We begin in the mid-1970s, a time when Americans produced almost all cut flowers sold in this country. By the 1990s, California farms still controlled 64% of U.S. market share of cut flowers sales. But now according to the California Cut Flower Commission, only 30% of all floral goods sold in the United States are currently grown in California. According to Jim Daly, a keynote Texas A & M Floriculture speaker, “In 1990, California supplied 95% of the cut flowers in the United States, but today it is less than 2%.”
California’s flower producers were eventually overtaken by fierce competition from South American growers – specifically Columbia, the current market leader, with annual exports topping over a billion dollars of roses exported into the United States alone. In 2015, Columbia celebrated its 50th anniversary shipping millions of flowers to the United States.
2015 Columbia – Primary Cut Flower Export in Millions of Dollars
How did the marketplace shift so radically and quickly? A few shifting factors:
- Individual retailer vs. the “chain store”.
- Faster, more reliable refrigerated transportation by air or ground, the details wrapped up in politics.
- Increased availability and persuasive marketing online.
Fertile farm land, cheaper energy for heating greenhouses, alongside the availability of affordable, unskilled female labor made Columbia’s flower growing market more competitive than their California rivals. Combine that with improved air travel and the new interstate highway systems, and faster and more efficient transportation of cut flowers made way benefits for Columbians dominate the market, as noted by as stated by David Cheever from Colorado State University. It was the basis of his 1960s thesis which outlined an industry that eventually blossomed into the billion dollar industry that it is today.
One must also note it was back in 1991 when the U.S. Congress lifted import duties on Columbian-grown flowers through the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA), all in hopes of curbing cocoa farming. Suddenly supermarket chains like Whole Foods, Walmart, Safeway, and Costco could order fresh flowers for 300 stores efficiently and affordably from inventory shipped overnight from Columbia through three major airports: Miami, Bogota, and Medellin. American growers discovered competing with thirty duty free Columbian flights landing daily into Miami during peak season was nearly impossible to compete with.
If you haven’t heard of the USAID, you’re not alone. The government agency was formed with the purpose of ending “extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential”. It was the USAID who directly assisted Columbian farm worker programs with $2 million dollars back in 2006, directed by the goal of retraining people displaced by terrorists and on-going area violence. The Columbian marketplace exploded after the infusion, with 17,500 greenhouses now growing roses on over 300 farms. Chain stores are now considering buying some of these farms to further control the market place. Obviously, retail prices of cut flowers sold at chain stores dropped significantly, in turn impacting the local California cut flower growers ability to sell their flowers and turn a profit. Many California growers sold their farmlands or went bankrupt.
And Columbian flower growers aren’t sitting on their laurels. Some are now target marketing, setting up attractive online packaging that allows brides-to-be the option to order flowers overnight directly to a preferred, local florist for under $500 dollars. One such retailer in Idaho is now selling over 1,000 of these packages annually.
All of these findings inspired some ideas about localizing the cut flower industry, specifically here in Los Angeles. With a couple of horticulture-based corporate jobs under my belt over the past twenty-five years, I have experience in business plan forecasting and determining whether ideas can really work and become profitable. Sometimes they were a tough sell: my plan just didn’t bring the revenue as fast as I would have liked, or I ended up with way too much inventory. Yep, lessons in economics learned on the job. And I can see times are changing in the flower industry too. Alaska has a burgeoning cut flower peony program, inspiring Alaskan farmers with new profitable opportunities within and outside of the state, bringing the demand for cut flowers back to America. Why not Los Angeles?
I recognize there’s a ripe business opportunity within the urban settings of Los Angeles for growing cut flowers, pruning plants, and artistically turning those cuttings into living wreaths for the holidays, memorial arrangement, or even as a table setting. There are many low to mid-size flat rooftops across Los Angeles – most exposed to full sun and protected from thieves – offering plenty of space to grow something beautiful, all with an ever-available hungry job market. There seems an opportunity for local businesses to grow, prune, sort design, and arrange flowers and cuttings for delivery all on-site. Now imagine online orders delivered locally by bike, Uber, Lyft, or even drone.
A rose is a rose, but I do enjoy envisioning a better Los Angeles blooming forth – one where parking garages and rooftops in Skid Row are converted into live/work spaces for the current homeless population, not only providing them training and a job opportunity, but affordable housing. It’s funny to remember all of these thoughts, questions, and ideas were seeded by the sight of a small vase garnished with native-looking flowers placed inside a fancy bathroom high up top of a swanky Downtown Los Angeles skyscraper.
• Colombia flower industry: 20,000 acres of roses, carnations, mums and other stats
• Wilting U.S. cut flower industry could perk up with more university research
• The History of the Colombian Flower Industry and Its Influence on the United States
• Building Alaska agriculture, one peony at a time