WASHINGTON – As she took a break Monday from picking dahlias, zinnias and amaranths on her Jello Mold Farm in Mount Vernon, Diane Szukovathy wondered why the federal government is working so hard to put her and other flower growers out of business by helping competitors thousands of miles away in the temperate regions of Colombia.
First came the international war on drugs, with the U.S. government spending millions since 1999 to help Colombian farmers destroy their coca plants and replace them with flowers. Then Congress passed a free-trade agreement with Colombia last year, making those blooms cheaper for Americans to buy.
And with Colombian imports now accounting for three of every four cut flowers sold in the United States, domestic growers say they can’t compete with the planeloads of Colombian flowers that are flown in through Miami each day.
“It’s job robbing – I mean, it’s so bad, it’s so wrong,” said Szukovathy, 49, who has run her farm in the Skagit River Valley for nearly 10 years. “Those politics are such a mess – I don’t really feel like that’s my government almost.”
For small growers, it means the possible loss of an industry they love. For Americans, it means the possible loss of the simple notion of heading to the neighborhood florist to buy some locally-grown flowers for a special friend or spouse or to decorate the grave of a loved one.
In Washington and California, two of the top-producing states for the flowers used mainly in bouquets, growers are trying to fight back, but they fear they don’t have much time before their industry collapses.
For starters, they’re banding together by forming cooperatives that they hope will reduce their transportation costs and make it easier to deal with the expanding foreign competition. And they’re trying to push new Buy-America, buy-local campaigns, hoping that consumers will think twice when they realize that their Valentine’s Day bouquets and nearly all the roses on the California’s Rose Parade floats are South American imports.
“My sense is that people don’t understand what we’re really up against, the Costco effect of flowers being shipped in by 747s each day, between seven and 10 a day and up to 35 on the holidays,” said Kasey Cronquist, chief executive officer of the California Cut Flower Commission. “It really puts us at a sizeable disadvantage.”
The booming flower imports from Colombia reflect growing demand from Americans, who will want even more as the economy recovers and consumers start piling up more non-essential purchases, said Jerry Haar, associate dean and director of the Pino Global Entrepreneurship Center at Florida International University.
Predicting that the new trade pact with Colombia will boost U.S. exports by $1.1 billion, Haar had a message for the flower producers in Washington and California: Consumers are calling the shots.
“They need to understand that global trade is not about protecting select groups of producers but about affording consumers choice, quality and price,” Haar said. “They need to find ways of improving their operations. … Bottom line: There are many more consumers of flowers in the U.S. than there are producers. Consumers rule, as they should.”
In Washington state, 19 growers from Washington, Oregon and Alaska now are part of the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market, a cooperative of smaller growers that sells directly to florists and retailers.
Szukovathy, president of the market that was created last year, said the coop is an attempt to lower distribution costs for producers and to make it more attractive for prospective buyers to have a greater selection of flowers to choose from.
“I don’t personally have a problem with some imported flowers, it’s just the ratio is wrong,” she said. “And it’s crazy that the majority of flowers are coming from 3,000 miles away when there’s really good ones that can be had locally. So it’s like trying to make sense back out of the world and improve our local economy. Those are our goals.”
While it ended up passing easily, the Colombian pact drew criticism from some liberals on Capitol Hill, including Rep. Jim McDermott of Seattle, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, who said that workers and labor leaders in Colombia “are killed every year by the dozen.” At a hearing last year, he said that nearly all the workers in the Colombian flower sector are women, who are subjected to violence if they try to assert any rights in the workplace. Labor and human-rights groups have long made similar complaints.
“The Republicans are obsessed with the Colombia FTA (free-trade agreement), but none of them would volunteer their wives or daughters to go to work for a Colombian flower company,” McDermott said.
Cronquist said the value of imported flowers from Colombia jumped 89 percent between 2002 and 2010. And he said the number of acres of cut flowers in the U.S. is down by at least 22 percent in the past decade. As a result, Cronquist said, there are only 225 flower farms in California today, compared with more than 500 in 1991.
The issue promises to be a dominant theme at the 2012 national conference and trade show of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, set for Nov. 12-14 at the Tacoma Courtyard Marriott.
Cronquist will be a keynote speaker, with a speech entitled “Heart and Soil: Reclaiming the American Cut Flower Industry.” Part of his talk will focus on a “California grown” marketing campaign aimed at luring customers back to U.S. flowers and pressuring florists to provide more local products.
“We don’t want to become a country foreign-dependent on its flowers, too,” Cronquist said. “We’ve really got to work together to help people appreciate that the flowers that they’re buying are probably not local – and all it takes is asking for them to be local. … It’s a really exciting time – if we play our cards right.”
Szukovathy, chairwoman for the upcoming trade show, is disappointed that Congress isn’t paying attention to small flower growers, but she said they lack the financial muscle to hire lobbyists or to try to do it themselves.
“I’m too busy trying to make a living – and that’s a whole other living, to lobby,” she said. “But I just personally feel that our legislators are not taking care of their people correctly, and I do believe this is one symptom of that. That’s my from-the-heart truth.”
From her viewpoint, Congress has helped kill both an industry and a heritage, “and we’re trying to shore it up, reinvigorate it and make it sustainable into the future.” But since she’s not expecting anything to change in Washington, D.C., Szukovathy said the key to survival will be to win over the hearts of consumers.
“These products are connecting people to nature – they don’t feed your body, but they feed your soul,” she said. “Rather than get bogged down in a fight that we don’t have the resources to win, we’re putting our energy into romancing them into falling in love with what we’re doing and coming on board that way.”rhotakainen@ mcclatchydc.com @HotakainenRob