Manifesto for a Better Bouquet
An Essay by Jennie Love
As a flower farmer, I often ask myself how it is that Valentine’s Day became the single busiest day of the year in the US floral industry. Can you imagine if, in some strange twist, Hallmark had decided giving a dozen red tomatoes in February was the ultimate symbol of love? The tomatoes would have to be imported from far away; their chalky texture, little juice, and zero flavor would not exactly make hearts flutter. Far better to celebrate with tomatoes in summer when they are the vine-ripe, just-picked, juice-down-your-chin, fragrant, sweet, warm, locally-grown fruits they are meant to be. Flowers are no different.
Did you know over 80% of the flowers sold at grocery stores, florist shops, through FTD, and online are actually grown thousands of miles away, most likely in Colombia, Ecuador, Thailand, or Kenya? At last count, Colombia alone accounts for nearly 70% of the flowers imported into the US each day! The government and industry regulations on chemicals, environmental stewardship, and worker rights in Colombia in particular have historically been a far cry from sustainable. Colombian rose farms are literally draining the surrounding region dry, creating a desert wasteland around the farms as their irrigation systems divert rainfall to rose production. The work is intense, the wages small, and the exposure to toxic chemicals significant. A large percentage of workers in past surveys have reported serious work-related illnesses, including infertility and loss of sight.
In addition to use of chemicals during the growing process, due to the high level of scrutiny at US customs where any sign of an insect can result in a destroyed shipment or additional costly fumigation, imported flowers may be heavily treated with an insecticide before being packed up and placed on a plane bound for Miami or New York. This treatment leaves a nasty chemical residue on the flowers that is unquestionably unhealthy (just ask the countless florists suffering from serious dermatitis on their hands and arms from handling imported flowers all day).
Some people will argue that the South American flower farms are cleaning up their act with new programs in fair trade and sustainable production. I truly hope that the shift is taking place. However, aside from concerns for worker treatment and the environment there, another large problem exists with imported flowers: the long journey to get from the flower farms to here.
When cargo jets were introduced in the ’60s, flower production became increasingly outsourced to distant countries like Columbia and Ecuador. Their climates were great for growing flowers and labor costs were much cheaper than here in the US. As a result, local US flower farms began to die out. With the rise of inexpensive import flowers, grocery stores began having floral departments and taking up a huge portion of the US cut flower market. As a result, local florist shops have been fighting a loosing battle to stay in business. Above all, cut flowers (now largely imported) have gotten a progressively bad rap for being a useless purchase that only lasts a day or two. What people don’t realize is that it’s a miracle imported flowers even last that long.
Once flowers are cut off the plant, say in Colombia, they get boxed up without any water because that’s what is easiest to ship. Boxes can take a beating, and more fit in a plane with a lot less weight than if the flowers were shipped in buckets of water. The boxed flowers are then flown thousands of miles (2500 miles to get from Bogota to Philadelphia), have to wait to go through Customs inspection, maybe get stored for a bit at the airport until a trucking company comes to pick them up, get off-loaded at the wholesalers for awhile, and finally get put back on a truck again to be delivered to a florist or supermarket. It is not until the box gets to the florist/supermarket that the flowers get a real drink of water again. Not only is the transit chain, which requires a great deal of refrigeration, burning fossil fuel all along the way, but it also usually takes a week from start to finish, sometimes more! That’s a week without water! A week of being tossed around over and over again! This rough journey is exactly why flower breeders have been working so hard to develop the stiffest, sturdiest flowers possible at the expense of fragrance and natural delicate beauty.
The international transit process also creates heaps of trash: boxes, plastic sleeves, little plastic tubes to support fragile stems, little webbed “socks” to keep big blooms like spider mums from falling apart, synthetic sponges, rubber bands, tons of packing paper, tape, even little blocks of wood that are used to stabilize the cardboard boxes so they can get tossed around even more. The flowers for a single FTD bouquet could generate enough rubbish to fill a curbside trash can! That’s trash that stays in our landfills for decades to come.
After reading all of this, you may be a little confused; the joy of giving or receiving flowers may have lost its luster. The good news is there’s another option – a beautiful, sustainable, feel-good, heart-happy option. There are more and more small local US flower farms, like Love ‘n Fresh Flowers, working hard to grow striking and, above all, sustainable blooms. As more consumers seek out and demand local and sustainable flowers, the floral industry will begin to change.
Small local flower farmers are members of their community. Since it’s not easy work, being a farmer, these people typically have unusually large hearts and spirited ideals. They wouldn’t endure a perpetual backache and sore hands, nor the freezing cold and blistering heat, if they didn’t love the land they are stewarding or the flowers they are growing. Flower farming in particular is a decided science and an art in patience, hope, forethought and intention. There’s no quick pay-off when you’re dealing in perennials.
It only stands to reason then that a local flower farmer is determined to get you the very best blooms. Their flowers aren’t going on a jumbo jet. They’re going to hand them directly to you or the florist. Ever notice how farmers look you square in the eye, usually with a bit of a grin tickling their lips? That’s because they’re proud to be handing you that bouquet or that tomato (in August, not February). They worked darn hard to grow them, and they know darn well you’re going to love them.
Locally grown flowers usually never leave water. They are usually grown organically or with very minimal chemicals. They grow in a field where the natural rain and sun support their growth, instead of in a hot house under plastic, being fed a slurry of synthetic fertilizers under artificial light. Locally grown flowers only require a bucket (that almost certainly gets washed and used again) and maybe a bit of paper for wrapping a bouquet. Definitely no trash heaps. Compared to the imports, locally grown flowers boast a huge array of diversity; countless varieties to choose from in a rainbow of colors. The bees, butterflies and birds in the fields really enjoy the diversity too. Those winged friends go on to pollinate nearby food crops, keeping our ecosystem healthy and our tables full. Locally grown flowers provide good jobs for our immediate community. Locally grown flowers are usually picked the same day or just the day before you get them. You might even go pick them yourself. They last a lot longer in the vase – at least a week, sometimes two!
There is something fluid and extraordinary about locally grown flowers that sets them apart, yet defies words to describe it. Perhaps the word is just “natural”. They’re natural, the way it was meant to be, just like a tomato in August. It’s time to demand a better bouquet.