Cut-flower agreement leaves foul odor for American growers

American flower growers are in a life-and-death struggle to win the hearts and minds of consumers who unwittingly purchase flowers grown in Colombia at the expense of product grown in the United States.

The U.S. government has made it easy for the Colombian cut-flower industry to flourish in this country by encouraging Colombian farmers to grow flowers, rather than the coca plants that fuel the cocaine trade.

On the surface the switch from a plant that supports drug cartels and violence for those that symbolize friendships and memories seems like a sensible one for Colombian farmers.

But the growth in flower exports from Colombia – bolstered by U.S. aid and a 2011 free trade agreement signed between the U.S. and Colombia – has unintended consequences.

In Washington and California, two of the top-producing states for flowers used to make bouquets, growers are befuddled and angered by foreign policy and trade pacts that undermine their once-thriving industry.

They have reason to be upset as they’ve watched the value of imported flowers from Colombia climb 89 percent from 2002 through 2010. Meanwhile, farmland dedicated to cut flowers in the United States has dropped 22 percent in the past 10 years.

For American growers to reverse the trend, they’ll have to appeal to consumers to support them. They need to capitalize on the buy-American, buy-local movement that resonates with many U.S. consumers. They must start with a public education campaign, reminding consumers just how deeply Colombian cut flowers have penetrated the U.S. market.

It probably comes as a shock to many consumers to learn that three out of every four cut flowers sold in the United States are imported from Colombia, including most of the roses that adorn the Rose Parade floats in Pasadena, Calif. Maybe consumers will think again, when they learn that many of the mass-produced floral bouquets sold by large retailers around Valentine’s Day were grown thousands of miles away, in a foreign country with a questionable record when it comes to working conditions for those – mostly women – who labor in the cut-flower industry.

At the same time, American flower growers must work together to lower the price and improve the quality of their product so consumers have more reasons to buy locally grown flowers.

Recognizing that consumers call the shots, 19 growers from Washington, Oregon and Alaska have banded together to form the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market, which is a cooperative that sells directly to retailers and floral shops.

By pooling their distribution and marketing resources, the cooperative can reduce costs and increase the variety of floral products they offer on the wholesale market.

After all, it is the consumers, not the growers, who will ultimately decide how the cut flower market plays out.