War of the Roses: Mother's Day Bouquet Is an Economic and Political Battlefield

Flowers inspectionIn the flower business, the week of Mother's Day perennially marks the pinnacle of sales. Even with all those hopeful Casanovas dropping beaucoup bucks for bouquets on Valentine's Day, we still shell out more for mom.

But the holiday isn't all sunshine and roses. Behind the scenes, there's an economic and geopolitical battle going on over imported flowers.

With about two-thirds of consumers buying them for Mother's Day, U.S. spending on cut flowers for this holiday alone will be $2.2 billion. But it's less of an economic shot in the arm than it could be, because nearly 80% of all flowers sold in the U.S. come from South America. And part of the reason for that is a policy in Washington that supports some foreign flower-growers with U.S. tax dollars.

A Brief History of Blooms

Historically, the flower market has often been a tumultuous business: Consider the Tulip Mania that took place during the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age. That infamous and odd period, widely considered the first economic bubble, saw prices for tulip bulbs soar to completely insane levels before the entire bulb market crashed spectacularly. At the peak, the price for a single bulb was more than 10 times the annual income of a typical skilled craftsman, and even topped the value of a deluxe house in Amsterdam.

Tulip Mania has been compared to the dot-com bubble and the subprime mortgage crisis. In 2010's sequel to the 1987 classic Wall Street, Gordon Gekko compares the the way bulb buyers behaved those long centuries ago to the way the market behaved in the lead-up to the Great Recession -- with similarly painful results.

But the current brouhaha in the sector stems from Washington giving economic support for South American flower growers at the expense of domestic growers -- a hot-button issue, especially at a time when "buy American" is being stressed as a way to boost the flagging U.S. economy.

A Long Way to

Odds are, the blossoms in your Mother's Day bouquet were grown in Colombia or Ecuador.

"That's right -- grown, flown, then trucked to various destinations in the U.S.," said Kasey Cronquist, CEO for the California Cut Flower Commission. "But given the option, over half of all consumers have said they'd rather purchase domestically grown stems."

Those well-intentioned patriotic urges are sidetracked in part by the fact that about 85% of consumers don't know where their flowers come from, according to a 2007 Fleishman Hillard survey. During 2011, U.S. Customs and Border Protection processed approximately 5.1 billion cut flower stems. The CBP's flowery workload gets extra heavy in the run up to Mother's Day, when customers clamor for imported pink and lavender rose varieties that get marked up an extra 25% or more in light of the high demand.

In response, a "buy local" flower movement has sprung up, but its supporters will have their work cut out for them.

Customs and Border Protection agent inspects flowers for any foreign pests or diseases. Getty Images

Why Our Flowers Are Foreign

Forty years ago, America grew and sold its own roses. Then the energy crisis of the 1970s hit. Prices for the natural gas used to heat greenhouses soared, and it became more cost-effective to grow the flowers of love in warmer climes.

Today, explains Patrick Dahlson, CEO of Mayesh Wholesale Florists, the U.S. supply of flowers can't come close to meeting our vast demand.

"There's simply not enough," he said. "If you want to talk about roses, there's next to nothing domestically. They make up 30% to 35% of cut flower sales here, but U.S.-grown roses would account for under 1% of roses sold here. If you're going to say 'We only buy California,' then you're saying we don't have roses any more."

Places like Colombia and Ecuador were ideally equipped to become flower-growing hubs. They had plenty of cheap labor and warm equatorial temperatures that meant a reduced need for natural gas. In addition, near the equator, growing conditions are more favorable, with every day getting about 12 hours of sunlight, while those nations' elevations encourage a 90- to 95-day growing cycle (versus 60 days at sea level), which allows rose heads to become more fully developed.

But it was more than just good growing conditions and high fuel costs that cultivated South America's boom in blooms.

Colombian workers pack flowers at Flores de Funza farm in Funza. Getty Images

The War on Drugs Meets the War of the Roses

For more than two decades, the South American flower industry has been shored up by the U.S. government in order to subvert the drug trade.

In 1991, the U.S. government created the Andean Trade Preference and Drug Eradication Act, which provided duty-free access to the U.S. for flowers imported from South America, giving Colombians an economically attractive alternative to growing coca for the cocaine cartels. By giving U.S. distributors an incentive to buy from Colombian growers, the government could bolster the war on drugs and ease the flower trade in one fell swoop.

Just since 2007, Washington has directed an estimated $560 million of taxpayer money into the Colombian economy though "Plan Colombia," according to the State Department. Much to the chagrin of U.S. flower growers, a large fraction of that money directly subsidized Colombia's flower industry. The State Department reported in 2009 that Colombian flower growers have received some $210 million in incentives and subsidies since 2005.

Those involved in flower growing in the U.S. naturally feel wronged by these trade incentives.

"Our core concern is not about what Colombian growers have done," CCFC Chairman Lane DeVries said. "It's about the failed trade policies of our own government."

An Imported Rose, Is an Imported Rose, Is an Imported Rose

In their push for trade policies that favor domestic production, American flower growers see themselves as part of the same agenda that supported the bailouts of Detroit, encourages Americans to buy domestic cars, and urges us to wean our economy off OPEC's oil.

"The analogy to the auto industry is one that I use often," said the CCFC's Cronquist. Cut flowers are Colombia's third-largest export, which makes them "as important to that country as the auto industry is to the United States," he noted. "This means that the cut flower growers of California, now representing 80% of what is grown domestically, stand primarily alone against a tremendously sophisticated competitor that has unequivocal support of its government and therefore ours."

As the domestic flower industry has declined, jobs in this country have been lost. Still, in California alone there are 14,850 flower industry jobs just at the farm level, and flowers have an estimated $1 billion in economic impact. For every dollar a U.S. flower farmer earns, 92 cents go back into the local economy.

But even if policy changes in Washington, it's tough to imagine California regaining a much larger share of the flower market.

"California is a tough place to do business, and they're tough on growers," Dahlson said. "It's no different from other industries there."

Indeed, California has garnered an unenviable reputation as one of the worst states for conducting business -- mostly the result of its complex regulatory network and heavy taxes. The effect gets amplified during a recession when the cash-strapped state government tries to collect additional fees.

Still, flower growers who are part of the "buy local" movement are continuing to push their agenda this Mother's Day.

"I can see a future where consumers request local flowers from local florists," DeVries said. "And that's a future worth fighting for."

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Howdy Prophet

Just another foolish and incompetent government program to throw money at a problem. Has our government ever thought that putting money into domestic enterprise might increase the number of jobs available so that Americans wouldn't have to sell cocaine for a living? If jobs keep getting exported overseas, the only jobs left will be in the fast food industry, and in the drug business, neither of which pay well at the level of therand and file employee.

May 13 2012 at 11:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The only way to control drugs is to control the borders and stop it from coming in, period. All this money being spent by distributing our tax revenue to corrupt foreign politicians is completely backwards. Don;t just arrest the distributers and dealers, execute them, after all that's what they are essentially doing to our children and families.

May 13 2012 at 9:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have no problem with importing roses from South America. It's a commodity like coffee or fruit or anything else. I have a serious problem with spending Federal Tax Money to support the growers in SA at the expense of US growers., although I also think that drugs in general should be legalized and regulated and taxed, like any other commodity. It would generate billions of dollars in revenue and eliminate billions of dollars in costs to prevent drugs from being imported, so the rationale of the entire subsidy program is flawed

May 13 2012 at 8:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"...rose varieties that get marked up an extra 25% or more in light of the high demand...", so they ARE price gouging, how is this legal?
"...washington has directed an estimated $560 million of taxpayer money into the Colombian economy though "Plan Colombia,..."
Wouldn't it be nice if those we ELECTED TO REPRESENT US, actually did and spent OUR money on US?!?

May 13 2012 at 6:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Dear n7months left Stop on out. I want to discuss some of your points. Come alone.

May 13 2012 at 5:30 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Mary on roses vs drugs: there's no money on our streets, cheney got it all in 8 years. A kid coming up will find wealth and glamor in narcotics, sold to Americans looking for a bit of peace if not happiness. Choke that off and those same fearless kids will sell something else, like your TV, your transmission and engine, maybe even the clothes you were wearing when you wandered half a city block into the wrong neighborhood.

May 13 2012 at 5:22 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Global trends like increased demand for oil and industry lost to the Pacific rim are inevitable but the republican's war on plain regular Americans is our own choosing. We are easily panicked, stampeded. We pay a heavy price.

May 13 2012 at 5:09 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

What part of anything have we not given away?

May 13 2012 at 2:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

And part of the reason for that is a policy in Washington that supports some foreign flower-growers with U.S. tax dollars.

Who doesn't the Washington money support in this world?

May 13 2012 at 12:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Garry Carlson

Flowers AND vegetables! If you go to a supermarket today there's not a vegetable or fruit in that store grown in America. That makes me to want to know where are our fruits and vegetables are being sold? I'm guessing South America? Why not, shippers have to make money! How do we get our markets to start selling American again?

May 12 2012 at 11:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Garry Carlson's comment

Garry YOU need a lesson in geography and seasons, north and south of the equator. When it is winter in North America it is summer south of the border. So South America is in full growing season. Fruits and vegetables come from there in the winter months. Bananas are all grown in the Latin American countries. Pineapples come from the South Pacific, Hawaii does now grow enough pineapples for the world to consume. Much of which is grown in America goes into canned or frozen product. My suggestion to you is support your local farmers markets.

I am always amazed by people like you that don't have a clue as to how their groceries even get on the supermarket shelves.

May 13 2012 at 12:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was going to say almost the same thing as Petpet. Buy from your local farmers market in the summer and can the excess for use in the winter. Canning is what our folks and grandparents did before winter veggies came from the Southern Hemisphere. But that is too much work for most folks, just buy foriegn and wonder what pestisides and other foul stuff is in and on your "fresh" produce.

May 13 2012 at 2:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply