premise, probably with new fragrant varieties, but it is coming.
And it probably will be from the imagination of a young upstart of Generation Z who cares not one wit about their legacy but is drawn to them solely for their aesthetic appeal.