FR’s exclusive look at the journey of a cut flower from lab to farm to florist—and how the industry changes the lives of thousands of farm workers along the way.
By Nita Robertson AIFD, CFD
Keeping up with the world’s demand for cut flowers involves many moving parts, from breeders, growers and farm workers to shippers, wholesalers and retailers. Do you ever think about how many lives are impacted by a beautiful cut flower on its journey from seed to consumer? So much love and hard work goes into the process of creating and selling cut flowers. The international flower industry creates many opportunities and improvements for communities around the world, changing people’s lives one flower at a time.
Today’s cut flower industry is global, diverse and rapidly evolving, and it’s no secret that it is a multibillion enterprise globally.When it comes to the flower industry export market’s size, statistics reveal that the Netherlands has the largest share of the export market, followed by Colombia, Ecuador, Kenya and Ethiopia. The United States, Europe and Japan are the biggest importers of cut flowers. According to Petal Republic (petalrepublic.com), the worldwide market for cut flowers and ornamental plants (those that are grown for the primary purpose of being solid as cut flowers and indoor houseplants as well as plants for use in landscape design) is expected to reach $57.4 billion USD in 2024, an increase of roughly 35 percent from $42.4 billion USD in 2019.
THE JOURNEY OF A FLOWER
1. THE BRILLIANT BREEDERS
It all starts with the seed or the bulb. Around the world, cut flower breeders are working in labs and greenhouses to develop new, different and better flowers for florists and their customers. Lots of research, time and expense goes into the cut flower cultivation process. Breeders work tirelessly, using trial-and-error experiments, to create the best varieties to grow.
As a world leader in flower breeding, the Ball Horticultural Company, through its many divisions and partners, develops flowers that will produce beautiful blooms for the cut flower industry. “We are always on the lookout for the latest flower varieties and flower trends, as well as how to produce the best quality cut flowers in different parts of the world,” according to Ball SB, a division of the Ball Horticultural Company that develops, propagates and distributes seeds, cuttings, plugs and tissue-culture plants for growing in Central and South America as well as Africa.
Selecta is another leading breeding and propagation company. A major goal for Selecta is the creation of new colors, flower shapes and plant features. Although the focus differs slightly in all cut flower crops, flower quality is determined mainly by the lasting quality during storage, transport and trading as well as by vase life. At Selecta’s new biotechnology lab and new facilities for professional vase-life testing, the company has conducts research with the aim of developing molecular markers that are linked to flower longevity.
Since its founding in 1989, Suntory Flowers Limited has been innovatively hybridizing unique varieties for the bedding plant market and the cut flower industry. In 1997, Suntory released the first of the ‘Moon’ series of blue-purple carnations, and in 2017, the company introduced the “blue” rose ‘Applause’ to the U.S. market. These new varieties were developed using molecular breeding technology. Currently, Suntory is preparing to launch a “blue” chrysanthemum, which was jointly developed with the National Agriculture & Food Research Organization (NARO) in Japan.
2. THE FLOWER FARMS
The floral industry has helped the Colombian people by creating good jobs and contributing to their communities. According to a report by the Labour Observatory of the Universidad del Rosario, in Bogotá, eight out of 10 people in Colombia who carry out some work activities are “informal” workers; that is, they have jobs that allow them to generate some income but does not offer social security or job stability.
One remarkable exception to this statistic is the Colombian flower sector, which offers fully formal and legal conditions to all its workers and, on this basis, builds welfare programs for them, their families and communities that go beyond legal standards and aim at construction of shared values. An example of this occurred during the pandemic: The cut flower sector not only maintained jobs but also generated more jobs and contributed to municipalities by strengthening their medical and hospital capacities and their infrastructure for virtual education, as well as the purchase of COVID-19 test kits and, later, vaccines for its workers.
Asocolflores, the Association of Colombian Flower Exporters was founded in 1973 to represent, promote and strengthen the competitiveness of Colombian floriculture and its main markets. It oversees and promotes many initiatives that support the floral sector and help the Colombian people.
“Some of the outstanding initiatives in the contribution to communities is the one carried out by some flower growers to the communities in which they operate, with the establishment of educational infrastructure and support for early childhood. Along these lines are strategies such as the one promoted by Asocolflores some time ago, called Comunidades de Aprendizaje(learning communities), which enabled the development of facilities and the improvement of the academic level of a dozen educational institutions in the Antioquia and Cundinamarca departments [regions] of Colombia,” Asocoflores explains.
Ecuador is the world’s largest producers of roses. The country’s location offers the fertile soil, ideal temperatures and amount of sunlight that make roses flourish year-round. Flower farms in Ecuador also grow many other types of cut flowers: For example, in addition to roses, Sande Flowers grows premium quality callas, Oriental and L.A. hybrid lilies, Ranunculus, Scabiosa, Alstroemeria, Chrysanthemum, Gerbera, Consolida (larkspur), Gladiolus, bells-of-Ireland, Limonium, Hypericum and much more—as well as cut foliages. As it has in Colombia, the cut flower industry has created good jobs for thousands of people in Ecuador.
The Netherlands is the largest producer of cut flowers in the world and a key importer of cut flowers from developing countries. The country’s logistic position within Europe and established international trade ties make the Netherlands the main trade hub for the European flower industry—and, some may say, the world.
According to Union Fleurs (unionfleurs.org)—an international flower trade association based in Brussels, Belgium—the Netherlands plays a key role in the distribution of flowers and plants: Currently, 45 percent of the world trade transits or is facilitated via the Netherlands. Floriculture is one of the most lucrative industries in the Netherlands, and the Aalsmeer Flower Auction is considered the flower trade capital of the world.
It is estimated that in Kenya, more than 500,000 people, including more than 100,000 flower farm workers, depend on the floriculture industry. In addition, Kenya’s national economy relies heavily on the agriculture sector.
The main cut flowers grown in Kenya are roses, Alstroemeria and carnations, but other crops include lilies, Eryngium, Limonium, Gypsophila, Hypericum—along with many others. Kenya is the leading exporter of roses to the European Union (EU), with a market share of 38 percent.
Imported flowers are the backbone of the U.S. flower market (most sources agree that around 80 percent of all cut flowers sold in the United States are imported, with approximately two-thirds of those coming from Colombia and approximately one-sixth coming from Ecuador); however, the role of domestically and locally grown botanicals is undeniable. The “local” cut flower industry is growing, as more consumers chose to support local flower growers. During the COVID pandemic, many florists turned to local growers, discovering different types of flowers and options along the way.
Supporting hundreds of farmers, thousands of small businesses, and tens of thousands of jobs in the United States, the cut flower and foliage sector is an important part of U.S. agriculture. Most cut flowers and foliages are grown in warm climates that allow flower production through much of the year: Approximately three-fourths of all cut flowers sold in the U.S. are grown in California, but growers in other states, including Florida, Washington and Hawaii, are also important contributors to the U.S. flower supply.
The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (ASCFG) was created to educate, unite and support commercial cut flower growers. “Flowers that are grown close to home give consumers both freshness and assurance that their dollars are going support their local economies,” explains Judy Laushman, executive director of ASCFG. “With 2,500 growers in all 50 states and Canada, variety is assured. ASCFG currently lists 181 active Canadian members. Every day, thousands of greenhouse-grown plants and cut flowers like Gerbera, tulips, snapdragons, lilies and chrysanthemums are shipped to the United States as part of Canada’s annual $420 million in floriculture export sales.”
3. THE WHOLESALE FLORISTS
Cut flower wholesalers play an important distribution role in getting flowers from the farms to florists around the globe. They work with both domestic and foreign growers to source the flowers that their retail florist customers need. Most cut flowers exported to the United States are air-freighted into the country, and then shipped via refrigerated trucks to the wholesalers nationwide, who then process and repack the flowers for final delivery to retail florists. Wholesalers offer knowledge, experience and convenience for sourcing cut flowers, making florists’ lives much simpler.
4. THE RETAIL FLORISTS
The second-to-last stop in the journey of a flower is the flower shop, studio or event design facility, where floral designers arrange flowers sourced from around the world into beautiful works of art for consumers. Those flowers have already touched so many people lives throughout their journey, and now they are ready to create memorable moments in the lives of consumers.
THE INTERNATIONAL FLOWER INDUSTRY’S POSITIVE IMPACT ON WOMEN
The flower industry provides opportunities for women making better lives for themselves and their families. Did you know that women make up more than half of the workforce in the cut flower growing sector? Many growers give back to their employees with support like education, health care and childcare, to help women succeed in the workplace.
Asocolflores notes that the Colombian flower sector employs around 200,000 people, and approximately 60 percent (120,000) are women, many of them breadwinners. Taking this situation into account, Asocolflores and its members launched a gender equity plan, Floreciendo Juntos (Flowering Together), in 2020, the mission of which is “to improve the processes of access, permanence and development of women in the flower sector, through the development and transfer of skills and tools to companies, to close gaps in gender equality.”
Miami, Fla.-based Equiflor/Rio Roses’ farms and partner farms employ more than 1,000 people at farms in Colombia and Ecuador. “We view our farms’ and partner farms’ employees as our most valuable asset,” the company states. “Our farms and partner farms provide nurseries to support single mothers, who account for 80 percent of their workforces. We provide programs such as family planning, education, drug abuse prevention and chemical management. Our farms and partner farms promote a healthy, equitable workplace that supports farmers, workers and their communities.”
I spoke with Peiter Landman, creative director of Sande Flowers in Ecuador, about the subject. “Our farm employs around 600 people, more than 60 percent of who are women,” he remarks. “Our HR department oversees health care and provides information on health and social care to workers at the farm, as well as [improving] their social lives.”
It is important to know that women are a huge part of the flower farm workforce, especially in developing countries, and the flower industry has created opportunities that have positively affected—and even changed—the lives of women around the world.
People around the globe are becoming more eco conscious and, as a result, are improving the way they do things in order to minimize their effect on the planet. The flower sector has committed to being more socially responsible and is also making improvements every day.
One example is Equiflor/Rio Roses’ commitment to sustainable agricultural practices for their farms and partner farms in Colombia and Ecuador. “Our practices actively protect the health of the workers at our farms and partner farms, and we minimize agrochemical use, to keep soil and waterways clean,” the company affirms. “The design of the greenhouses at our farms and partner farms enable us to harvest and utilize rainwater to irrigate our plants and treat our flowers. We estimate that 80 percent of the water our farms use comes from rainwater reservoirs, minimizing the need to use water from rivers or wells. In addition, our drip irrigation systems are ecologically sound; promote healthier flowers; and reduce pests, weeds and fungal growth.”
In Ecuador, Expoflores’ “Flor Ecuador Certified” was established in 2005 as a social and sustainable program for the country’s cut flower producers. The program’s goal is to promote safety, sustainability and compliance, and it sets standards and promotes sustainability throughout the country’s floral industry via the efficient management of natural resources and the establishment of sustainable processes for the care of the environment.
Another example is Asocolflores’ initiatives that positively impact the environment in Colombia. “With regard to environmental initiatives and the measurement of our impact in the sector, we have been measuring the social and environmental performance of our flower growing companies for more than 22 years through our ‘Florverde Impact, Monitoring and Evaluation System (I,M&E),’” the organization states.
Every month, more than 82 percent of Asocolflores-member companies register information about their water withdrawal sources, chemical pesticides use, waste, energy use and emissions, as well as employee absenteeism and accidents. The organization now has more than 1 million records that enable them to know the status of its member farms’ efforts; to analyze trends; to create strategies for the continuous improvement of the sector, such as minimizing emissions with renewable energies and eco-friendly refrigerants; and to be even more socially responsible regarding the well-being of farm workers and their communities.
Which Countries are the Biggest Producers of Specific Cut Flower Types
|ROSES:||Ecuador is the largest producer of roses in the world.|
|TULIPS:||The Netherlands produces 80 percent of the world’s tulips.|
|CARNATIONS:||Colombia produces the most carnations annually.|
|ORCHIDS:||Thailand is the biggest producer of orchids globally.|
|PEONIES:||The Netherlands is the world’s largest producer of peonies.|
Source: Petal Republic