Saturday , February 10, 2018 - 10:00 PM
(c) 2018, The Washington Post.
MADRID, Colombia - The majority of roses Americans give one another on Valentine’s Day, roughly 200 million in all, grow here, the savanna outside Bogota, summoned from the soil by 12 hours of natural sunlight, the 8,400-foot altitude and an abundance of cheap labor.
Thousands of acres of white-tarped greenhouses, some the size of several football fields, are crammed with seven-foot stems topped with rich red crowns. Many are pulled into warehouses by horses, chilled to sleep in refrigeration rooms, and then packed with other flowers onto planes - 1.1 million at a time - to be sold in the United States.
It’s peak season for a massive Colombian industry that shipped more than 4 billion flowers to the United States last year - or about a dozen for every U.S. resident.
The Colombian industry has bloomed thanks to a U.S. effort to disrupt cocaine trafficking, the expansion of free-trade agreements - and the relentless demand by American consumers for cheap roses.
The transformation demonstrates the barreling, often brutal, efficiency of globalization: In 27 years, market forces and decisions made in Washington have reshaped the rose business on two continents. The American flower industry has seen its production of roses drop roughly 95 percent, falling from 545 million to less than 30 million.
It’s just the kind of decline that President Donald Trump has railed against. Trump, who recently took action against foreign sellers of solar panels and washing machines, is now considering tariffs on steel and aluminum as well as a withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement, changes that would reach deep into the American economy. He has promised an unapologetic “America First” agenda that some U.S. flower growers hope could bring them back into the Valentine’s Day rush.
But the rose industry offers a striking reminder of why it is so hard to roll back the economic relationships between countries. Where it used to face horrific violence and corruption, Colombia has nurtured an industry that produces roses faster and cheaper than anywhere in the United States - and can even get them to many U.S. retailers faster than domestic growers.
And in the United States, corporate giants such as Walmart and its competitors have replaced florists as the top seller of roses, ordering flowers in huge masses for consumers who have little interest in paying for the cost of a domestically grown rose.
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Colombians don’t even celebrate Valentine’s Day, but among flower growers, the foreign holiday can account for close to 20 percent of annual revenue.
The volume of the rose trade is breathtaking. In the three weeks leading up to Feb. 14, 30 cargo jets make the trip from Colombia to Miami each day, with each plane toting more than a million flowers.
From Miami’s airport, the flowers are loaded into refrigerated trucks - 200 are needed each day - and from there many go to warehouses in South Florida, where they are repackaged, assembled into bouquets, and then shipped all over the country.
A rose is both a symbol of love and a commodity, and American buyers want them to be simultaneously stunning and produced en masse. Colombia found a way to meet these demands.
Walmart alone is purchasing 24 million Colombian roses to sell for Valentine’s Day. One of its senior associates, Deborah Zoellick, is so well known in Colombia and South Florida that her travels are closely tracked. That’s because any buying decision by the United States’ largest retailer can single-handedly change the flow of roses on two continents.
This year promised to be especially busy. Valentine’s Day falls on a Wednesday, a boon for Colombian growers, as they believe Americans are more likely to splurge on midweek sales and still count on extra purchases on the weekend before and after.
Andres Osorio, managing director of Bogota-based Avianca Cargo, said he expects business to be up 7 percent from 2017, and the airline he works for added new warehouse space in Miami to make room for 12 daily flower flights.
But long before they are loaded onto Osorio’s planes or sold in Walmart’s stores, they are “pinched” from their stems by someone like Romulo Castro, who uses a two-second snip to set the whole process in motion.
Inside a steamy greenhouse here on the outskirts of Bogota, Castro, 57, was dwarfed inside a giant rose bed, surrounded by tens of thousands of bright red roses. He is wearing two hats: a baseball cap to hold his hair tight against his head and a wide-brimmed floppy hat to protect his neck from the near-equatorial sun.
He eyeballs a stem, cuts it 25 inches below its red top, and places the flower in a basket. Step left, scissors open, snip again.
He’s one of 850 workers at the Flores de Serrezuela farm, roughly 20 miles west of Bogota.
Every time Castro places a rose in his basket, it enters an integrated supply chain that, through a mix of high-end technology and a few anachronistic touches, gets the flowers from beds outside Bogota to U.S. retailers in a matter of days - often faster than flower growers in California can get their products to East Coast markets.
Bunches destined for Miami are wrapped in clear plastic. Flowers going to Canada are boxed in blue cardboard. White cardboard for the flowers going to Japan, and green-and-yellow cardboard containers for the flowers going to Russia.
Once they are boxed, they are moved into a giant refrigeration room. They will probably stay in below-40-degree temperatures until they are sold in their final destination.
Here at Serrezuela, the women wear green uniforms, and on the back it says “Nuestra Gente Florece,” which means “Our People Flourish.” There are 130,000 Colombians working in floriculture, and it exports more than 6 billion stems each year to a total of 90 countries.
The process is overseen by Ricardo Samper, 38, a second-generation flower grower who graduated from Boston University and has an MBA from Northwestern University.
He made the decision several years ago to diversify the client base beyond just the United States and to target buyers in Japan and elsewhere, where profit margins are higher, but Valentine’s Day is still his peak.
“I’m sold out,” he said, standing in the post-harvest room and surveying his holiday rose and carnation inventory. “I’ve been sold out since December.”
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When Samper’s father founded the family flower farm on about five acres of land in 1985, Colombia was a much more dangerous place.
Colombian drug cartels used coca plants to produce cocaine in the South American jungle. Through corruption, guile and murder, they muscled these drugs by the ton into the United States.
President George H.W. Bush and other officials sought incentives that would push Colombians away from cocaine production and toward more legitimate parts of their economy, promising to open up access to U.S. consumers.
So in 1991, Congress passed the Andean Trade Preference Act, a law that would lift duties on numerous exports from Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. The roughly 6 percent import duty on Colombian roses disappeared.
Still, the reminders of darker days are everywhere, both in Colombia and in Miami, where the incoming flowers are met by agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
When flowers leave farms outside Bogota, they are sealed in the back of trucks to prevent anyone from tampering with the delivery. Once they reach Miami, they are X-rayed for cocaine and other contraband.
Today, the vast majority of Colombian flowers come in clean, but that wasn’t always the case.
Almost all the flowers brought to Miami by Avianca are unloaded in Cargo Terminal 708, where a team of Customs and Border Protection agents is waiting around the clock to inspect a portion of each shipment. Standing beside a white table, with a magnifying glass on a chain around his neck, inspector Robert Skafidas remembers seeing much different types of flower shipments from Colombia. He said growers would sometimes use garden weeds to fill out bouquets. And many inspectors remember seeing cocaine stuffed into boxes of roses.
“They would just tuck it in the bouquet,” Skafidas said. “But that doesn’t happen anymore.”
Many U.S. government and industry officials say the 1991 law helped grow legitimate Colombian businesses, particularly flower farms, by connecting them with the global economy.
“You can employ people who would otherwise not have jobs, and have to find something else to do,” said Mario Vicente, general manager at Fresca Farms, a Miami importer that also owns flower farms in Colombia. “I’m not going to say the drugs don’t exist, but if you take flowers out of the equation, the pressure to produce more drugs would be enormous.”
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Whether or not they dented the flow of drugs, the trade moves radically reshaped the flower market in both countries. The Colombian industry expanded access to the largest economy in the world, while U.S. growers were suddenly overwhelmed by the competition from cheap flowers.
Colombian roses have a number of advantages over U.S. flowers. They grow fast and at a high altitude with the same amount of sunshine all year.
The red roses many Americans will purchase this week are called Freedom roses in Colombia, a particular breed that was put into mass production around the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. These roses are durable, bright and strong, but they have little fragrance. They also grow near a major international airport, where planes can reach Miami in less than four hours. And, importantly, labor costs are low. The minimum wage in Colombia is around $300 a month.
In the first three months of 1992, Colombian roses were selling to U.S. wholesalers for an average of 24 cents per stem, according to a 1995 report from the U.S. International Trade Commission. The wholesale price of U.S.-grown roses remained trapped at around 35 cents a stem from 1986 until 2006, according to U.S. Agriculture Department data. It has ticked up in recent years because U.S. growers have focused primarily on higher-end roses that are designed for weddings and special events.
The 1991 law gave Colombia a cheap way to send flowers, but the law needed to be renewed every few years. Meanwhile, U.S. flower growers tried to persuade lawmakers to jack up import duties on Colombian roses because U.S. greenhouses couldn’t compete with the imports.
But in 2012, the duty-free rose agreement was permanently fortified after Congress passed the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement. The pact rolled back import fees on Colombian flowers, while allowing U.S. companies to export products such as corn, soybean, wheat and oil to Colombia without paying any tariffs.
A wave of U.S. growers abandoned roses. In 1986, there were 228 domestic growers producing just one type of rose - the hybrid tea rose - for mass consumption. By 2015, the number of U.S. producers selling any type of rose at a large scale had dwindled to 15.
Euphoria Flowers, a sixth-generation family rose farm in California, for the first time stopped producing extra roses for Valentine’s Day in 2017. Company officials decided they couldn’t compete with imports, and they now focus instead on growing flowers for weddings and events.
Others gave up years ago: In 2002, Rene Van Wingerden, a California grower with Ocean Breeze Farms, spent $3 million to purchase 150,000 rose plants. His plan was to compete with the South American importers, convinced that he could make the business work.
“My philosophy was, ‘Eh, we can beat them,‘” he said.
But after three years, when he found that he was selling each rose for 3 cents less than it cost to produce, Van Wingerden gave up and focused on other flowers that he said weren’t imported by the ton from Colombia.
“What we’re challenged by is Colombia as the low-cost provider, and it’s the reason we don’t have many rose farmers in the United States today,” said Kasey Cronquist, chief executive of the California Cut Flower Commission. Cronquist has led a push for tougher restrictions on Colombian exports. “It’s a machine, and it’s built on influence and the ability to drive the market.”
He has said the United States could impose new restrictions on Colombian flowers, such as taxes or duties, to take away some of the price advantage that foreign growers enjoy.
But even as Colombian roses have beaten back the U.S. industry, they’ve created new jobs as well.
At USA Bouquet Company in Doral, Florida, 75 workers are crowded in one section of the room, putting imported red roses into vases and then carefully packing them in boxes for a Valentine’s shipment to Walgreens.
The roses that come in from Colombia ready to be quickly packaged and sold are referred to as “chop and plops,” flowers that need their stems recut but no other changes. Other flowers need to be assorted into specific bouquets to meet orders for supermarkets, online retailers or anyone else who locked in a contract with the company.
The room is around 40 degrees, cold enough to keep the flowers dormant but not so cold that employees will quit. The production floor can pack up 1,200 cases of flowers each hour, with 10 bouquets in every case, a dozen flowers in every bouquet, for a 16-hour workday.
There are dozens of similar warehouses within 20 miles of USA Bouquet. In the weeks running up to Valentine’s Day, many of them run around the clock, rushing to pack and ship flowers before the next truck arrives.
“Colombia relies on this, right here,” said Scott Hill, vice president of sales and marketing. “This is their market.”
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Most Americans used to buy bouquets of roses from florists. But now the majority of flowers are sold in supermarkets, online retailers and places like Walmart, creating mass demand for a supply-chain-style business model that Colombia has raced to provide.
This model and the wave of Colombian roses have kept the price of these flowers at almost the same level for decades. They are often more expensive around Valentine’s Day, but Americans can often still buy a bouquet of a dozen red roses this week for less than $20.
That means each Freedom rose can make a journey of several thousand miles at around $1.50 a stem, with multiple businesses claiming a profit of several dimes off each flower.
The growers, importers, bouquet assemblers and retailers have learned the way to make money off roses is by selling hundreds of millions of them within a three-week window.
In the end, the flowers still come in at the low price and large volume that consumers demand, something U.S. growers complain they are unable to match.
The free-trade agreement and other U.S. incentives have nurtured Colombia’s role in this process, Avianca Cargo’s Osorio said, but perhaps nothing has been as important as the American appetite for affordable roses.
“It’s been helping for years,” Osorio said of the U.S. trade decisions. “There are certain incentives that make it easier for the growers, but it’s also the consumption habits of the market.”
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