FR talks with the president of Alexandra Farms, a boutique grower specializing in nostalgic, romantic, fresh cut garden roses in Bogotá, Colombia, about his amazing company, the floriculture industry in Colombia, and the soaring popularity and demand for garden roses.
By Jules Lewis Gibson
FR: How did you get started in the flower industry?
J.A.: It was a family business. My grandfather had an investment in a small miniature-carnation farm in the late 1980s, and the farm didn’t do very well. I had just graduated from an M.B.A. program, and my grandfather asked me to take a look. And I never went back to anything other than flowers. I’ve been in the business almost 30 years and have worked in the retail, wholesale, importing and growing segments. That all helped me get the skill set and experience I needed to make Alexandra Farms what it is.
FR: While you were attending college, what did you plan for your career?
J.A.: I grew up in Colombia and went to an American high school there, but I always knew I was going to go to college in the States. I studied economics in Boston, and then I got a master’s degree in business, in New York. At that time, Colombia was beginning to become a major player in the cut flower business, and flowers were becoming part of Colombian culture. They were incredibly special. I had a sense of pride in that, but I never thought I’d be in the flower business.
FR: When you started in the flower business, the Colombian market was really taking off. How was it being part of an industry that helped change the country’s culture away from the drug trade?
J.A.: It was interesting! The Andean Trade Preference Act [ATPA] was enacted by the U.S. in 1991 to encourage Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru to reduce drug-crop cultivation and trafficking. The U.S. granted tariff preferences to qualifying products—in our case, flowers—to foster trade and help eliminate the drug business. However, the drug business was in another area of Colombia, and you couldn’t replace cocaine with roses in that area because cocaine grows in very wet, hot areas and roses grow best in cool mountainous regions. So I’m not sure if the ATPA deterred the drug growers, but it did help the flower business.
At the time, Colombia was a country of 36 million people, and there were maybe 1,000 people dedicated to drugs, but [the drug trade] is what people remember. So the flower people were really trying to show off another side of Colombia, and it was an amazing time.
FR: Other than that, what have been some of the positive effects of the flower industry on the people of Colombia?
J.A.: Before flowers, there was a dairy industry and an agriculture industry in Colombia, most employees of which were men—so men were bringing home the money. And it was a paternalistic society where the men often were not as nice to their wives as they should have been. Women were often powerless and in bad situations, but then the flower growers began providing jobs for women, and they were particularly good with flowers—and they’re good workers. Although there are men are good at this work, too, we had the opportunity to change the socioeconomic landscape dynamic by hiring a female workforce and giving women a sense of control and power. And we did. Suddenly, women were making money and, therefore, in charge of their households. If a man came home drunk and/or was abusive, his wife could then kick him out and survive on her own. The flower industry empowered women then, and it’s still like that today.
We really have provided people a great standard of living for many people in Colombia. And I’m enormously proud to say that at Alexandra Farms we have 350 female employees who are heads-of-households and in control of their lives.
FR: It’s such an important story to tell—the social good that the flower industry has done and is doing—but we still often hear a lot of things about the flower industry that are not so positive.
J.A.: Yes. The idea that Colombian flower farmers abuse women employees is absolutely false. Maybe in the 1980s something happened in Colombia or Ecuador, but, nowadays, most of the exported flowers are from farms that have certifications both in social and environmental standards. We really take care of our people, not only because we’re humans but also because it’s good business.
FR: Tell us about your farms.
J.A.: We have two farms, both of which are small and close to each other. There are some single farms that are 10 times the size of our two farms combined. We have 20 hectares [approximately 50 acres], which, for a rose farm, is tiny. But we’re in the garden rose business, so we’re a different animal. And we’re the largest garden rose farm in the world; the second largest is half our size. We’re tiny rose growers but huge garden rose growers.
FR: What are some of the challenges with growing garden roses?
J.A.: Garden roses, simply by their nature and their breeding, are not prolifically productive, and they are delicate, hard to manage, hard to post-harvest and hard to ship. And that’s exactly what big farms avoid. Before Alexandra Farms, I would see beautiful rose varieties that growers would stop growing for some or all of those reasons, but I knew that florists loved them because they were beautiful. And florists would say, “I’ll pay more for them,” but the growers would say, “It’s not enough.” So beauty was just discarded. And that’s the idea behind our garden rose business.
We find incredibly beautiful varieties of roses that perform well as cut flowers, and they have really amazing natural fragrance. So we have performance, fragrance and color, but they are more challenging than other types of roses to produce, pack and ship. That’s why garden roses are more expensive.
FR: How did you get involved with garden roses?
J.A.: Before I started Alexandra Farms, I ran Delaware Valley Floral Group’s importing and freight-forwarding business in Miami. And one of the most exciting product lines was garden roses. When Delaware Valley closed its handling business, I had an opportunity to start a flower farm, and I identified garden roses as an item with exceptionally good potential. That was in 2006.
At the same time, David Austin Roses was coming out a few varieties of their English garden roses to be grown as cut flowers. We started with 10 varieties of David Austin roses, as a test. We had 10 beds—nothing else. After a year of testing the varieties, David Austin told us they already had a grower in Colombia and that they allow only one farm per country to grow their roses. So we looked for other garden roses that had the shape, performance and figures, and that’s what we started with. Four years later, the Colombian company that had the David Austin license went broke, so we pursued the license, and in 2012, we became the official licensee for David Austin Roses in Colombia.
FR: You have done so much in a relatively short period of time to become a standard for garden roses in the industry.
J.A.: We’ve really innovated the industry, but it was not because we were visionaries. It’s more because we were hit on the head by the market many times. Things like not producing a lot for Valentine’s Day was a lesson we had to learn. And there weren’t many customers for cut garden roses at that time.
After several years and lots of losses, we realized that we were a wedding business, not a specialty rose business, and we started making the right decisions and picking the right varieties. It’s not about red, yellows and oranges for us; it’s about peaches, pinks, and whites. And it’s about fragrance and size for us, not about weird shapes or different kinds of looks. Our roses need to perform and be beautiful, and they need to be right for weddings.
Since we learned that lesson, we’ve innovated so many things. We had the first varieties with side shoots, but they weren’t spray roses because the side shoots wouldn’t open. They were just part of the filler in an arrangement. They were beautiful, and they were something the American market hadn’t seen before. We also were the first to pack roses in dozens instead of 25-packs because garden roses are more delicate. We were the first to include an ethylene sachet in each box to control ethylene during shipping. Now, too, we have some really amazing things in the works, including some incredible new varieties and micro roses that we’re testing.
FR: Why aren’t garden roses sold more for Valentine’s Day?
J.A.: The culture of the Valentine’s Day in the U.S. is big, fat red roses. Although the industry has done a great job of convincing consumers that other colors of roses are nice, too, it still is a red rose holiday. In addition, garden roses are more expensive, and they have shorter stems. There’s the idea that garden roses can be used only for events because their vase life is short. That’s no longer the case because the garden roses we grow are selected or bred for the cut flower market specifically, so you can use our garden roses for daily and holiday arrangements. And they’re not as expensive today as they used to be; those days are over.
FR: What else is new and coming in the cut garden rose segment?
J.A.: We’ve gone through several stages in the garden rose niche. Several breeders are now developing rose varieties that look a little bit like garden roses but are hardier and easier to grow. They call them “garden light” because they don’t have all the characteristics we like in garden roses. That’s a big competition for us now, but the amazing cup shape of garden roses, the aperture and the fragrance are things that still differentiate us, and we’re going to stick to growing good varieties that are beautiful, fragrant and special in some way.
That said, we have started growing some hybrid tea rose varieties in wedding colors because farms that aren’t in the wedding business often don’t plant a lot of those colors; they’re hard to sell during other times of the year. They’re important to us because our customers are wedding people. So we have a lot of hybrid teas in golden mustard hues and all the “sand” colors, and we pack them in 12 packs because we have an open point of cut.
‘Westminster Abbey’ is a brand new variety. It’s gray, and it’s fabulous—and it’s a great wedding color. It’s part of our sand/skin-tone line, which now comprises at least six or seven varieties.
FR: What colors/varieties are your top sellers?
J.A.: ‘Juliet’, a peach-hued garden rose, is our best-seller. Next is ‘White O’Hara, which is a white with a bit of a blush. Then, probably a blush or light pink. But in the “sand” hues, we’re seeing a lot of excitement, and I don’t think it’s a trend; I think it’s going to stay.
FR: When you start growing a new variety, what is the life cycle for that variety?
J.A.: Seven to 10 years is normal. That’s not because a plant is unproductive or dies; it’s because the market wants something different. And, of course, we have to be innovative, so we’re always looking for something new and better. So many times, after about five years, we will replace a variety with something new. And we donate the old plants to clubs and hospitals.
FR: As a South American rose grower and exporter, what are your thoughts on the “locally grown” movement in the U.S. and around the world?
J.A.: There are lots of varieties of roses that are perfect for growing locally because they’re hard to ship. They have a short ship life and a short vase life. So it really makes sense to grow those varieties in the marketplace, near the consumer, and that’s great.
However, the globalization of the economy has automatically found the places where things are the most efficient or effectively made or built, and flowers are one of those things. All of the major flower growers are located around the equator where they don’t have to heat or cool greenhouses, and the greenhouses don’t have to be glass. Many of those growers have plentiful access to water and a lower-wage labor force. That combination of factors makes it more efficient and cost effective to grow cut flowers in those places. The “buy/grow local” movement is great, but there are flower types and varieties for which it doesn’t make sense.
“Alexandra Farms Certified Designer” Program
Launched in early April, the “Alexandra Farms Certified Designer (AFCD)” program is the first flower industry certification program created by a grower and a floral designer and educator: Jose R. Azout, president of Alexandra Farms, and Holly Heider Chapple, owner of Holly Chapple Flowers and Hope Flower Farm.
Garden roses are different from other roses, and these beautiful blooms require customized care. The AFCD program is designed for everyone who loves flower design, and it comprises tracks for both professional designers and garden-rose enthusiasts.
The 12-chapter course will teach you everything you need to know about garden roses, from the history to the varieties to the correct anatomical vocabulary. Through the AFCD program, one will gain proficiency in caring for and arranging garden roses, as well as knowledge about how to better choose garden roses—particularly in regard to making a positive impact on the world through sustainable floristry.
After enrolling in the program, students can access the 12-chapter curriculum online, in both video and text format. They may revisit the videos at any time, and the text documents are available as illustrated PDFs. To progress to the next chapter, students must pass a chapter test for each of the first 10 chapters. They may retake tests until they pass, and the AFCD administrators will provide a PDF of useful info to help them study.
Students will benefit from elevating their knowledge and joining a supportive community that can help them grow. After successfully completing the course, students will gain access to design recipes, special sales, early notification of new varieties, and the right to promote themselves as an Alexandra Farms Certified Designer—AFCD.
To learn more about the ACFD program, including cost, or to enroll, visit onlinetraining.hopeflowerfarm.com/afgrd-sales-page.