About 80 percent of the cut flowers used in florists’ bouquets are imported, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says. More than 90 percent of imported flowers enter the country through Miami.
Some American growers are fighting back, touting the “slow flowers” movement with its smaller carbon footprint with its shorter travel distance. A growing number of “farmer florists” are providing the option to buy local. There’s been a small rebound in the number of cut-flower growers in the U.S., from 5,085 in 2007 to 5,903 in 2012.
California is the biggest fresh flower growing state, covering 76 percent of the domestic market, followed by Washington at 6 percent and New Jersey and Oregon tied at 4 percent.
California’s cut flower business is traced back to the late 1870’s when a Ventura housewife, Theodosia Shepherd, was inspired to sell the flowers she raised in her garden, notably calla lilies that thrived in Southern California’s Mediterranean climate. Other women began to follow suit and the retail florist profession was born.
Some of the earliest known commercial flower nurseries were started near Oakland, California in the 1890’s by the Domoto family. While the Domoto’s were educating Japanese immigrants, floriculture was taking off in north San Diego County. During the Japanese interment during World War II, Paul Ecke, Sr. was among several growers in southern California who stored farm equipment and household goods for his friends that were removed from their homes. In Northern California, Italian growers continued the businesses of their Japanese counterparts.
In 1967, the Van Wingerden family set sail from their native Holland for Carpinteria, California. News of the Van Wingerden’s success reached Holland prompting other Dutch growers to immigrate as well.
Federal trade enacted policy over 20 years ago ushered in increasing percentages of market share coming in from imports in the US. Colombia’s flower industry began to take off in the 70s and 80s. To give the Colombian economy an alternative to drug production, the U.S. Congress eliminated import fees on Colombian flowers in 1991, in exchange for Colombia meeting annual anti-drug goals. These flower farms which eventually became very tough competition for any domestic flower farms.
Despite a shift of drug production into Mexico, Congress has continued to prop up the Colombian flower industry. In 2011 lawmakers passed the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which lifted remaining export barriers, over California growers’ objections.
Today, there are 225 major cut flower growers in California, fewer than half of the total two decades ago.. More people seem to be moving away from buying at flower shops towards grocery stores that purchase large quantities at lower prices, with shorter stems.
So flower growers have shifted their tactics. They hope to lower costs by consolidating shipping. They are asking consumers to look for flowers with a little blue license plate logo that reads “CA GROWN”, hoping to cash in on the increasing demand for “Made in USA” and “American Grown” products by American consumers. California Cut Flower Commission’s promotional activities in 2013 include support for the CA Grown certification of floats at the Tournament of Roses Parade, support of grower open houses and leveraging industry events and research promoting American Grown Flowers.
Debra Prinzing, created Slow Flowers, an online directory of florists, studio designers, wedding and event planners, supermarket flower departments and flower farmers who are committed to using American grown flowers. Prinzing is the author of Slow Flowers: Four Seasons of Locally Grown Bouquets from the Garden, Meadow and Farm (St. Lynn’s Press, 2013) and The 50 Mile Bouquet: Seasonal, Local and Sustainable Flowers (St. Lynn’s Press, 2012). She suggests local American farmers should be focusing on promoting the quality, freshness and uncommon varieties rather than price, a battle with imported flowers they can not win.
One of the books on my wish list
Kasey Cronquist is the administrator for the Certified American Grown program that launched with 36 members, most in California, who went through a supply-chain audit to guarantee the flowers’ origin before being approved to use the American Grown logo on their products.