Flowers and Nose Candy

I was saddened to read recently that Oregon Roses has joined the long list of American rose growers who had to stop growing roses. Can’t compete with South America. Dillon’s Flowers of Bloomsburg, PA made the same decision a few years ago. Both companies will still sell roses — imports. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

I hate hearing bad news from either place. My affection for Pennsylvania is natural; I’ve lived here my whole life. My affection for Oregon and the whole Pacific Northwest began when I was introduced to that beautiful part of the planet via a long-ago symposium in Portland, and I’ve worked the Far West Show there for a decade. If I could just bring a mountain or two home to PA, it would really dress up the place.

American rose and carnation growers consider themselves collateral damage in the war on drugs. Our government and Colombia’s have facilitated and subsidized rose growing, hoping farmers would come to prefer the genus Rosa to their traditional cash crop Erythroxylon coca.

The tactic has not been spectacularly successful in curtailing cocaine consumption. Supply and demand: Where there’s a need, there’s a way. The flower trade actually became the marketing channel, with drugs piggybacking in rose shipments. Rumor was, the cocaine cartel, South America’s doppelganger government, also subsidized flower growers for just that reason. Talk about synergy.

The central irony in my empathy with O.R., Dillon’s and other casualties of this thorny issue is that I’m a beneficiary of the Colombian phenomenon. It took me a while to realize it, but my employer of many years was built on the ruins of the domestic cut flower industry. We bought or leased one failed cut range after another, over a dozen in all. It was affordable, available space for house plants, annuals and eventually perennials.

The owner of one such range, Dale Groff, came to work for us as a grower and soon became our chief number cruncher. His family realized in 1979 that they could no longer break even growing carnations in Zone 6, not with Colombia lobbing them into Philadelphia for less. Dale feels the real killer wasn’t cocaine: “The 707 was the biggest player,” he says.

Nor was Colombia the first faraway threat. Dale told me, “First it was Colorado, then California, then Colombia.” Dale and his dad checked flower size and stem caliper on the new competition, and frowned. “Not only were they cheaper,” he recalls, “they were better. We knew we were in trouble.”

This is not to downplay the cocaine connection. There is ample evidence that our government, for many reasons, colluded with what Stateside growers consider the enemy. The Andean Trade Preference Act, enacted under G. Bush the First, was hardly the first blow to domestic producers.

But similar stories can be told by cotton farmers, textile manufacturers and orchid growers. And as with carnations, competition needn’t be “foreign” to feel that way. Consider the hundreds, if not thousands, of small brewers who once made beer for local markets. Most were washed away in a flood of “imports” from bigger brewers who, like offshore growers, used new weapons — centralization, refrigeration and rapid transportation — to expand into those small companies’ markets.

The cycle that starts with cut flowers repeats itself: Equatorial imports now include unrooted cuttings of thousands of varieties, perennials included. Smart North American companies bought into the same key factors that doomed domestic cuts: cheap labor, mild climate and rapid transportation. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
The American cut flower industry of the past isn’t coming back any more than Oregon’s mountains are coming to Pennsylvania in my luggage. But there is an American cut industry of the present and future, and it’s no mere reseller of imports. Like distinctive regional beers and microbrewers, specialty cuts that don’t take kindly to long-distance shipping are surviving nicely.

For many of us, last month, that old standby, the dozen long-stemmed reds, sent its traditional message: “Look, I spent money on you.” But next year, consider giving something unusual — something home-grown.

John Friel is marketing manager of Yoder Brothers’ Green Leaf Perennials brand and a freelance writer.
Reprinted with permission from GrowerTalks March 2006.