News from the PRO Institute

Last month, I traveled to Northern California, the tiny village of Volcano to be exact, located in the beautiful foothills of the Sierras. There I joined 28 industry colleagues for a two-and-a-half day seminar focused on postharvest handling of cut flowers and potted plants.  The program, called the PRO Institute, is the brainchild of Dr. George Staby, founder of the Perishables Research Organization.  He and Dr. Michael Reid presented a tight format of lectures supported by research results, informative slides and plenty of opportunity for questions, product overviews and discussion. Each session focused on some aspect of postharvest: everything from the influence of variety selection and production factors, to treatments specifically aimed at correcting physiological changes that occur at harvest.

Temperature, Temperature, Temperature
A large part of the discussions was directly focused on cold-chain management and the White Paper II updates. The White Paper II was published in late 2005 by Drs. Staby and Reid to address the impact of quality due to poor temperature management. They approached the problem by analyzing the essentials involved – trying to fill last-minute orders, the use of ethylene protection, working clean and why it matters, ensuring quality at harvest, and poor pre-cooling protocols resulting in boxes delivered warm to trucking companies. Of course the point closest to my heart was the negative impact resulting from the lack of or inconsistent use of flower foods at the retail level.                                         

Read the White Paper II. Go to and sign in. The paper is found on the bottom of the opening page. If you are not a member of this free website, join by clicking on the Free Subscription link.                

Dr. Reid summed up quality in three words: temperature, temperature, temperature. Boxes should be cooled to 41F or lower before being loaded. If you think that temperature doesn’t make a big difference, think again. We saw slide after slide of test results showing how much quality (vase life) is lost when flowers are not properly cooled after harvest and all the way to the consumer. Remember, temperature controls many activities: transpiration, ethylene sensitivity, disease growth, stem bending and respiration rate.                                                            

One session dealt with the reasons flow is blocked in stems and how to avoid air embolisms and bacteria. Remember, flowers are bleeding when cut.  Stems exude compounds that plug water-conducting tissue including carbohydrates, fungi, proteins and bacteria. One way to protect blooms from these elements leaking out of freshly cut stems is to acidify the water. Lowering the pH level to 4-5 greatly reduces embolisms. Of course, cleanliness is super important, too. As tedious as it seems, it is imperative to wash buckets with every use. A biodegradable detergent and chlorine rinse was recommended by Dr. Reid. He mentioned 50 ppm of chlorine needed to sanitize so measure 1ml/liter when making a Clorox rinse. Better yet, use a quaternary-ammonium based cleaner (both Floralife and Chrysal’s cleaners are quat-based), scrub inside and out. Empty the pail, but skip the rinse step (residual effect). Invert buckets to dry before stacking.                                     

What about leaving flowers out of solution too long? Make sure everything is drinking (and back in the cooler) before you break for lunch. The longer stems are left dry, the more air gets inside the xylem vessels.

Keeping Flowers Safe

A quality aspect not frequently mentioned, but driven home at PRO, was the need to avoid mechanical injury. This kind of damage causes problems far beyond identifiable bruises, petal tears and “crushed noses”. Mechanical damage triggers  production of ethylene inside the bloom. It also acts as an avenue for opportunistic bacteria and fungi (Botrytis) infections. Remember, Botrytis is very happy living on live and dead tissue. Simple changes in handling methods easily reduce mechanical damage.                                                           

How do you protect flowers against creasing, impact damage and bruising?  Are flower bundles wrapped in nets or somehow protected against a bumpy ride from field to grading room? Is there ample room between shelves to avoid the tips of flowers on the bottom shelf from rubbing against the top shelf? Are production tables padded? Is it possible to sanitize the table padding regularly? Do you avoid stacking bouquets high on the production table between construction and sleeving? Do you allow customers to rummage through your truck to pick and choose as they like?  Why not use the European greengrocer method of letting them point and you remove the desired bunches?                    

In one of the final sessions, Dr. Reid gave a passionate presentation in which he asked the question “Is there a future for cut flowers?”, in which he reviewed the dismal per capita consumption of Americans vs. other countries. Most of us have seen these figures, but no doubt, they drive home the point that Americans are feeble flower and plant purchasers. In answering the obvious question – “Why?” –  Dr. Reid referred to numerous studies pointing to low customer satisfaction resulting from lack of vase life and lack of freshness.                         

It is hard to develop customer loyalty until we implement quality controls like harvest date coding, sell-by dates and product-specific handling protocols. Certification programs are taking hold as companies try to emulate the flower success story of the UK retailer Tesco. Since it executed a consumer guarantee program, annual flower sales have tripled in the past 10 years and departments have realized significant shrink reduction. We have a product consumers love, but don’t believe is worth the money when they consider vase life performance.  One way to build customer loyalty starts with delivering improved quality.                                                                                                                                                                                                     

No matter the size of your operation, the flowers you’re cutting, or the market to which you sell, the concepts discussed at the PRO Institute play an important role in the success of your business.  Take the time to implement these suggestions, and you’ll find your flowers will last longer, and your customers will come back satisfied.